Appeals Court ruling will not affect backpumping, says SFWMD

OKEECHOBEE — An Appeals Court ruling which allows the South Florida Water Management District to move water without a federal permit does not mean more water will be backpumped into Lake Okeechobee, according to SFWMD spokesman Randy Smith.

“The court ruling does not effect backpumping,” he said. He added that SFWMD will only backpump water from south of the lake into Lake Okeechobee in face of an emergency that affects human health.

He said the governing board will still restrict backpumping and SFWMD will only turn on the pumps if streets, homes and buildings are in danger of flooding.

He said they will not use backpumping for water supply issues, but only use it in emergencies to keep the towns south of the lake from being flooded during extreme weather events.

In an Jan. 23 interview, EarthJustice Attorney Alisa Coe said they hope they don’t see an increase in backpumping into the lake.

“Backpumping and adding more pollution to the lake is bad,” said Ms. Coe.

“We are fighting to stop pollution of the lake.”

Ms. Coe said EarthJustice and their clients are reviewing the court decision, and have not determined if they will challenge it in a higher court.

On Jan. 19, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit (New York) ruled that entities such as the South Florida Water Management District do not need federal permits to transfer water in operating water management systems: Trout Unlimited, Inc. et al, v. EPA et al, Docket No. 14-1823. The SFWMD intervened in this case supporting the EPA.

“For decades, South Florida’s network of canals, pump stations and levees have successfully delivered flood protection while supplying water to millions of families, visitors and the environment,” said SFWMD Governing Board Chairman Dan O’Keefe. “In this critical ruling, the court has affirmed that SFWMD can continue its crucial work without the burdens of additional federal regulation.”

According to the SFWMD press release, “the ruling that impacts water management on a national scale affirms SFWMD’s system, which serves 8.1 million people from Orlando to the Florida Keys, is consistent with the Clean Water Act. As such, SFWMD does not need National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits to operate its system. Obtaining such permits is a complicated, litigious and costly endeavor.”


• In 1998, the Miccosukee Tribe of Florida sued SFWMD, alleging that an Everglades Agricultural Area pump station protecting western Broward County from flooding required an NPDES permit.

• In 2003, Friends of the Everglades sued SFWMD, alleging the same permits were needed for several other pump stations that protect communities south of Lake Okeechobee from flooding.

• In 2006, the United States District Court, Southern District of Florida ordered SFWMD to apply for NPDES permits for some of these pump stations.

• In 2008, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency adopted a Water Transfers Rule confirming NPDES permits were not necessary for certain water management systems. Later that year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit (Atlanta) reversed the Florida court, ruling that the NPDES permitting process did not apply to SFWMD pump stations based on EPA’s rule.

• In 2014, the U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York struck down the EPA rule relied on by the 11th Circuit.

• Jan. 19, 2017, the New York appellate court, in a 2-1 decision, reinstated EPA’s rule. This means that NPDES permits are not required to operate South Florida’s water control and flood protection system.

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