Florida admits it's in violation of Everglades cleanup pact

Water managers and environmental regulators have acknowledged that Florida is in violation of a landmark legal agreement requiring the state to halt the flow of polluted water into the Everglades. At the same time, however, they're urging a federal judge overseeing the progress not to declare them in violation or, in fact, do anything at all.

Admitting to the violation reflected a notable change of tone and tactic for state agencies that have long resisted federal oversight and insisted that efforts to reduce levels of phosphorus — a fertilizer ingredient that flows off sugar farms, cattle pastures and suburban lawns — were working and on track.

But despite two recent "exceedences" of the damaging nutrient in eight months in a national wildlife refuge in Palm Beach County, attorneys for the South Florida Water Management District and Florida Department of Environmental Protection delivered much the same argument they have in previous hearings over the past six years before Chief U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno:

Trust us — we've got a plan and we're getting there.

But the judge said he had heard it all before. Moreno likened the legal wrangling over the ongoing, 21-year-old settlement to a soap opera. "No matter how long ago it was you watched it, within a few minutes you see it's the same things they're still talking about," he said.

In a Tuesday hearing in Moreno's Miami courtroom, water district attorney Kirk Burns said the state was close to completing $1.1 billion in projects and is pursuing a $536 million purchase of 73,000 acres of sugar farms and citrus groves that could greatly expand cleanup efforts. The state also is in the midst of negotiations with federal agencies that could potentially produce tougher pollution restrictions.

"We are making substantial progress," Burns said. "We would appreciate the opportunity to be able to finish our hundreds of millions in remedies before being asked to add to it."

Burns asked Moreno to give the state and federal agencies until Feb. 1, 2010, to report back on the results of their negotiations — a request endorsed by Edward Gelderman, an attorney for the U.S. Justice Department, representing the Interior Department and other federal agencies.