Florida needs to do more to address polluting phosphorus flowing into the northern reaches of the Everglades, but shouldn’t face punishment for not yet meeting clean-up thresholds, according to a federal court ruling released Friday.
U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno affirmed that the state is not meeting restoration thresholds for phosphorus-laden stormwater runoff washing into the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, the northern remnants of the Everglades in Palm Beach County.
But Moreno refused the Miccosukee Tribe’s request to find that the continued high levels of phosphorus runoff mean the state has violated a 1992 consent decree that set water quality parameters key to Everglades restoration.
Elevated levels of phosphorus that wash off agricultural land and drain into the Everglades fuel the growth of cattails that crowd out sawgrass and other vital habitat.
The phosphorus thresholds called for in the consent decree are "meant to signal environmental red flags that the parties must address to achieve overall compliance," but don’t necessarily trigger punishments if they are not met, according to Moreno’s ruling.
The consent decree is intended "to succeed and not punish," Moreno said.
The environmental group Earthjustice on Friday praised Moreno’s determination that the state needs to do more to meet phosphorus thresholds in the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge.
Earthjustice and other environmental groups contend the state should start requiring more pollution cleanup at sugar cane fields and other agricultural land before stormwater carries phosphorus into the treatment areas.
"What we should be doing is ratcheting down (on) the pollution coming off agriculture," Earthjustice attorney Alisa Coe said. "There’s more that could be done."
The South Florida Water Management District, which leads Everglades restoration for the state, and the Army Corps of Engineers are at odds over the effectiveness of one of the stormwater treatment areas relied on to clean up water that flows into the Everglades.
Stormwater treatment areas, called STAs, are man-made filter marshes used to absorb phosphorus from stormwater before the water flows into the Everglades.
The water management district contends that delays and defects in the construction of STA-1E in Wellington – built by contractors for the Army Corps – hamper the ability to filter phosphorus that ends up in the refuge.
South Florida Water Management District officials on Friday issued a statement saying they were "pleased" with the judge’s order.
"We will continue to work with our partners to fulfill our shared restoration and water quality improvement goals for the Everglades," district officials said.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun