EPA plan would limit nutrients in rivers, lakes

EPA says 1,000 miles of waterways are degraded; groups say caps too costly.

Published: Saturday, January 16, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 15, 2010 at 11:47 p.m.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Friday released its proposal for water quality standards for Florida's rivers, streams and lakes.

The agency's proposal involves numeric limits for phosphorous and nitrogen, which in high amounts result in harmful algae blooms, kill fish and change the natural balance of the water's aquatic life.

Florida's Department of Environmental Protection did not have numeric limits on the two nutrients, instead limiting their quantity only when it felt their concentrations negatively impacted the water body.

Phosphorus and nitrogen pollution often come from stormwater runoff, municipal wastewater treatment, fertilization of crops and livestock manure.

The EPA's next step is to hold a series of meetings with the public and FDEP during the year about its proposed limits.

Prior to the EPA's announcement, utility lobbyists complained the EPA standards would most likely force water companies to increase treatment and thus pass on the costs to consumers.

"These regulations have been driven by litigants and bureaucrats working behind closed doors rather than openly through the people's elected representatives. Attempting to comply with these federal regulations - which in some cases will prove technically impossible - will cost tens of billions of dollars," said James VanLandingham, with the Don't Tax Florida group, a group of more than 70 utilities, agricultural businesses and developers.

The Florida Chamber of Commerce also opposes the proposed limits, claiming the new nutrient standards would cost the state financially during a time when it could least afford it.

"We believe the standards are so extreme that in many cases, EPA would judge many pristine streams and lakes - even some unaltered by human hands - as impaired," said Mark Wilson, president and CEO of the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

But EPA officials say the limits are necessary.

"By relying on the best science, we can set standards that protect people's health and preserve water bodies used for drinking, swimming, fishing and tourism," said Peter S. Silva, assistant administrator for the EPA's Office of Water in an agency press release. "New water quality standards, developed in collaboration with the state, will help protect and restore inland waters that are a critical part of Florida's history, culture and economic prosperity."

A 2008 FDEP 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 were not meeting the state's water quality standards because of excess nutrients.

These represent approximately 16 percent of Florida's 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 by nutrients is likely higher, according to the EPA, as there are waters that have not yet been assessed.

The EPA's proposed limits on nutrients Friday was the result of an August 2009 consent decree agreement with the Florida Wildlife Federation, which was urging the EPA in court to set water nutrient standards in Florida.

The EPA based its decision to set nutrient standards in Florida on the Clean Water Act. EPA will establish final standards by October 2010 for lakes, rivers and streams and by October 2011 for estuarine and coastal waters.

The EPA will accept public comments on the proposed standards for 60 days following publication in the Federal Register. The EPA will also hold three public hearings on the proposed rule in Florida. These hearings are scheduled for Feb. 16, 17 and 18 in Tallahassee, Orlando and West Palm Beach, respectively.

For more on the proposed rule and public hearings, go online to www.epa.gov/waterscience/standards/rules/florida/.

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