Despite complaints by environmental groups that it will lead to more pollution, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has approved Florida's request to change state standards for its waterways so they aren't as stringent.
The new standards allow for some waterways — man-made canals, for instance — to be classified as no longer appropriate for swimming or fishing, allowing only "incidental contact."
The reason, say state officials, is that cleaning them up would cost more than it's worth.
State Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller said changing the classifications for such waterways allows the DEP "to focus protection on our most valuable water resources."
But Linda Young of the Clean Water Network contended that the change "is so broad and all-encompassing that it undermines the basis for Florida water protection." The fact that the Obama administration approved it, she said, means Obama is "as bad or worse than Bush" at protecting water quality.
The current state standards were created in 1968. They divide the state's waterways into five categories based on their usage.
Class I is for drinking water. Class II means it's clean enough to eat the oysters and other shellfish harvested there. Class III means it's clean enough for someone to swim there or to eat the fish caught there. Class IV means it's only good for irrigating crops, and Class V is primarily for industrial use.
No one is supposed to dump pollution into those waterways in quantities sufficient to change their use. In other words, no one can degrade a Class III waterway so that it becomes a Class IV or V. To make sure that doesn't happen, the state sets limits on how much pollution can be dumped into each waterway per day, something called a total maximum daily load.
In 1998, state officials drew up a list of 1,200 Florida waterways that had trouble meeting their classification because they were impaired by pollution. About 80 percent had problems with high levels of nutrients and low levels of dissolved oxygen — both manifestations of fertilizer-heavy runoff, which is the target of some controversial regulations that federal officials plan to impose in Florida.
Most of the state's waterways are designated as Class III, safe for fishing and swimming. What the EPA has approved is a new subcategory called Class III-Limited, which is aimed at waterways that the state says can't be cleaned up enough to meet Class III status without spending more than it's worth.
The rules for each one would be site-specific. In those waterways, boating might be allowed, for instance, but not prolonged physical contact with the water.
"They wanted a classification that didn't have to be clean enough for people to swim in," Young said.
Class III-Limited would also not have the same kinds of fish and other aquatic life found in a natural system. Whether people would be allowed to catch and eat those fish — or would want to — is a matter of debate.
A Sept. 6 letter from EPA official Jim Giattina to DEP Secretary Herschel Vinyard says the Class III-Limited designation is being approved because it meets the legal requirements for "the highest uses that are attainable."
The EPA's letter says the state cannot change any waterways to the new classification without showing that the change "will result in the protection of all existing uses, as well as the standards of downstream waters." The DEP must post a public notice and also let EPA review the change first.
Craig Pittman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org