Florida nutrient pollution battle wanes, Tampa Bay still a focus

11/12/12 Janelle Irwin
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The EPA has set new standards for nutrient pollution in Florida waterways after years of head butting and legal battles. The numeric nutrient standards cap nitrogen loads in natural water bodies at today’s levels. Suzanne Cooper, a planner with the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council, said the new regulations will keep water bodies like Tampa Bay healthy.

“So, for Tampa Bay they have identified a TMDL – a total maximum daily load for nitrogen that we cannot go above or it is estimated that there would be a degradation of the water body.”

Anytime there is an excess of nutrients like nitrogen or phosphorus it can cause a spike in algae levels. Cooper said it’s easier to control nitrogen levels and that, in turn, keeps phosphorus in check too.

“So, because we have so much natural phosphorus in our system because of the phosphate mining – our land is just naturally rich in phosphorus – we can’t really control that very well. So, if we can control the amount of nitrogen in the system and most of that is man made or man-produced or comes from animal waste and things like that – but if we can control the nitrogen than it doesn’t really matter how much phosphorus we have because it can’t be taken up into the system because only the same amount as we have nitrogen.”

Environmental groups have been trying to get the EPA to set rules for nutrient levels for more than a decade and the state has fought them the whole way. Governor Rick Scott opposed the standard before he even took office. So groups like the Tampa Bay Estuary Program have pushed for local fertilizer ordinances to cut back on nitrogen runoff. Lindsay Cross is the environmental science and policy manager for the group.

“If homeowners apply fertilizer prior to the rainy season and then once the rainy season ends – that’s June 1 through September 30 – they’re still going to have enough fertilizer. They’re using a slower release formula that will take them through that rainy season. Additionally, if people are using reclaimed water, that also has a certain concentration of nitrogen and phosphorus in it so it’s also kind of feeding that lawn.”

If nutrient levels aren’t kept in check swimmers and beach goers could get rashes and develop respiratory problems, fish could die and that stinky red-blob known as red tide could suffocate the area’s booming beach economy. Opponents of implementing strict regulations at the state level have argued it’s too costly and hinders some businesses. But Cross said the local ordinances actually save money.

“Having those fertilizer ordinances is kind of a low cost, easy way to improve Tampa Bay because there’s less cost of cleaning up the nitrogen once it enters the water ways and, for the citizens, it’s a way that they can be engaged in that effort.”

This year Tampa passed a fertilizer ban during rainy summer months. St. Pete did too. But Suzanne Cooper from the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council said local ordinances can cover a range of issues that contribute to nitrogen levels.

“Some just control the nitrogen level in the fertilizer and some limit the amount of fertilizer you should be putting on your lawn and often target commercial landscape management companies because it’s easier to target them than the individual citizen – and for enforcement purposes.”

And there is still a lot that can be done by local governments and even home and business owners. Tampa Bay Estuary Program’s Lindsay Cross said something as simple as having landscaping in driveways or parking lots below ground level instead of on a raised island can cut back on runoff.

“So anytime you can incorporate swales into your yards or things called rain gardens that essentially collect the water on the site will allow using different native plants which use nutrients – it allows use those nutrients in their growth rather than having that nutrient-laden water go into water bodies like Tampa Bay.”

Cross is partnering with local governments and Suzanne Cooper from the regional planning council to get word out about nitrogen runoff standards. There’s a consortium about the issue on Thursday in Pinellas Park. And Cooper said environmental groups worried about Tampa Bay and other Florida waterways may have some funding to work with.

“There are three pots of money. The one pot of money that the estuary program is trying to coordinate is only for environmental projects and it can be restoration, it can be monitoring, it can be water quality improvements, it can be land acquisition, it can be anything related to the environment that’s going to help restore the environment, improve the environment – so, it definitely could.”

The pots of money she’s referring to come from the federal RESTORE Act that allocates money from the 2010 BP oil spill to Gulf Coast states that were affected. Though Cooper expects the Tampa Bay nutrient issue to be pretty far down on the list for that funding, she does think local elected officials can so something to get a piece of the pie.

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