GULFPORT — A local couple and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have reached a settlement that could have national implications.
Al and Cindy Davis, whose home is on Clam Bayou, sued the EPA last year and have been actively seeking the cleanup and restoration of the bayou, an estuary between St. Petersburg and Gulfport on Boca Ciega Bay.
"They were concerned that Clam Bayou and other water bodies are not being protected," their lawyer Thomas Reese said.
Under the terms of the settlement, the EPA has agreed to implement and enforce its antidegradation policy when assessing water bodies — across the United States — under the Clean Water Act.
What that means is that the water quality should not be allowed to degrade. The EPA should find the quality of water unacceptable if that quality had declined — regardless of whether the numbers show it remains within set standards.
"The EPA intends to issue national guidance on how antidegradation requirements should be incorporated into states' review of their waters," said Wyn Hornbuckle, public affairs specialist at the U.S. Department of Justice.
The EPA's antidegradation policy states, in part, that bodies of water should still have the uses they had in 1975, or as close to 1975 as data permits.
"The water quality should be good enough to let you do what you did in 1975," Reese said. That includes things such as shellfishing.
The problem is — and the point of the Davises' lawsuit — is that there have been no national criteria about how to do that, Reese said.
The data collected are insufficient, Reese said. Clam Bayou, for instance, needs data collected from more sampling stations because water enters the bayou from different sources, including the area around the Pinellas Trail, built on an old industrialized rail line.
The bayou also suffers from abrupt and steep changes in salinity.
"There are wide swings when it rains. We have to slow down the rainwater entering the bayou because the sediment on its bottom has made it so shallow," Reese said.
There is not enough saltwater in the bayou to maintain the salinity needed for sea grass and fish nurseries when the bayou is inundated with fresh rainwater.
What does the settlement mean for Clam Bayou's near future? Not much.
The EPA has agreed to consider the antidegradation policy in its assessment of water bodies beginning in 2012.
However, Florida's water bodies have been divided into five regions so the assessments can be done on an annual rotating basis.
And the Tampa Bay area just had its turn. It was in the region that was assessed this year. It will take a few years before its turn in the rotation comes up again.
The Davises and their attorney still consider the settlement a victory. They were awarded an undisclosed amount in attorney fees.
"In my opinion," Reese said, "it will improve the restoration of water bodies.''