Image: Tribe member on boat in Everglades
J. Pat Carter  /  AP
Buffalo Tiger, of the Miccousukee tribe, drives his airboat through the Florida Everglades.
updated 1/13/2004 12:30:45 PM ET 2004-01-13T17:30:45

Looking out over the water and sawgrass that stretches for miles in every direction, William Buffalo Tiger recalled one of the first signs that pollution was slowly killing the Everglades: batches of dead snakes.

“That’s how we found out how bad it’s going to be,” said the 83-year-old Tiger, former chief of the 500-member Miccosukee Indian tribe. “Everything seems to be dying.”

The tribe says a significant source of pollution comes from a pump in southwest Broward County that dumps as much as 423,000 gallons a minute of polluted runoff from suburban lawns, farms and industrial yards into the Everglades — including 189,000 acres of land the state leased to the tribe and promised to keep in its natural state.

On Wednesday, the tribe and the South Florida Water Management District, which operates the pump, will argue before the U.S. Supreme Court whether that pump is illegally dumping pollutants into the Everglades.

The water management district doesn’t dispute the water it’s pumping is polluted, but says it has no other place to put it. The pump, which has operated since 1957, prevents water from flooding a large swath of the suburbs that have pushed into the eastern edge of the Everglades.

National potential
The case is being watched closely by the nation’s water managers.

Western states, where the problem isn’t too much water but not enough of it, are concerned that if the Supreme Court rules in favor of the Miccosukees, regional water diversion efforts might become subject to expensive federal pollution requirements.

While some Eastern states support the Miccosukees and argue a decision against the tribe would undermine existing pollution regulations, the Bush administration says it supports the water district.

The Miccosukees and an environmental group, Friends of the Everglades, sued the water management district in 1998 under the Clean Water Act. They argued that water managers need a federal permit to pump polluted water into the Everglades, where it would not otherwise flow.

Two levels of federal courts have ruled in favor of the tribe. But Nicolas Gutierrez, chairman of the water district’s governing board, said the high court’s decision to hear the case makes him optimistic for a favorable ruling.

The court battle comes as the state and federal governments embark on a 30-year, $8.4 billion project to restore the natural water flow through the Everglades.

Between a pump and a hard place
At the center of the dispute is a pump located about 27 miles west of Fort Lauderdale, next to the Holiday Park campground that offers air boat rides for a close-up view of alligators and water birds.

The pump sits on a more than 90-mile long levy system that serves as the border between the Everglades and suburbs stretching from West Palm Beach to Miami-Dade County. To the south is the 666-acre reservation where many tribal members live.

Runoff from yards, agricultural and industrial areas contains fertilizers that have high levels of phosphates. The pollution changes the water chemistry, killing some native plants and allowing other nonnative plants — such as cattails — to thrive.

“When that changes, it changes the entire composition of the Everglades,” said Ret. Col. Terry Rice, former director of the Army Corps of Engineers in Florida.

But water managers argue that federal permits are not the answer, and they plan to address the pump as part of the long-term restoration plan. Obtaining permits for the pump could cost billions of dollars, particularly if the water district is required to clean the water, Gutierrez said.

“If we had someplace else to put it, we would,” he said.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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