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State's new nutrient standards may hold answer to river's future

Two fisherman watch an approaching storm in the Gulf of Mexico near the mouth of the Withlacoochee River, the end point of Hernando Times columnist Dan DeWitt’s trip down the 157-mile length of the river. DeWitt and his son saw what they considered too much green in the water and not enough bass, grasses and other vegetation.

DAN DEWITT | Times

Two fisherman watch an approaching storm in the Gulf of Mexico near the mouth of the Withlacoochee River, the end point of Hernando Times columnist Dan DeWitt’s trip down the 157-mile length of the river. DeWitt and his son saw what they considered too much green in the water and not enough bass, grasses and other vegetation.

We made it, my older son and I did.

We finished the last segment of a trip started three years ago: paddling the length of the Withlacoochee River.

We got the satisfaction of watching the river gradually widen and cypress trees on the bank give way to cabbage palms and mangroves — of seeing the river empty into the Gulf of Mexico. We were able to take in the drama of a storm brewing offshore, knowing we'd get to our car long before the storm got to us.

We had fun — or I sure did. How could you not on a sunny day on the water, with one of your kids and, as a bonus, a wailing tailwind? Toward the end, it was more like surfing than paddling.

But I wanted one more thing from this day. Having children along tends to make us look for some form of assurance. We want to know such trips will be possible in the future, for them and, down the line, for theirs.

Supposedly, that confidence has come in the form of new numeric standards for nutrient pollution in the state's lakes, springs and streams.

Don't let those dreary technical words stop you from reading. Either nitrogen or phosphorous, or both, are the main culprits in killing lakes and rivers and promoting the growth of algae that clogs Florida's springs.

There is no bigger problem with water — other than, maybe, the long-term shortage of it — in this state.

So environmentalists cheered in November when the federal Environmental Protection Agency announced new numbers.

Long overdue "speed limits" is what they were called by David Guest, a lawyer with Earthjustice, one of the environmental groups that had sued the EPA and forced the creation of these standards.

Then in March, when the EPA announced it was willing to back off imposing its own rules and let the state's approach apply, it was agricultural and industrial interests that were cheering. They probably cheered even harder recently, when Gov. Rick Scott signed a law that allowed this plan to be put into place.

Guest has no real quarrel with the standards for springs and lakes. The ones for rivers, though, are now more like speed suggestions, and Earthjustice plans to challenge them in court.

Say the nitrogen level in a river near a dairy exceeds the new limit, which in the case of the Withlacoochee is 1.54 parts per million. If the farmer can prove, for example, the river is supporting a healthy insect population, the numbers mean nothing, Guest said, and the farmer can still allow manure-tainted runoff to flow into the river.

"If you parse through (the state plan) you find that everything leads to an escape hatch," Guest said.

On the stretch of the Withlacoochee that my son and I paddled two Fridays ago — 10 miles to the gulf from the dam on the river that created Lake Rousseau — we saw a green tinge to the water that hadn't been there decades before, said John Fuchs, who lives on this stretch of river and is a member of Withlacoochee Area Residents Inc.

What we didn't see were bass. Nor did we see river grasses and other vegetation that support bass populations.

It's such a puzzling collection of symptoms that WAR has hired a well-known environmental scientist, Robert Knight, to study the problem.

Strange as it sounds, Knight said, the barren riverbed may be indirectly related to an excess of nutrients.

Whether or not the levels of nitrogen and phosphorous exceed state guidelines in Rousseau — and there's not enough data to know one way or another — there is definitely too much of these substances for the good of the lake. It's covered with water hyacinth and hydrilla that, if the river hadn't been dammed, would be controlled naturally by water flow and shady banks. Now the only available method is regularly spraying herbicides, which is a bad idea for a lot of reasons, Knight said, one of which is that it may have killed the river grasses downstream. Determining whether that has happened will be part of his study.

If the river is barren of grass, it's not barren of algae, which explains the green color of the water. That suggests the nitrogen level may be too high, even though it is well below the new guidelines.

WAR could still argue the river is polluted by nutrients based on this algae content, which is an example of why the state's willingness to look at factors other than nutrient numbers can lead to tougher enforcement, said Drew Bartlett, director of water pollution regulation for DEP.

"The door swings both ways," he said.

My guess, though, is that big polluters will have the money, influence and motivation to make sure it usually swings for them. Otherwise they wouldn't have cheered.

Sorry, son.

State's new nutrient standards may hold answer to river's future 06/07/13 [Last modified: Friday, June 7, 2013 10:01pm]

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