CLEARWATER — Ten years after acknowledging the problem, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has agreed to limit how much nutrient pollution is allowed to foul Florida's waterways, a move likely to change everything from how suburban lawns are fertilized to how stormwater runoff and sewage are treated.
"Each and every neighborhood along the Gulf Coast is going to be affected positively by this," said Cris Costello of the Sierra Club during a news conference Friday, during which an agreement was unveiled that environmental groups hope will set a national precedent.
But the state's top environmental regulator said he was "frustrated" by the EPA decision, and warned it will likely cost millions to clean up what now flows freely into lakes, rivers and estuaries.
"It is going to affect you and I as Floridians," said Mike Sole, secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Nutrients such as phosphorous and nitrogen flow into waterways from fertilized lawns, golf courses, leaking septic tanks and malfunctioning sewer plants.
In the past 30 years, nutrient pollution has become the most common water pollution problem in the state. It feeds the increase in algae blooms like the one now spread out over some 14 miles of Tampa Bay, as well as causing toxic blooms that kill fish and cause respiratory problems and infections among swimmers, boaters and beachgoers.
Yet the state's rules for how much nitrogen and phosphorous are allowed in Florida's waterways are only vague guidelines, said Colin Adams of Earthjustice, one of the environmental groups announcing the settlement. The EPA itself said in January that the rules were inadequate.
The EPA told all states in 1998 to set limits on nutrient pollution, and warned it would do it for them if no action was taken by 2004, said David Guest, also of Earthjustice. But 2004 passed with no action. So last year, Earthjustice joined Sierra Club, the Florida Wildlife Federation, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida and the St. Johns Riverkeeper to sue the EPA.
But the DEP has been working since 2001 on updating the state's limits, Sole said. Florida's thousands of waterways "all have different demands," he said. "The state has been spending thousands and thousands of hours so we can support a numeric nutrient limit," Sole said.
The environmental groups said Florida's waterways couldn't wait any longer. "They should have done this forever ago," Guest said.
Under the settlement, the EPA has until Jan. 14 to propose the new pollution limit for Florida's lakes, rivers and creeks. It has until October 2010 to finalize those rules. The agency then has until January 2011 to propose a limit for the state's coastal and estuarine waters, with a deadline of October 2011 to finalize the rules.
The settlement isn't a done deal. Agriculture and industrial interests — including the Florida Pulp and Paper Association and the Florida Cattlemen's Association — intervened in the suit and could try to persuade a judge to reject the agreement. Their attorney, Terry Cole, said Friday that he could not comment on what might happen next.
Last week, though, a coalition of Florida water and sewer utilities notified the EPA it intends to sue the agency for not following to the letter the requirements of the Clean Water Act in determining the need in January that there should be a numeric nutrient limit.