Florida DEP moves forward with numeric nutrient water standards as critics push back

03/26/14 Janelle Irwin
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Tags: water, numeric nutrient standards, TMDL, total maximum daily load, DEP, EPA, Florida


Representatives from Pinellas County drove SUVs to a meeting in Bartow discussing clean water standards.

photo by Janelle Irwin

Many Florida waterways still don’t have nutrient pollution standards. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection is holding a series of meetings all over the state to talk about nutrient standards and how to make sure things like nitrogen and phosphorus are not contaminating water bodies.

“A healthy water body needs nitrogen and phosphorus so it makes plants grow and the plants grow and the aquatic fish and other life forms can eat the plants and you have a healthy system.”

That’s Greg DeAngelo, program administrator for the total maximum daily load program with the DEP. The problem with those nutrients, and others like mercury and even fecal matter, is when the levels get too high. DeAngelo said during a meeting in Bartow in Polk County today, that causes algae blooms and sometimes the growth of invasive species. The first step in keeping nutrients in check is establishing standards, or how much of a nutrient a particular body of water should contain.

“Then there’s sort of an ongoing process of monitoring. So, we send folks out into the field, they collect water quality samples, we send it to the lab and we obtain that data so we can determine what the water quality looks like. Then we compare that data in the assessment process – that’s sort of the next step. We assess whether that water quality data that we got is showing that they’re meeting the criteria. If they’re not, they end up on what they call the verified impaired list. So we confirmed that there’s a problem.”

But critics say this process is taking too long. Not convinced? The DEP’s process doesn’t stop at just identifying a problem.

“Then it comes to my group to set those water quality restoration goals – the TMDLs.”

But, there’s still more.

“Once those goals are set we have a target that then we send to the BMAP. Those folks, when they develop the Basin Management Action Plan, will actually identify the steps that they’re going to take…”

The Federal Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, had been in charge of Florida’s numeric nutrient standards, and environmental groups were OK with that saying those standards aired on the side of caution. But a court ruled the state could do the job instead. Cathy Harrelson is with the Gulf Restoration Network.

“Those are political decisions that are being made about natural resources that belong to all Floridians and it’s, the tipping point is here and it’s time that we all sat down at the table and stop letting the PACs and the political machines get in the way of what really needs to happen in Florida which is a comprehensive, long-term water policy.”

But to listen to the DEP’s host of presentations, it sure sounds like they’re well on their way to establishing long-term water policy.

“It’s ludicrous.”

Harrelson points to attempts at state legislation to undermine regulations protecting waterways from pollution. A bill in Tallahassee this year by Panama City Republican Representative Jimmy Patronis would strip local governments of their ability to create regulations that would protect local waterways. That includes fertilizer ordinances that have already been adopted in many municipalities around Tampa Bay. The bill would not only keep holdouts like Hillsborough from joining the bunch, but it would overturn those ordinances already in place.

“The thing about home rule is, it gives you the most direct access to your government. That’s why we want to maintain those home rule powers so that we in our communities, in our cities, in our counties and our regions can actually take a look at what we want to protect and how we want to grow our communities to not only be economically successful, but also environmentally sound.”

The DEP is using a sort of home rule argument, too – that they know how best to handle Florida’s water, not the federal EPA.

“We have different bio-regions across the state. So, we have different criteria for lakes – those are set up by the type of lake; by the color of the lake – is it a clear lake or if it’s a colored lake where the light doesn’t penetrate as far. Is it an alkaline lake or an acidic lake? Say our streams criteria sort of varies by where you are in the state.”

But the Petronis bill would undermine that by keeping water regulations from being even more local. DeAngelo, from the DEP, wouldn’t comment on the bill itself, but here’s what he did have to say.

“Controlling or banning or limiting or at least doing public outreach about being responsible about fertilizer use is an important component of restoration in a lot of areas.”

The DEP is currently focusing on what it calls the Springs Coast, the area along the Gulf Coast from Pinellas County north to Brooksville. Researchers with the University of Florida and the St. Johns Water Management District announced today they will start a 3-year, $3 million study of the impact of pollutants on Florida’s springs. The DEP plans to expand its priorities for numeric nutrient standards to some Tampa Bay area waterways within the next two years. That includes the Hillsborough River, Tampa Bay and the Sarasota watershed.

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