Federal judge rejects move by South Florida water managers to end Everglades oversight

A judge rejected efforts by South Florida water managers to end federal oversight of Everglades water quality on Monday, telling their attorneys the move was “premature” given the recent election.

U.S. Judge Federico Moreno, who oversees the landmark order that for nearly 30 years set the strict limits for pollution entering marshes, said moving forward with the case so soon after the election, and the turnover of the South Florida Water Management District’s governing board under a new governor, was unwise.

“I want to be like a physician: Do no harm,” said Moreno, who dismissed the motion without prejudice — which means it can be filed again.

After complaining about the ongoing oversight for more than a year, the district governing board voted two days after the Novermber election in a closed-door meeting with attorneys to ask Moreno to dismiss the decree, the result of a 1992 settlement over violations of the Clean Water Act filed by the Department of Justice.

The decision was made at the same meeting that board members infuriated incoming Gov. Ron DeSantis by voting to extend leases for sugar farmers on land slated for an Everglades reservoir to help end polluted discharges from Lake Okeechobee that regularly foul the coasts with slimy algae blooms.

In January, DeSantis demanded all nine board members step down. But the case moved forward, with district general counsel Brian Accardo filing briefs arguing the district had complied with the order to clean water and that state pollution permits issued in 2012 would protect the marshes going forward. Accardo also resigned from his district position but was contracted to continue trying the case.

“If the Everglades could talk, it would scream. If federalism could talk, it would scream,” Accardo told Moreno, referring to the limit of federal powers in state matters. “Twenty-seven years is enough.”

But Earthjustice attorney Alisa Coe said while the state has cleaned up water dramatically, it still has not complied with the terms of the order, which require it to complete construction on its projects and then ensure water remains clean once they’re finished.

“They’re not even finished building them to be able to say, ‘Oh, this is working,’” she said.

Board member Jim Moran, whose term expires in March and who repeatedly argued to end the decree, said after the ruling he was disappointed.

“This case is only about one thing and that’s the phosphorus coming out of the [Everglades farmland]. It’s not about the algae. It’s not about the red tide,” he said. “We do not need three levels of enforcement.”