Storm_at_Shark_River_in_Everglades.jpgFlorida has long been admired for its long shoreline, tropical climate, and preserved natural beauty. For just as long, there has been strong debate over striking the delicate balance between man-made alterations to the land and preservation of its natural features. Recently, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) took another step toward preservation by directing the state of Florida to take specific measures to restore water quality in the Everglades. As this matter continues to unfold, it could have far-reaching impacts on landowners and agricultural operations surrounding the Everglades.

How We Got Here

EPA’s direction came in the form of an “Amended Determination” filed with the U.S. District Court in an action resulting from lawsuits brought by the Miccosukee Tribe and the Friends of the Everglades to improve the quality of water flowing through the Everglades. The Determination noted that excess levels of phosphorus were found in portions of the Everglades and directed that additional reductions of phosphorus pollution are needed. Excess phosphorus in water above permitted levels is a concern because it can cause chemical and biological changes that degrade wetlands, lakes, and other natural systems. EPA identifies agricultural operations in the area south of Lake Okeechobee as the primary source of excess phosphorus entering the Everglades through stormwater runoff.

Why It Matters

Aside from the environmental benefits of restoring this area, there are several reasons why EPA’s actions here are important. First, if EPA’s directives are accepted, it would likely lead to more stringent water quality standards for projects affecting the Everglades. Second, EPA is proposing to substantially increase the marsh treatment areas that decrease phosphorus levels in runoff water before it enters the Everglades. In addition to the nearly 60,000 acres currently in place or slated for construction for these marsh treatment areas, EPA is proposing to add another 42,000 acres. EPA is eyeing the controversial acquisition of land owned by the U.S. Sugar Corporation to the South Florida Water Management District (“SFWMD”) as providing much of this increased area. Finally, EPA proposes stringent deadlines by which the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (“DEP”) and SFWMD must take certain actions. Most notably, existing permits issued by these agencies would need to be amended to conform with the proposed discharge limits, if adopted by the court.

What Happens Next

The federal court, DEP and SFWMD are currently reviewing EPA’s Amended Determination. A hearing on the Amended Determination is scheduled for October 7, 2010.  Particularly for those with existing or proposed operations which direct runoff to this area, the court’s actions will have significant effect.