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Water war

March 7, 2010 - 6:00pm

By Kenric Ward

Operating under the theory that "no good deed goes unpunished," the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is targeting Floridians with punitive new water-quality standards.

In an unprecedented move, the EPA is singling out Florida for strict rules governing the release of nitrogen and phosphorous. The Florida Water Environment Association Utility Council estimates that the state's utilities will have to spend between $24.4 billion and $50.7 billion in capital improvements (before interest charges) to comply with the new standards and up to $1.3 billion more in annual operating costs.

This price tag will trickle down to every home and business, with yearly annual sewer rates expected to rise an average of $726 per customer, per year. And that's just for the customers with sewer service.

For large businesses, including agriculture, the annual hit could run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, analysts say.

Cleaner water is an admirable, even essential, goal but critics say the EPA's proposal is murky, at best.

"The numeric nutrient standards have serious scientific flaws," says Paul Steinbrecher, an official with Jacksonville utilities and a spokesman for the utility council.

Scientists note, for example, that nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous behave differently in different bodies of water. A one-size-fits-all standard is ineffective and unworkable, they say.

While no one wants to see green waterways or algae blooms, these conditions are, in fact, a violation of Florida's existing pollution standards. The state Department of Environmental Protection, along with the EPA, are charged with monitoring and enforcing compliance through site-specific plans that set total maximum daily loads of discharges.

"The EPA plan would unseat all current programs and change the technology, thereby delaying ecological restoration programs," Steinbrecher said. He noted that just such programs are under way along the length and breadth of the St. Johns River in eastern Florida.

According to government reports, there's a lot of work to be done.

A 2008 Florida DEP report assessing water quality for Florida revealed that approximately 1,000 miles of rivers and streams, 350,000 acres of lakes and 900 square miles of estuaries are not meeting the state's water quality standards because of excess nutrients.

"These represent approximately 16 percent of Floridas assessed river and stream miles, 36 percent of assessed lake acres and 25 percent of assessed estuary square miles. The actual number of miles and acres of waters impaired for nutrients is likely higher, as there are waters that have not yet been assessed," the EPA stated last month.

Earth Justice, the Florida Wildlife Federation and a host of other environmental groups weren't happy with EPA's performance, so they sued the agency in July 2008. In an effort to settle the matter, EPA came up with a "numeric nutrient criteria" for water quality.

The agency's first-in-the-nation mandate calls for total nitrogen discharges to be reduced 40 percent to 80 percent from current levels; phosphorous discharges would be slashed 90 percent to 95 percent.

The EPA's initiative breaks the underpinnings of the Clean Water Act, which, heretofore, recognized state primacy in setting such standards.

Ironically, Florida appears to have been singled out because it collects about one-third of the nation's total water-quality data -- more than any other state.

"It's a case of 'let's pick on the guys who have the most data,'" said a utility industry expert, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Florida was selected as a legal-containment strategy because the EPA was being sued."

David Guest, managing attorney for Earth Justice in Florida, said the state was targeted because of its "uniquely serious problems" of "toxic algae" and "uncontrolled slime growth."

On Feb. 16, before a packed house at Florida State University, Jim Keating, an environmental protection specialist in the EPA Office of Water, presented a detailed defense of the proposed standards, focusing on how phosphorous and nitrogen pollution lead to an explosion in the population of algae. Keating stressed that the algae harms local ecology and can lead to infectious byproducts that can cause bladder cancer.

Keating displayed photographs depicting how algae affected Lake Manatee, Lake Apopka, the Caloosahatchee River, the St. Lucie River and tributaries of the St. Johns River. He also contrasted the appearance of Weeki Wachee Spring in the 1950s with photos taken in 2001.

State Rep. Ralph Poppell, R-Vero Beach, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, blasted the proposed water standards, noting that Florida officials understand the problem of the states environment better than officials in Washington.

Right now is an absolute bad time to be enforcing something thats going to cost our state any more dollars than what we already have, Poppell told the EPA panel. We need to be working toward job creation in order to have a tax base to pay for not only clean water, but our total environment picture.

Others suggested that the DEP and EPA simply need to do their job and rigorously enforce the laws already on the books.

In another ironic twist, the new EPA water rules, if approved, could actually damage air quality in Florida. Scientists estimate that the more energy-intensive systems needed to meet the new standards would require an annual consumption of 26 million megawatt hours of electricity. That would emit an additional 17.4 million tons of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses per year.

The Florida Farm Bureau, the states largest general-interest agricultural association with about 140,000 member-families, says the EPA's proposed regulations "will levy a de facto water tax on Floridians by increasing water and sewer bills and will impose onerous economic burdens on agricultural producers.

For nearly a decade, Floridas agricultural community has been proud to cooperate with other businesses and government agencies in the states Total Maximum Daily Loads program, said FFB President John L. Hoblick.

The TMDL program, which established numeric nutrient criteria based on watersheds, has caused Florida to be recognized as a national leader in water quality protection and restoration. This action by EPA abruptly changes that.

The Farm Bureau says almost 75 percent of Floridas 2.1 million acres of irrigated farm land currently embraces voluntary agricultural Best Management Practices. Agricultural BMPs are practical, cost-effective measures that agricultural producers implement to reduce the amount of pesticides, fertilizers, animal waste and other pollutants entering our water resources.

Critics allege that the EPA standards will brand pristine streams and lakes as impaired, requiring the state to spend billions of scarce dollars to meet the standard. In some cases, they say, no technology currently exists to meet the proposed federal regulations, as in the case of agricultural wastewater.

Lawrence Teich, Fort Lauderdale's environmental supervisor for public works, said the proposed rules are "not scientifically valid" and that "the criteria proposed currently is set up for failure."

Opponents have called for the EPA to at least delay the implementation of the new rules to try to reach a compromise standard.

"We don't know how much this is going to cost at a time when Florida is facing some of the toughest economic circumstances," said Barbara Miedema, vice president of the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida.

Other industry groups are gathering cost estimates for compliance.

Guest of Earth Justice says the figures floating around now are "ludicrously overblown by a factor of four or five."

"They're saying reverse osmosis is the only way to treat the problem. Give me a break. Some (sewer systems) will have to clean up, some won't."

Florida Clean Water Network director Linda Young said during the Tallahassee hearing that opposition was the result of many months of organizing thats been done by our own state government.

DEP has exaggerated the threat and there is a little bit of panic created by a state agency screaming fire, Young charged.

Guest believes that the fertilizer industry is driving much of the resistance, because nitrogen- and phosphorous-heavy fertilizers -- both in commercial and residential use -- are laden with the chemicals that cause algae blooms.

"At the same time they're fighting this, there's a bill that would prohibit restrictions on the use of fertilizers," he says.

That bill, HB 1445, sponsored by Rep. Bryan Nelson, R-Apopka, would loosen previously enacted rules curbing fertilizer use.

Rep. Dave Murzin, R-Pensacola, said he and about 30 of his colleagues are asking the EPA to delay imposing tougher standards for Florida water pollution. But, he said they will probably not be able to pre-empt the regulations this session.

Im not a constitutional scholar, but if some federal judge or federal agency decides on arbitrary standards for Florida, I dont know that we can thumb our noses at it, he said.

If approved, the EPA rules would take effect this year for streams and lakes. Rules for coastal waters would begin in 2011.

Murzin said his House group is drafting a letter to the Florida congressional delegation requesting a 60-day delay for the state to conduct further studies.

Sen. Lee Constantine, R-Altamonte Springs, who chairs the new Select Committee on Inland Waters, says he hopes his panel could counter any perception that the state is lagging in compliance.

Constantine has held meetings at springs around the state and pushed last year for a broad springs protection measure. That measure failed, partly due to builders' concerns.

No measure has been filed yet for the 2010 session.

Meantime, business groups are asking their members and the general public to sound off on the pending EPA rules.

The EPA, after consulting with state officials, has extended its period for public comment to April 29. Comments can be sent via:

Website: Follow the online instructions for submitting comments.


Water Docket
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Mail code: 2822T
1200 Pennsylvania Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20460

In all correspondence, include Docket ID No. EPA-HQ-OW-2009-0596.

Online tools and information can be found at, a site sponsored by more than 100 state-based business and farming organizations, ranging from the Associated Industries of Florida to Audubon Ranch.

Staff writer Kevin Derby contributed to this article.

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