Published: Dec 17, 2010 7:54 PM EST
Updated: Dec 17, 2010 4:55 PM EST

MIAMI (AP) - A federal judge expressed support Friday for a new $1.5 billion Environmental Protection Agency plan to reduce pollution-laden farm runoff that is choking the fragile Everglades. He urged state officials to cooperate rather than mount unnecessary delays.

U.S. District Judge Alan Gold, who in April threatened the EPA with contempt of court over the chronic water problems, told agency officials he will use his authority to help implement the new plan quickly. The proposal includes construction of thousands of acres of water treatment areas and new, tougher permits for huge sugar farms and others that discharge water into the Everglades.

"We have to do everything we can to save what's left of the Everglades," Gold said during a three-hour hearing. "It is time now to key up all of these issues and address them." Coinciding with the hearing, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced a proposal to raise another 5.5 miles of the cross-Everglades Tamiami Trail highway to improve water flows into Everglades National Park. Work is currently ongoing on a 1-mile bridge span. The EPA wants to build 42,000 additional acres of treatment marshes to filter pollutants. That could include some of the land being purchased from U.S. Sugar Corp. under a plan pushed by outgoing Gov. Charlie Crist. The EPA plan was developed in response to Gold's ruling earlier this year that the agency had turned a blind eye to years of water quality violations in the vast South Florida wetlands, which mainly involve phosphorous used in farm fertilizers. Gold questioned EPA's lawyers closely Friday on whether those days were over. "Someone is driving the bus. The question is, how committed is the driver to reaching the ultimate destination?" Gold asked. Ethan Schankman, a top Justice Department environmental attorney representing EPA, assured Gold the agency would press forward with its plan without delay. "We are committed, your honor, to doing everything that is within our authority," Schankman said. In the April ruling, Gold also criticized the state's Everglades effort. The judge said Friday that he was "not all that pleased" with Florida's lukewarm response to the EPA proposal. Parker Thomson, attorney for the state Department of Environmental Regulation, said the state mainly wants control over issuing the stricter discharge permits, which EPA could take over if they don't meet certain standards. Thomson said Florida could do a better job regulating the farm discharges, but nothing happens immediately. "We can do it, and we will do it," Thomson said. "You can argue about the amount of time, but you can't argue reality - it will take time." The hearing was the latest of many over the past two decades on how to save the Everglades from phosphorous, which harms native plants and can promote growth of unwanted species such as cattails. The original lawsuit before Gold was filed in 2004 by the Miccosukee Indian tribe, which has a reservation in the Everglades, and the Friends of the Everglades environmental group. Miccosukee attorney Sonia Escobio O'Donnell expressed doubt that the state and federal agencies would keep their promises about improving the water quality. She noted that only the courts have been able to force action. "They need to do more than just say it's going to take a long, long time," she said. (Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)