TAMPA — Gus Muench routinely pulls pieces of plastic from his crab traps on the Little Manatee River. It's the kind farmers use to grow crops.
But it's what he doesn't see that makes him wonder, the Ruskin resident told U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials Wednesday.
"It's the things we don't see that turn the water green," he said.
Muench was among more than 100 people who spoke at one of two public hearings held by the EPA on proposed changes aimed at improving water quality in the state.
The EPA issued proposed standards in January after reaching a settlement with environmental groups who sued the federal government in 2008 for lax water regulations.
Many who spoke supported the stricter measures, which cap the amount of phosphorus and nitrogen levels in Florida's lakes, rivers, streams, springs and canals.
By limiting what are known as "nutrients," the federal rules would replace vague state guidelines governing waste and fertilizer runoff. The top five sources of nutrient pollution identified by the EPA are stormwater runoff, discharges from wastewater treatment, vehicle exhaust, livestock production and fertilizers used for row crop production.
Nutrient pollution is considered the most prevalent water pollution problem in the state. It causes algae blooms that kill fish, creates public health hazards and affects property values and tourism.
According to the EPA, more than 500 state waters are polluted by nutrients. That includes about 1,000 miles of rivers and streams, 350,000 acres of lakes and 900 square miles of estuaries.
As evidence, officials showed photos of waterways throughout Florida covered in bright green growths. Correcting such problems could cost polluters $1.2 billion to $1.5 billion.
Farmers who came to the meeting Wednesday said they feel like targets of increased regulations that make it difficult to stay in business. Sarasota rancher Todd Underhill said that stricter rules, such as the ones proposed by the EPA, squeeze family operations like his. "The temptation of do you stop farming or sell your land to a farming corporation or developer is always there," Underhill said. "This kind of pressure is causing shifts away from what we want."
It's easy to blame an industry rather than individuals in a subdivision who also are contributing to pollution, he said.
The agency will take written comments through April 28, and expects to complete new regulations by October.
Chandra Broadwater can be reached at email@example.com, or (813) 661-2454.