Column: Defend our waters against the polluters

Published December 1 2014
Updated December 1 2014

Tampa Bay and all of its connected streams and tributaries are a vital resource for Florida, providing clean drinking water and drawing millions of visitors each year to the area who seek outdoor activities such as canoeing, sailing and bird watching. What's more, large waterways, like the Hillsborough and Manatee rivers, as well as smaller ones, like Salt Creek and Booker Creek, support hundreds of small businesses that help Floridians explore the outdoors.

Yet far too many of the streams and wetlands that flow into Tampa Bay, and others across the state, are no longer guaranteed protection under the Clean Water Act due to a loophole created by a pair of polluter-driven lawsuits nearly a decade ago. Developers can build over these wetlands. Power plants and pulp mills can dump pollution into these streams. And the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency cannot do a thing about it.

We've already experienced what a lack of protection will do to our waterways: Discharges from Lake Okeechobee devastated the Indian River Lagoon, manatees died at unprecedented levels likely due to red algae blooms, and only a fifth of our waters in Florida met basic water quality standards when tested by the EPA.

Curbing this tide of toxic pollution will take many steps. But there is one piece of the solution that is standing squarely before us right now: We must restore the protections of the Clean Water Act to all of Florida's waters.

The loophole in the act leaves vulnerable the wetlands and streams that feed into the Tampa Bay watershed, along with its many rivers and tributaries popular for paddling, sailing and fishing.

And that leaves businesses like Carolina Mike's Kayaking Adventures in Safety Harbor more vulnerable, too. It rents kayaks and works with schools, nonprofits and businesses to conduct educational eco-tours throughout Tampa Bay. Serving hundreds of customers each year, Carolina Mike's Kayaking Adventures depends entirely upon the health of Tampa Bay and the rivers and streams in the region that feed into it.

Moreover, it is not just water-based businesses that suffer from water pollution. Every business and member of the community depends on clean drinking water.

Fortunately, in March, the EPA proposed a rule to close this loophole that previously left 15,000 miles of Florida's streams, and more than half our streams across the country, open to pollution.

A broad coalition of clean water advocates, farmers, mayors, small businesses and more than 800,000 Americans have heralded the EPA move. However, agribusinesses, oil and gas companies and other polluters affected by the rule have waged a bitter campaign against it. In September, the U.S. House approved a bill, HR 5078, to block the new commonsense rule. Many Florida representatives proudly voted against this bill, but it passed in the House.

So will the Senate stop this dirty water attack?

The answer might well depend on Sen. Bill Nelson. We know that the senator shares our concern for Florida's waters. Now, we need him to stand up for places like Tampa Bay by defending against this polluter-driven attack.

Floridians depend on clean water to enjoy and to drink. Businesses like Carolina Mike's Kayaking Adventures depend on clean water to make a living. If we want places like Tampa Bay, the Hillsborough River and waterways across the state to be clean for future Floridians, we need to do everything we can to foster a vibrant, healthy economy and high quality of life for generations to come.

Jennifer Rubiello is the field organizer for Environment Florida, a citizen-supported environmental advocacy group that is working toward a cleaner, greener, healthier future. Mike Berthold is the owner of Carolina Mike's Kayaking Adventures and Wet Dog Adventures based in Tampa Bay. They wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.