TALLAHASSEE, FL --- July 29, 2012
Patience lost because of a lack of action, Florida Audubon Society on Friday filed legal petitions to force the South Florida Water Management District to enforce more-stringent laws put in place five years ago to reduce phosphorus levels in the Everglades.
The environmental group wants an administrative law judge to rule on separate permits granted to U.S. Sugar Corp., Sugar Farms Cooperative and the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative that Audubon says do not require individual farms to reduce phosphorus releases to permissible levels, a requirement that began in 2007.
Despite repeated requests to the water-management district board, Audubon's Charles Lee said the pleas have fallen on deaf ears, a lack of action that prompted the environmental group to seek satisfaction in an administrative hearing.
"We had hoped that the district would act voluntarily," Lee said Friday. "It appears that they are not going to do so. It's time to get an independent third party to weigh in on this."
Water management officials, however, say reduction in the amount of phosphorus polluting the Everglades has been dramatic.
Since 1994, industry best-management practices, coupled with the district's network of wetlands, have kept more than 4,000 metric tons of phosphorus from entering the Everglades, water management district spokesman Randy Smith said in a statement Friday.
"As part of an ongoing commitment to clean water, the district continues to work with landowners to improve BMPs (best management practices) and achieve further nutrient reductions," Smith said.
Up until 2007, individual farms within the Everglades Agricultural Area were not required to meet individual standards as long as the EAA as a whole reduced phosphorus releases by an agreed-upon percentage. After that point, however, individual farms were supposed to fall under the same restriction, a process Audubon claims has not taken place.
The result is while many EAA farms have met or exceeded phosphorus reduction goals, Lee said "dozens" have not and are instead releasing water into the Everglades system that far exceeds state and federal guidelines.
The case will be forwarded to the Division of Administrative Hearings, which will assign a judge to oversee the case.
Water management officials and sugar producers say the amount of phosphorus finding its way into the region has dropped precipitously. Since 1994, the amount of phosphorus flowing from the 470,000-acre area just south of Lake Okeechobee was down an average of 55 percent per year. That is more than double the reduction called for in the Everglades Forever Act.
Lee however, said the average hides a small percentage of farms that far exceed the recommended release levels, a lack of compliance the challenge seeks to address.
"What we're doing is focused on those farms that are off the charts," Lee said.