U.S. EPA Steps In to Set Florida Water Quality Standards

WASHINGTON, DC, January 21, 2009 (ENS) – In one of the final acts of the Bush administration, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has announced that it will set “water quality standards for nutrients” for all Florida surface waters. The standards will apply to concentrations of the agricultural nutrients nitrogen and phosphorus in state waters.

The EPA has issued a formal determination under the Clean Water Act that “numeric” nutrient water quality criteria are necessary in Florida.

“We are taking the significant step today of requiring numeric nutrient standards for water quality,” said Benjamin Grumbles, EPA’s assistant administrator for water, making the announcement on Friday. “We look forward to working closely with the state to develop improved standards that will accelerate the protection and restoration of Florida’s waters.”

Grumbles said numeric nutrient criteria will improve Florida’s ability to address nutrient pollution in a timely and effective manner.

Excess nitrogen and phosphorus levels, known as nutrient pollution, in waterbodies can cause harm to aquatic ecosystems and threaten public health.

Nutrient pollution can lead to water quality problems such as harmful algal blooms, low-oxygen dead zones in water bodies such as the Gulf of Mexico and declines in wildlife and wildlife habitat.

Florida’s 2008 Integrated Water Quality Assessment shows that 1,000 miles of rivers and streams, 350,000 acres of lakes, and 900 square miles of estuaries are impaired by nutrients. The actual numbers are likely higher, as many waters that have yet to be assessed may also be impaired.

Black algae bloom and sewage in Florida’s St. Lucie River, April 2008 (Photo by William Djubin)

While recognizing that local governments in Florida have improved wastewater treatment and stormwater management and some growers have implemented best management practices for nutrient control, the EPA’s January 14, 2009 determination letter states that poor water quality in Florida is “likely to worsen” without federal action.

In the determination letter, the EPA notes that the Florida Department of Environment Protection has spent “over $20 million in collecting and analyzing data” but has yet to develop numeric standards.

The EPA letter states that it “expects to propose numeric nutrient criteria for lakes and flowing waters within 12 months, and for estuaries and coastal waters, within 24 months.” This timeline hands these tasks on to the incoming Obama administration.

Since 1998, the EPA has been encouraging states to adopt their own numeric and narrative water quality criteria for nutrients, which EPA would then either approve or send back for revision.

“EPA recognizes Florida as a national leader in managing nutrient pollution but more needs to be done,” said Grumbles.

Mike Sole, secretary of the Florida Department of Environment Protection said he accepts that Florida has not adequately controlled the runoff of nitrogen and phosphorus into state waters.

“The State of Florida recognizes that more needs to be done to address nutrient pollution in our rivers, streams, lakes and estuaries, and these actions will help our state and all of our stakeholders prevent and better manage sources of nitrogen and phosphorus from entering our waters,” said Sole.

EPA published recommended nutrient criteria for most streams and lakes across the country in 2001. A combined strategy of EPA, state, territorial, and tribal partnership supported by technical assistance was intended to jumpstart progress on what the EPA calls “a difficult and challenging problem.”

Some states and territories have established numeric standards for priority waterbodies. Others are in the process of collecting data and preparing to develop them. Still others are in the earlier stages of planning and deciding which standards development approach will work best for them

In 1998, only 13 states had any numeric standards at all, either for selected, high priority waterbodies or for entire waterbody types.

As of December 2008, 25 states have developed some numeric standards, but the other 25 states still have no numeric standards at all for nutrient pollution.

Grumbles said the EPA explects Florida to accelerate its efforts to adopt numeric nutrient criteria into state regulations.

The EPA itself is under court order to improve the state nutrient pollution program.

The federal agency has been subject to a series of adverse court decisions ruling that it has been derelict in protecting Florida’s water quality, particularly as it affects the Everglades.

The most recent court decision takes EPA to task for violating the same Clean Water Act that it is supposed to administer.

On July 29, 2008, Miami U.S. District Judge Alan Gold found that the federal agency had shirked its duty to enforce basic water quality standards and, in so doing, “violated its fundamental commitment and promise to protect the Everglades” and “acted arbitrarily and capriciously.”

In July 2008, five environmental groups filed a lawsuit to compel the EPA and the state of Florida to set numeric limits on the excess nutrients.

“Unfortunately, it is common knowledge in South Florida that EPA regional managers will do everything possible to accommodate the state and the only way to get them to enforce the Clean Water Act is to sue them, which is a very sad commentary,” said Ann Hauck of the Council of Civic Associations, based in Lee County, Florida.

“The bottom line is that the Everglades continues to deteriorate,” said Hauck immediately following Judge Gold’s ruling. “According to EPA Region 4′s own recently released Everglades Assessment Report, the area of the Everglades negatively impacted by discharges from the Everglades Agricultural Area has increased under the current Region 4 management.”

Click here [www.ens-newswire.com] to see previous ENS coverage of this issue.

View This Story On Eco–mmunity Map.