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Proposed water quality criteria could be costly

MANATEE — If the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed water quality standards are implemented without any changes, it could cost taxpayers millions of dollars.

That is the position local and state agencies are taking with the new numeric water nutrient criteria the EPA has told them they have to meet.

Rob Brown, the manager of the environmental protection division for the Manatee County Natural Resources Department, told county commissioners last week the EPA standards were not based on local data and would be expensive for the county to readjust.

“We don’t want criteria that causes citizens to spend a lot of money that will need to be corrected in the future,” Brown said. “We want good criteria based on science.”

He said the problem with the standards the federal agency set was that they did not take into consideration the local geology and natural condition of area waterways and lakes.

The EPA established the new numeric standards for nutrients after state environmental groups filed a lawsuit in 2008 claiming the federal agency was not enforcing the 1998 Clean Water Act.

EarthJustice filed the lawsuit after years of seeing many of Florida’s lakes, streams and estuaries continue to be degraded, said Monica Reimer, an attorney with the nonprofit public interest law firm.

One of the environmental organizations, Florida Wildlife Federation, issued a report, “It’s Time to End the Slime,” outlining the failure of the state rules that led it and the other groups to file the lawsuit.

According to the report, “1,000 miles of the state’s rivers and streams, 350,000 acres of Florida’s lakes and 900 square miles of its estuaries were contaminated by sewage, fertilizer or manure pollution.”

These polluted waters are a danger to the public health and deny swimmers and other recreational users access to clean water, the report stated.

Reimer said before a judge ruled on the lawsuit, the EPA reached a consent agreement with the plaintiffs that outlined the new water nutrient standards.

“We obtained everything through the consent agreement that we could have won with a judgment,” she said.

But it is those new standards that could create havoc for local guardians of water quality.

Brown said some of the problems are that Manatee County is in the Bone Valley Region watershed, which produces a high concentration of phosphorus in the waterways because of the natural presence of phosphate in the ground. He wants the EPA to allow for this higher concentration and set site-specific standards.

The federal agency also was not taking into consideration the success the county has had, working with surrounding counties and municipalities, with the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program, Brown said.

Because the water from the counties’ lakes and streams end up in Sarasota Bay, it is only reasonable to conclude that the water quality of those waterways meet an acceptable standard.

Dee Ann Miller, the deputy press secretary for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, wrote in a press release that “Florida has made a tremendous investment to collect and analyze the data necessary to define how nutrient enrichment affects the biological health of its surface water.”

But, Miller wrote, the EPA developed the new standards despite the state’s efforts to establish its own.

In the official comments to the EPA’s actions, Jerry Brooks, director of the FDEP’s division of environmental assessment and restoration, emphasized the importance of using correct data to establish the standards.

“In the absence of site specific criteria, overly stringent criteria forces significant investments for remediation with no associated environmental benefit,” Brooks wrote.

But he continued, “Criteria less stringent than necessary can result in failure to prevent environmental harm.”

The Manatee County Commission also sent comments to the EPA as part of the rule-making process.

In its letter, the commission supported the federal agency’s efforts, reminded them “it is imperative that these standards be based on defensible science, and are reasonable and cost effective to implement.”

Highlighting specific portions of the EPA’s proposed rules, the commission’s letter said the standards would mean that more than 80 percent of the state’s waters would be deemed impaired and urged the EPA to delay its “one-size-fits-all” approach in setting standards.

The EPA proposal also only deals with specific sources of nutrient-load pollutants, such as stormwater and industry, and does not take into account unregulated sources and air pollution.

Brown said Manatee County has been a leader in maintaining high water quality standards.

The county has spent millions over the years installing infrastructure, such as the sewer water reuse system, and adopting rules that has made it a model around the country.

But EarthJustice’s Reimer said the EPA standards are necessary because of the state’s failure to establish its own. “It’s taken way too long,” she said.

As for the additional costs, the attorney does not think the new nutrient criteria will add much to the expenses of local governments.

One place local governments can begin in improving their water quality is in regulating fertilizer use, Reimer said.

Brown agreed, saying it is cheaper to control the source of the nutrient than to clean the water supply.

Several counties and municipalities have passed ordinances restricting fertilizing lawns during the summer when rain can wash the nutrients into the stormwater system, which ends up in streams and lakes.