MANATEE -- Manatee County staff members abruptly tabled commissioners’ discussion on federal waters quality standards scheduled for today, saying Monday evening that their drafted resolution is too aggressive and not in the tone of its desire to work with the EPA to set good standards for the county’s waterways.
The resolution was an edited version of one passed by the Manasota League of Cities and the Sarasota City Commission. It described the new standards as too costly and the deadline to implement too short, and it cited concerns about the coastal estuary systems, which have not yet been included in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s water quality standards. Regulations governing coastal waters and estuaries are still in the draft stages, and the final proposal is not due until August 2012. Other language citing “aggressive and expensive modifications to all programs” also went too far, the resolution stated.
The resolution said numeric standards set by the EPA “fail to adequately take into account the diversity of Florida’s streams, rivers and lakes and the extremely restrictive criteria will be fiscally impractical to meet.”
Environmentalists who sued the EPA to enforce the specific numeric standards say the county has been “misinformed” and that the standards are regionally specific, that they have 15 months to propose plans to upgrade and then more time to implement those plans and that those costs are far less than estimated.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Bradenton Herald
The EPA is implementing the new standards in answer to a lawsuit brought by environmental groups including the Florida Wildlife Federation, Sierra Club and Earthjustice. Those groups claim the Florida Department of Environmental Protection was not enforcing standards under the Clean Water Act.
While the state DEP spent 10 years researching and developing numeric standards, it did not implement them, prompting the lawsuit. The EPA collected the state’s data and designed proposed standards in 2009. Those standards elicited about 22,000 comments from industries, municipalities, counties and individuals across the state, including concerns about implementation costs and schedules, the scientific basis for the criteria and the regional and geological variations across the state. Those comments prompted the EPA to revise the plan to address those concerns, including dividing the state into regions with specific issues and naturally occurring elements that affect the waterways.
Since the law passed, local governments have passed resolutions in protest. Their partners in opposition include the Florida Farm Bureau, Associated Industries of Florida and the Florida Chamber of Commerce.
David Guest, head of Earthjustice in Florida, contends such resolutions are essentially ineffective and misguided.
“You can’t change federal law with a county resolution,” Guest said. “There’s a deep-pocket coalition of the most egregiously polluting industries, phosphate mining, fertilizer -- large and small -- industrial agriculture and the pulp and paper industry brainwashing the public into believing clean water is unaffordable.”
The timing of the new standards couldn’t be worse, however, as counties, cities and the state struggle with the new economic realities of chronically high unemployment rates and a boom-and-bust housing market that has resulted in thousands of foreclosed homes and a decline in property values and property taxes. Any added costs seem impossible to governments already looking for places to cut.
Charlie Hunsicker, Manatee’s natural resources department director, said the county would be faced with investing millions in the stormwater system to meet the new regulations at a time when the county has observed positive response to measures already put in place.
“The indicators that we use to judge whether the coastal environment is responding positively or negatively -- such as sea grass abundance -- tells us that we continue to be successful in managing our storm water resources here for water quality protection,” he said.
“But there is always room for improvement. And we will endeavor to do so by working with EPA in setting some reasonable long-term water quality maintenance goals. But our coastal environments today reflect a good, healthy condition.”
Hunsicker said late Monday that county staff decided to pull the item from today’s agenda so they could take another look at the issues and be in a better position to voice concerns to the EPA as the agency drafts its final numbers for coastal and estuarine waterways.
The current standards address Florida’s lakes and flowing waters, such as streams and rivers. The final draft of the estuarine and coastal criteria will not be published until August 2012.