Florida Officials: EPA is Putting State Through Water Torture

Critics: Costly numeric nutrient criteria are based on legal expediency, not sound science
By: Kenric Ward | Posted: August 9, 2011 10:30 AM
Cliff Stearns and David Richardson

Rep. Cliff Stearns and David Richardson

State and regional water officials poured criticism on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Tuesday, calling the EPA's proposed pollution standards heavy-handed, overly expensive and indefensibly "poor science."

Appearing at a congressional hearing conducted by U.S. Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Ocala, a cavalcade of water experts disputed the EPA's tactics and questioned its motives.

Paul Steinbrecher, president of the Florida Water Environment Association Utility Council, said the EPA's numeric nutrient criteria are "rooted in poor science."

"It was done to settle a lawsuit, not to meet an environmental need. Setting criteria for the entire state in an unrealistic time frame, they found there was no way to do a reasonable job in 12 months. So they resorted to shortcut statistical methods that are shoddy at best," Steinbrecher charged.

Richard J. Budell, director of the Office of Agricultural Water Policy at the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, said the EPA program would cripple the state with excessive costs and kill jobs.

While the EPA estimates implementation costs between $135 million and $236 million annually, the state agriculture department, working with the University of Florida Agricultural Resource Economics Department, estimated the implementation costs just for agricultural land uses at between $900 million and $1.6 billion annually and could result in the loss of more than 14,000 jobs. 

"Preliminary estimates from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection peg the implementation costs for urban stormwater upgrades alone at nearly $2 billion annually," Budell said.

A study commissioned by a large coalition of Florida-based public and private entities estimated the total implementation costs at between $1 billion and $8.4 billion annually. The wide variability in this latter estimate is, in part, due to the uncertainty associated with not yet knowing the rule requirements, Budell asserted.

Saying his community is getting "whipsawed" by the EPA, David Richardson of Gainesville Regional Utilities suggested that the agency's initiative amounts to ill-conceived, one-size-fits-all rule-making.

"Our community already has an EPA-approved, site-specific numeric nutrient rule -- known as the Alachua Sink Nutrient Total Maximum Daily Load -- and Gainesville Regional Utilities is participating in a $26 million project, called the Paynes Prairie Sheetflow Restoration Project. to comply with that EPA-approved rule. No environmental benefit will result from overlaying new generalized nutrient criteria rules on waters already subject to this science-based, site-specific nutrient rule; only needless economic expenditures will result.  

"In spite of our extensive comments and requests, the NNC rule adopted on Nov. 14, 2010,  provides no meaningful solution.  At a minimum, the rule requires that we spend $1 million demonstrating once more that our sophisticated wetlands restoration project comports with EPA’s new generalized mandates. We feel whipsawed," said Richardson, assistant general manager for GRU.

Before convening Tuesday's hearing at the University of Central Florida, Rep. Stearns, who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, said:

“Although the EPA originally accepted the standards set by Florida, under outside pressure the EPA decided to impose its own standards. Numerous studies in Florida indicate that the Washington-imposed standards will have a devastating impact on Florida’s job creation, economy and certain agencies."

Stearns, in turn, was criticized by environmentalists who were angered at being omitted from Tuesday's list of speakers.

“If Stearns wants to hear from his constituents, he should make room to hear from business owners and residents who have endured the public health threat posed by toxic algae outbreaks and fish kills at dozens of cold-water springs, at Sanibel Island, Naples, Daytona, and other tourist beaches, and along the St. Lucie, Indian, St. Johns and Caloosahatchee rivers,” said Earthjustice attorney David Guest.

A lawsuit by Earthjustice spawned the EPA's proposed numeric nutrient criteria.

But Steinbrecher said the new rules would "displace many very good site-specific nutrient standards in place now. TMDLs [total maximum daily loads] were developed to deal with nutrients, and nutrient-reduction obligations have been undertaken by a full range of entities."

By contrast, he said, EPA's "poorly derived numbers would replace properly derived nutrient numbers. EPA would move to a target with no better result."

By requiring new standards for nitrogen -- some below the part-per-million rates found in natural water bodies -- the EPA rules would cost Floridians an average of $700 more per year on their utility bills, Steinbrecher said.

In prepared testimony, Budell and Richardson offered state and local perspectives (excerpted text):

RICHARD BUDELL: Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services

"In the EPA’s own words, 'Florida has developed and implemented some of the most progressive nutrient management strategies in the nation.' Florida is one of the few states that has implemented a comprehensive framework of accountability that applies to both point and nonpoint sources and provides authority to enforce nutrient reductions.

"The EPA has also acknowledged that Florida has placed substantial emphasis on the monitoring and assessment of its waters and, as a result of this commitment, has collected significantly more water quality data than any other state. Greater than 30 percent of all water quality data in the EPA’s national water quality database comes from Florida. Florida was the first state in the nation to implement comprehensive urban stormwater management regulations. Florida’s treated wastewater reuse program is a model for the rest of the country.

"Our agricultural Best Management Practices program is firmly rooted in state law, is backed by sound science and is a critical component of Florida’s overall water resource management programs. These practices have been implemented on over 8 million acres of agricultural and commercial forest lands in Florida.

"By targeting its efforts and resources, Florida has made significant progress in nutrient reduction water resource restoration. Examples range from Tampa Bay, where sea grasses have returned to levels not seen since the 1950s and now cover 30,000 acres, to Lake Apopka, where phosphorous levels have been reduced by 56 percent and water clarity increased by 54 percent.

"Despite these glowing reviews and Florida’s demonstrated commitment to water resource protection and restoration, EPA, in response to litigation, determined in January of 2009 that Florida had not done enough and mandated the prompt promulgation of numeric-nutrient water quality criteria within one year. Before that year was up, EPA entered into a settlement agreement with the plaintiffs and agreed to deadlines for federal rule adoption that, for all practical purposes, usurped Florida’s ongoing efforts to develop its own standards.

"This takeover of Florida’s efforts was further aggravated by EPA’s rule-making process. Florida stakeholders were not accustomed to the manner in which EPA develops rules. Under state law, rule-making provides much more opportunity for input, discussion and dialogue. While the state convenes Technical Advisory Committee meetings and public workshops open to public dialogue and interaction, EPA holds public hearings where the public can make comments to silent, nodding representatives while a giant five-minute timer counts down. While Florida’s sunshine laws make all data and information available to the public throughout the rule-making process, EPA restricts the amount of information available to the public and doesn’t make all relevant analyses available for comment. 

"Outside of the process concerns, the methods used by EPA to construct its rules are inconsistent with EPA’s own guidance documents and the advice of EPA’s Science Advisory Board. EPA compounded this situation by improperly applying the methods it did use. As a result, in many cases the rule would deem healthy waters as impaired.

"In the preamble to their rule, EPA admits that they were unable to find a cause-and-effect relationship between nutrient concentration and biological response for flowing waters like streams and rivers. In the absence of that cause-and-effect relationship, there can be no certainty that the money and human resources devoted to reduce nutrient content in a stream or river will result in any measurable improvement in the biological condition of that stream or river.

"Florida believes that it is very important to link numeric criteria with an assessment of the biological health of a water body before requiring the implementation of costly nutrient-reduction strategies. Without this linkage, implementation of the EPA criteria would have Florida citizens, businesses, wastewater and stormwater utilities and agricultural producers spending time and money attempting to reduce nutrient concentrations, in some cases to levels below natural background.

"From an agricultural perspective, I can tell you without question that virtually no sector of Florida agriculture can comply with the final EPA nutrient criteria without the implementation of costly edge-of-farm water detention and treatment. Construction of these facilities takes land out of production and requires ongoing operation and maintenance.

"None of these costs can be passed on by the producer. Few growers can afford to implement this kind of practice without the support of farm bill or state-derived cost-share program payments. Florida wastewater utilities believe that expensive reverse osmosis technologies will have to be employed in order for them to comply with the requirements of their point-source discharge permits. These technologies are not only costly to implement and maintain, but they require an enormous amount of energy to operate.

"Florida is pleased that the EPA has agreed to request that the National Research Council convene a panel to review all of the economic studies and render an opinion on the likely costs of implementation.

"In closing, Florida believes that Florida is best positioned to assess the health of its waters and establish associated water quality criteria for their protection and restoration. Florida has earned the right to exercise the authority envisioned by the Clean Water Act to develop its own water quality standards and implement them through an EPA-approved and predictable process governed by existing state law."

DAVID RICHARDSON, Gainesville Regional Utilities

"The recently adopted numeric-nutrient criteria rule is undermining our widely supported environmental restoration project -- the Paynes Prairie Sheetflow Restoration Project -- by introducing unnecessary regulatory burden, risk and uncertainty. 

"The new regulatory requirements will cost our customers up to $120 million in compliance costs or, if we are lucky, a minimum of 1 million customer dollars to pursue highly uncertain regulatory relief. Unfortunately EPA’s nutrient criteria rule will provide no additional environmental benefit for this project.

"I’m sure you must be wondering, if this rule results in customer expenditures with no environmental benefit, why have we not worked with EPA during rule development to prevent this from happening. We have. We provided lengthy written comments and met personally with representatives from EPA’s Office of Science and Technology during rule development.  

"The Paynes Prairie Sheetflow Restoration Project is a major environmental restoration project which will improve water quality, protect drinking water and restore 1,300 acres of natural wetlands within Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park. The $26 million project is a partnership among Gainesville Regional Utilities, city of Gainesville Public Works, FDEP, the St. Johns River Water Management District and the Florida Department of Transportation, and is broadly supported in the community.

"We must proceed with this project to comply with FDEP and EPA permit conditions. This project is incorporated in a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit that EPA approved and FDEP issued in 2010. 

"Now, barely a year later, new regulations have been adopted that put this project in jeopardy. No site conditions have changed, no additional data suggest a different approach is needed, none of the underlying science that led to the development of this project has changed. The only change is that EPA has adopted a new set of generalized nutrient rules that do not acknowledge or allow for the wide range of naturally occurring nutrient levels, or allow solutions that are tailored to site-specific conditions.

"FDEP and EPA still support this project, but demonstrating that this project meets the newly adopted NNC regulation is costly and uncertain. We ask that this subcommittee please help us avoid spending customer money on activities that will not result in an environmental benefit."


Contact Kenric Ward at or at (772) 802-5341.

Comments (5)

9:47AM AUG 11TH 2011
Typical Florida government, all in a line to support special interests and not Floridians.

The Everglades is clogged with cattails, the outflows from Lake O into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers is still causing algae blooms. The water is nasty. Decade after decade goes by and the water quality only worsens.

Typical Florida fail.
10:06PM AUG 9TH 2011
“Although the EPA originally accepted the standards set by Florida, under outside pressure the EPA decided to impose its own standards."

Look around at some of our waters and the bills filed during the last two legislative sessions trying to weaken the standards originally accepted by the EPA and then you'll see why "outside pressure" made the EPA take action.

But since the EPA is going to give Florida, "us", a chance to come up with our own plan to address where we're failing instead of having to follow theirs, we should take note and come up with an earnest one.

And what it costs some of us upfront today through a few lost jobs and a little out of pocket will pay off in added jobs and profits for others- for all of time.

And keep in mind, we wouldn't be sacrificing those few jobs and whatever money to limit "nutrients" just for the environments sake- but for our sake- all 18 million of us.

"Trace amounts of sex hormones, prescription drugs, flame retardants and herbicides are being detected in treated drinking water pumped to more than 7 million people in Chicago and its suburbs."

Note that it's treated water....
Rick Beach
10:01AM AUG 10TH 2011
Where does the EPA get off telling our state, or any other state what to do. The Florida Legislature should tell them to pack sand and get out of our business. We are fully capable enacting our own legislation to maintain our water supplies. Its just another Federal Bureaucracy looking to justify their jobs and cost the people that actually produce things and add to the economy.
I am currently in a business venture with a local municipality and the red tape and petty issues are costing me a fortune. But that's what they do. Never again will I get involved with a city contract.
1:30PM AUG 10TH 2011
"Where does the EPA get off telling our state, or any other state what to do."

They didn't want to but were forced to through a lawsuit because other Floridians saw that we weren't entirely capable of enacting our own legislation to maintain our water supplies.

Anyway, I talk to plenty of people in business and can see what the bureaucracy can do but it isn't the EPA's fault, it's the fault of the biggest polluters and those who failed to make them comply with the Clean water Act in the first place.

The good news is the EPA is giving Florida a chance to come up with it's own plan and with Governor Scott at the helm, I think we have a chance to get rid of the bureaucracy while still meeting the clean water standards. The question is, will we be earnest enough in our attempt so that it meets those requirements.
10:11PM AUG 9TH 2011
"EPA is Putting State Through Water Torture"

Thank you EPA. I like to swim once in a while, I like to fish and eat what I catch once in a while, but mostly I like to drink, cook with, and shower or bathe in water every single day.

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