Finally, precise rules on pollution to protect Florida waters

December 11, 2012 

Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam delivered a positive message about the future of agriculture last week in Bradenton while pointing out the state must protect water quality -- "the biggest long-term issue facing Florida." Few would argue that point.

Yet Florida has a poor record on the issue of protecting both the water supply and quality. Algae blooms fed by pollution all too frequently spoil waterways. The state has spent the past 14 years trying to fight off the federal standards set in the U.S. Clean Water Act but lost that futile effort 12 days ago.

Manatee County appears to be in good shape to weather the new rules, however -- a decided advantage over less environmentally sensitive counties.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency first warned Florida about its pollution problem in 1998. When the state kept dragging its feet, environmental organizations sued four years ago.

In settling the case, the EPA agreed to impose tougher pollution rules on Florida -- forcing numeric limits on such pollutants as nitrogen and phosphorous from such sources as fertilizer, manure and sewage.

Stormwater runofff carries these pollutants into our vulnerable waterways. Toxic algae blooms sicken people, kill fish and contaminate drinking water supplies -- the very lifeblood of a community.

The EPA's specific figures, which establish a national precedent, replace the state's vague standards for springs, lakes, estuaries and rivers. Florida's Department of Environmental Protection had hoped its proposed standards, negotiated with agriculture, utilities and other big business interests, would be sufficient to satisfy EPA orders but only a portion of the state's waterways -- about 15 percent -- were approved for the less stringent rules.

While the political backlash from state government and business has been strong, clean water is essential to Florida's economy. Critics contend the cost of complying with the EPA rules will be too expensive, potentially between $239 million to $632 million annually to the public and private sectors. But the EPA estimated compliance would return $100 million annually in economic, ecological and human health benefits.

Agriculture is one of Manatee County's key industries, second only to tourism with an annual economic impact at more than $500 million. The county's primary agricultural industries are in vegetables, citrus, livestock, ornamental horticulture, commercial fishing and forest products -- ranking Manatee in the top 10 in counties for agricultural sales.

While we worry about the costs to Manatee operations, we're optimistic. Significantly, Florida's Farm Bureau does not oppose the EPA rules, noting that the bulk of the waterways that apply to agriculture will come under DEP regulations, though the exact impact on the industry has yet to be calculated.

Most significantly, Manatee County's commendable Department of Natural Resources is confident that the Manatee River estuary meets state criteria.

Even with this battle concluded, another one is brewing -- over individual county regulations regarding the application of fertilizer. For the past three years, the Legislature has tried but failed to overrule those local regulations restricting fertilizer use on lawns during Florida's rainy season.

Legislation is expected to surface in the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee during next year's session.

Manatee's ordinance, which went into effect this year, restricts the use of nitrogen or phosphorus products on residential urban landscapes between June 1 and Sept. 30. This prudent measure should not be superseded by the state -- especially in light of the new pollution rules that Florida must follow. State meddling in home rule would be counter-productive.

Slime-fouled waterways cripple tourism and harm communities. Clean water is invaluable. Floridians should rejoice now that future generations are ensured of a better drinking water supply and cleaner recreational opportunities.

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