Florida Waterways Under Scrutiny by EPA

11/10/09 Concetta DeLuco
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In efforts to protect Florida’s surface waterways, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection have joined forces and are making efforts to adopt stricter state regulations. Passed in the early ‘70s, the Clean Water Act mandates that each state establish “water quality standards” for the water bodies within their boundaries and then compile a list of those that do not meet its water quality standards every two years. According to the EPA’s website, Florida has been a national leader in managing and fighting water pollution. David Guest is an attorney for Earth Justice, a non-profit based out of Tallahassee that works toward enforcing environmental law. He said Florida’s efforts are not enough.

“Well this has been a problem in Florida waters that has been developing for many years and has gotten rapidly worse. We have red tide outbreaks around the Tampa area in south and north too, also on the East Coast. In the fresh waters we have toxic algae outbreaks that are killing fish, making water unusable, making it unsafe to have any human contact as a direct result of having too much sewage, too much fertilizer, too much animal manure getting into the water.”

Florida’s 2008 Integrated Water Quality Assessment documents that more than 1000 miles of rivers and streams, 350,000 acres of lakes, and 900 square miles of estuaries are impaired by nutrients, such as phosphorous and nitrogen. Most of these nutrients are run-off from excess fertilizer and manure, which Guest said has caused the worst water pollution problem in Florida. On behalf of several environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and the Florida Wildlife Federation, Earth Justice sued the EPA for not enforcing or mandating stricter regulations on fertilizer run-off. Guest said the resolution is and always has been simple.

“Farmers just waste most of their fertilizer if their fertilizer is just washing off and running into the river. You use fertilizer to put on the plant so that the plant will take it up and grow better. And if that fertilizer ends up washing into the river and intro the lake then you’ve wasted it. Now they are going to have to try harder. They are going to have to have better practices, like not spraying the fertilizer around when its raining, not leaving it out in the rain, not putting out so much that is washes off. They are going to have to be better farmers. But I think they owe that as ordinary citizens of the state to not destroy the publics lakes and rivers because they’re lazy farmers.”

Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is now working with the EPA to establish stricter nutrient water quality criteria for Florida. This has sparked controversy between the supporters of the move and the Department of Agriculture, which Guest said has been DEP’s biggest opponent in moving toward reform in the past.

‘The DEP has done an excellent job in gathering data and heavy monitoring sites. Florida is really a leader of that and I think that’s in recognition of the problem. I think the DEP’s problem has always been the political power of the agricultural interests. The agricultural appropriations has been so strong that the DEP has never been able to overcome them.”

Terrence McElroy, speaking on behalf of Charles Bronson, Florida’s Commissioner of Agriculture, said the Department of Agriculture believes Florida’s DEP should be left alone to make their own revisions. Regulations should not come from the settlement made between federal government and environmental groups in the 2006 Earth Justice Case.

“So Florida is a national leader. We’ve been doing this for years and years and now you have the federal government and these environmental groups just unilaterally deciding in some sort of decent decree that the state’s way of doing it will suddenly no longer be efficient.”

In correspondence with WMNF, the DEP said that it was already working toward revisions within the state. But it is now working with the EPA to ensure that the “criteria are informed by local information and data, scientifically defensible and appropriately address the ecology of Florida’s ecosystems. Guest, on the other hand, said regardless of whether the revision comes from the DEP or EPA, it needs to happen now.

“This is a crisis in Florida. It’s destroying the economy. It’s destroying the beauty of Florida and it has to be brought under control. The Clean Water Act was passed over 40 years ago. It’s time to comply.”

Another problem, McElroy said, is that the new revisions may help the waterways, but they will further devastate an already failing economy in Florida.

“First of all, we don’t know whether they would work and second of all it would bankroll the state. It would cost utilities twice as much in some cases to operate it would require cities and counties and other levels of government hundreds of millions of dollars to try and obtain a standard that we don’t even know is possible to obtain.”

Earth Justice’s Guest said that cleaning up the waterways in Florida will only help the state’s economy, which thrives on tourism, not agriculture.

“ There’s established methods of doing it. There’s financing mechanisms. We are going to have to phase this in over some years just like the Clean Water act was phased in.”

Guest said that these revisions should have taken place a long time ago and both the EPA and DEP will continue to push for the changes.

“This train’s not going to stop. Somebody has to come up with a rational reason about why it’s ok top have toxic algae blooms and red tide in Florida and nobody’s come up with a good reason yet. This should have been done 30 years ago.”

The new numeric nutrient criteria for Florida are expected to be prepared by December 2010.

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