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Gwen Keyes Fleming

Cleaning up Florida's waters

For years, the people of Florida have watched as many waterways once used for fishing, swimming and other everyday activities developed a coating of green sludge.

The majority of Florida's impaired waters are affected by nitrogen and phosphorous pollution — carried by stormwater runoff from urbanized areas, discharges from wastewater treatment plants and fertilizer runoff from farms. What helps plants thrive on land causes harmful algae blooms when it reaches the water.

These blooms have made residents sick, caused property values to plummet and turned tourists away from the state's treasured waters. To ensure the future health of Florida's residents and economy, EPA is setting clear, measurable standards to reduce pollution in Florida's treasured water bodies.

Just three months ago we announced that we would take sensible steps to implement these standards and use a 15-month period before the standards take effect to sit down with state and local leaders and water utilities to make sure we are all prepared to achieve these objectives.

These standards are not without their opponents, including many who claim that improved clean water standards will be too expensive and harm Florida's economy. In fact, the reverse is true.

Less than 10 percent of Florida's farmland would need to be treated and the technology needed is already available. Expensive new technology is not required or necessary to keep our waters clean. But, if we fail to put the technology we have to use, the problem will only expand to more of Florida's waters. While the EPA is doing its best to address confusion and misinformation, we are more focused on the cooperation needed to protect our waters.

We must find common ground because poor water quality directly affects not only public health and the environment, but also tourism and jobs. Florida's tourism industry — the state's No. 1 industry — employs nearly 1 million Floridians and pumps billions into the state's economy each year.

In an average year, tourists spend more than $60 billion in the state — generating thousands upon thousands of jobs as well more than $3 billion in taxes.

Many of these tourists come to Florida to fish, boat and ride water scooters. But if pollution kills aquatic life and makes the waters unclean and unsafe, fewer tourists will come. Floridians will not just lose one of their most precious natural resources, but also the dollars and jobs generated by a cornerstone of the statewide economy.

On top of the importance of clean water to Florida's jobs and economy, the state will also benefit as cleaner water reduces health threats to Florida families. The green sludge now polluting the waters where children play and families fish can cause rashes, dizziness, upset stomachs and possibly even damage the central nervous system. The numeric nutrient standards will also improve the quality of rivers, lakes, streams and springs that are used to supply drinking water.

These economic and health benefits far outweigh the costs associated with having clean water. EPA estimates the cost to address additional waters listed as impaired will be $135 million to $206 million a year — just 11 to 20 cents a day per household for cleaner water.

That's a small price to pay to improve health and protect the economy, and it's exactly what the people of Florida have been calling for. In developing these safeguards, EPA incorporated the input we received from 13 public hearings across the state and 22,000 public comments. We also ensured that the best available science was the foundation for these standards and that implementation would be flexible and cost-effective.

Science also tells us that these standards are the right move for Florida. EPA carefully analyzed all the available science, including extensive water quality data gathered by the state, which took into account Florida's diverse water bodies. Contrary to public statements, EPA's rules did undergo an independent science review.

Recognizing that this is not a one-size-fits-all challenge, we have provided flexibility in meeting the standards, allowing local areas to determine how they can best protect their own waters. We are also offering guidance to help cities and towns tailor the standards according to their local needs and implement them effectively and efficiently.

Floridians have been working for years to make clean water a reality in the state. Florida's communities depend on — and want — clean and safe water. Improved clean water standards will help prevent expensive cleanup costs, protect the health of Florida's families and preserve the waters that support the state's economy.

Gwen Keyes Fleming is the Environmental Protection Agency's regional administrator for the Southeast.

Cleaning up Florida's waters 02/07/11 [Last modified: Monday, February 7, 2011 7:24pm]
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