MICCOSUKEE Indians who live within the vast marshland known as the Florida Everglades are pursuing what they consider a David and Goliath fight to protect their homeland from government-sanctioned pollution and flooding.
The Indians and their lawyers accuse the state of Florida and the federal government of treating the largest freshwater marshland in North America as a ''septic tank.''
Their pique: flood-control policies that allow farmers on nearby sugar-cane fields to pump excess water -- much of it laden with fertilizers -- onto their land.
The Miccosukees recently filed a series of lawsuits to stop the pumping and polluting. Last week a federal judge in Miami ordered government lawyers to prove that the Indian reservation is not being treated unfairly in favor of saving farmers to the north and city dwellers to the east.
''The government continues to allow our lands, our wildlife, and our people to be dumped on with floodwaters and pollutants,'' says Billy Cypress, chairman of the Miccosukee Tribe.
The latest exchange of legal briefs is part of an enduring dispute over flood-control policies in one of the nation's fastest-growing states. It involves some of the state's most powerful industries, including agriculture and tourism.
Situated in the middle of the Everglades, the Miccosukee Reservation has long been caught in the middle of competing interests. To the north lie huge sugar-cane farms and sugar refineries. To the south is Everglades National Park.
In the 1940s, the United States Army Corps of Engineers built an intricate network of canals, dams, and levees to control flooding in central Florida after some 2,000 people perished in a hurricane. The system also keeps places such as Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, and Palm Beach dry.
Much of the land designated as flood plain in times of emergency happens to be in the area reserved for the Miccosukees. The Indians complain that they cannot farm or hunt because their land is often under water. They also complain that the water pumped from the fields is polluted with phosphorus fertilizers that are killing wildlife and vegetation.
The Miccosukees sued the state to stop the polluting once before, in 1988. Florida's Gov. Lawton Chiles (D) opted to settle out of court. But when the sugar industry countersued, the state put the settlement on hold. Then last year the Florida legislature passed the Everglades Forever Act. It exempts farmers from water-quality requirements until the year 2006, provided they use ''best management practices'' to reduce fertilizer runoff, and provided they contribute to an Everglades cleanup fund.
''What the bill does is perhaps extend the death of the Everglades and does nothing to stop pollution,'' says Nancy Brown, president of Friends of Everglades. Now, with water in the region at its highest level in decades, the Indians are pressing their case in court again -- joined by environmentalists. State officials, for their part, acknowledge that there are pollution problems with Florida's massive flood-control system. But they say these have largely been solved with the Everglades Forever Act. They argue the act meets Environmental Protection Agency water-quality standards because it offers a schedule for farmers to comply in the future.
As for the flooding itself, authorities maintain they are abiding by the letter of the law.
''It is important to emphasize that ... the district has the right to 'permanently or intermittently flood all or any part''' of tribal lands in central and southern Florida, lawyers for the South Florida Water Management District wrote in a memo to the judge hearing the case. ''In times of heavy rainfall, the system was designed to put excess water within [the reservation] and hold it there until it could be safely released.''