Federal environmental officials on Wednesday told Florida that a revised state plan to improve water quality in the Everglades meets with Washington's approval, and said it may meet a federal judge's order to clean up the ecosystem.
In notifying the state Department of Environmental Protection that changes made to an earlier plan are satisfactory, the EPA will allow the state and the South Florida Water Management District to move forward with what officials say is a historic plan for the construction of stormwater treatment areas and huge new areas of water storage.
The plan was first submitted by Scott administration officials to Washington in October last year, and a revised proposal was submitted earlier this month after the EPA raised objections to the initial plan. Permits for the network of stormwater treatment areas, which will be operated by the water management district, are required under the Clean Water Act and other laws. State officials said the technical plan was arrived at after extensive back-and-forth and collaboration with federal officials. The main goal is reducing phosphorous pollution in the ecosystem.
"This integrated plan will clean up water to protect the unique wetland system that makes up the Everglades Protection Area," said SFWMD Executive Director Melissa Meeker. With a firm commitment to design, construct and operate a comprehensive and science-based suite of remedies, the District is taking a landmark step toward meeting the water quality needs of Americas Everglades. We will continue to work closely with our federal partners to finalize and implement these important projects."
"The state's plan meets the water quality goals in (an earlier EPA requirement) and establishes an enforceable framework for ensuring compliance with the Clean Water Act and its applicable regulations," Regional EPA Administrator Gwendolyn Keyes Fleming wrote to DEP Secretary Herschel Vinyard on Wednesday. "Due to our collective efforts, the plan establishes for the first time a science-based protective water quality-based effluent limit on phosphorous discharges into the Everglades, additional water treatment projects to remove excess phosphorous to achieve that limit, and a robust plan of monitoring and scientific research to confirm that water quality improvement is moving forward."
Vinyard praised the EPA for quickly approving the most recent state revisions to the proposal.
"Thanks to EPAs expeditious review of our revised permit, we are moving forward on a comprehensive plan that is in the best interest of the Everglades and Floridas taxpayers," Vinyard said in a statement.
The state is under a federal court order to clean up the Everglades, following a lawsuit that resulted in a 2008 order by U.S. District Judge Alan Gold to boost cleanup efforts.
EPA's Keyes Fleming said she believed the new plan would meet the court's expectations.
"Under EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson's leadership, and now Governor Scott's leadership, these critical measures will launch a new era in Everglades restoration that I believe will fulfill the expectations of Judge Gold, and the hopes of many others concerned about the health of the Everglades, for strong action to expedite the final necessary steps to restore Everglades water quality," Keyes Fleming wrote.
The Everglades Foundation supported the revised plan Tallahassee sent to Washington, but the environmental group Friends of the Everglades said in a statement last week, when that plan was put forth, that it was "encouraged" but still had fears.
"The state has proven an unreliable partner over many, many years," Friends of the Everglades, which was a party to the original lawsuit, said of the state's new plan. "We want to believe the best is at hand for the Everglades, but we have not seen detail sufficient to allow us to move from a position of well-earned skepticism.
"Our fear is that the state once again is declining to impose enforceable remedies, adequate financing and best farming practices to sharply curtail phosphorous pollution of the Everglades as required by law," Friends of the Everglades said.
But DEP said the plan will allow water managers to significantly reduce the amount of phosphorus in runoff to historically low levels, and dramatically increase the treatment capacity of water cleaning areas.
The proposal includes what the agency calls an "ultra-low" phosphorus water quality standard of 10 parts per billion: "six times cleaner than rainfall and 100 times lower than limits established for discharges from industrial facilities."
The treatment wetlands use plants to remove phosphorus from flowing water before it goes into the Everglades. DEP says that this year the treatment areas already in place reduced total phosphorus loads going into the Everglades by nearly 80 percent.