State's water rules better than the federal regulations, agencies say

nwilliams@bradenton.comDecember 9, 2012 

MANATEE -- State and private agencies in Florida say the federal government should have allowed the state to implement and regulate its own water rules, rather than having to follow pollution rules set forth by the U.S. Environment Protection Agency that they say will cost the state millions of dollars to reach compliance.

The federal water rules were in addition to rules drafted by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to protect Florida's waterways from excess nitrogen and phosphorus, which cause algae blooms and contaminate drinking water sources.

State rules established numeric limits on pollution in Florida springs, lakes, streams and some estuaries outside of South Florida, which includes a major portion of the Everglades. The limits must not exceed a certain threshold more than once in a three-year period.

Pollutants in the Manatee River estuary, for example, must not exceed 0.37 ton of total phosphorus, 1.80 tons of nitrogen and 8.8 micrograms per liter of chlorophyll-A more than once in a three-year period.

Fortunately for Manatee, the county department of natural resources has already assured it meets the required estuary criteria.

"At first glance, we feel we're OK," said Rob Brown, the department's division manager of environment protection.

Brown said the Manatee River estuary is protected under the Tampa Bay Reasonable Assurance plan, but in regards to Manatee's lakes, streams and creeks, the county is in the process of trying to meet DEP and EPA requirements.

The EPA approved the state's rules but determined the rules do not cover certain waters. EPA then proposed federal numerical limits on the amount of nutrient pollution allowed in estuaries and coastal waters, as well as streams in South Florida, and Florida's inland waters. A notice was filed in federal court in Tallahassee last month requiring Florida to adopt the rules.

The action taken by EPA did not resonate well in Florida.

"The EPA's approval of DEP's numeric nutrient criteria benefits Floridians in that these rules are based on the best available science, will yield measurable environmental improvement and cost less to implement than the rules EPA had at one time proposed," said Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.

"However, in approving Florida's criteria, the EPA also proposed additional rules on some of Florida's estuaries and canals beyond what was proposed by the state.

"While I'm glad to see we're making progress, we will, undoubtedly, continue to debate this issue," Putnam said. "I will continue to work to ensure that Florida remains in control of Florida's own destiny."

Prior to the judge's ruling last month, DEP estimated it would cost between $51 million and $150 million each year to comply with its rules.

The implementation of the EPA's proposed rules, however, could potentially cost the state and the affected sectors an additional $239 million to $632 million annually.

Each household could see an additional cost of $44 to $108 annually, according to EPA documents.

Compliance could result in up to $100 million annually in ecological, human health and economic benefits, according to the EPA.

The state's DEP office defended its original draft proposal on water rules.

"Not only are the DEP rules the most comprehensive nutrient standards in the nation, they in fact go beyond the federal rules by including additional criteria which measure biological health, coverage for numerous additional water bodies, and provisions to take action for any adverse nutrient trends regardless of levels," Dee Ann Miller, spokeswoman for Florida's DEP, said in an email to the Bradenton Herald.

Compliance with federal rules may pose a challenge for the DEP, which recently removed 26 employees from its Southwest District office in Tampa and eliminated 14 vacant positions, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a national non-profit agency.

Florida's Farm Bureau backed the state's approach to water rules.

"We would have preferred for the EPA to say, 'Florida, you're better equipped,'" said Charles Shinn, the Farm Bureau's director of government and community affairs. "They should be patting DEP on the back because of the proactive stance they have taken."

Shinn, who said the Farm Bureau does not oppose the EPA's rules, said most of the waters that are of concern for agriculture use fall under state regulation, not the EPA.

The Farm Bureau has yet to determine how federal rules will affect farmers and ranchers in Florida, Shinn said.

Environmentalists, however, praised the EPA's decision.

"DEP has been deficient in water quality analysis and protection of water body for many years," said Glenn Compton, director of ManaSota-88, a regional environmental watchdog protection group.

"We have to look at the federal level for protection because the state is not doing it."

The EPA will hold a public hearing on its proposed rules Jan. 17-18 in Tampa.

Nick Williams, East Manatee reporter, can be reached at 941-748-0411 ext. 7049. Twitter:@_1NickWilliams.

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