The South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) this week scored a crucial legal victory to protect the right to representation in lawsuits that will impact the use of water in South Florida.
The 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld a lower court's decision to dismiss a lawsuit filed more than a decade ago by several environmental activist groups, including the Florida Wildlife Federation and the Conservancy of Southwest Florida.
The suit alleged that the U.S. Army Corps violated the U.S. Clean Water Act and Florida law. Activist groups sought to force the Corps to take certain actions to release water from Lake Okeechobee to the Caloosahatchee River, inconsistent with federal and state regulation.
According to a written statement from the District, the court determined that controlling lake releases for water supply is a right and authority of the state, not the Army Corps, which only has authority over lake releases for flood protection. The activist groups previously dismissed SFWMD, the entity of the state that has the authority to control lake releases for water supply, as parties from the lawsuit. This action, thereby, removed any representation of the Florida taxpayers who would be impacted by the lawsuit's eventual resolution.
SFWMD attorneys successfully demonstrated that the District is an indispensable party that must be involved in any lawsuit that involves releases to the Caloosahatchee River for water supply. These water supply releases are controlled by SFWMD as well as the associated water management system along the river. Any resolution would impact that system and the residents who depend on it.
SFWMD attorneys also showed that not only must SFWMD be a party in the lawsuit, but enjoys sovereign immunity from suit in such proceedings in federal court. As a result, the 11th Circuit Appeals Court acknowledged that SFWMD is an independent party and agreed that the lawsuit must be dismissed.
"These activist groups attempted to use the courts as an end-around to usurp the rights of the Florida citizens," said SFWMD Governing Board Chairman Dan O'Keefe. "State residents deserve to be represented by their state agencies in matters that will impact their tax dollars and their lives. They deserve better than special interest groups trying to manipulate the federal court system to force their will on Floridians without their representation."
SFWMD is currently building several major projects that will help ensure the water supply and water quality of the Caloosahatchee River and Estuary. The C-43 West Basin Reservoir in Hendry County will be completed in 2022. It has the capacity to hold 170,000 acre feet of fresh water that can be delivered to the estuary during dry times to balance salinity levels. The C-43 Water Quality Treatment and Testing Facility, also in Hendry County, is conducting tests to find effective large-scale methods to remove excess nitrogen from the river.