A great deal of misinformation is being circulated about efforts by water management districts, numerous cities and counties, industries and utilities throughout Florida in response to efforts by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to impose arbitrary nutrient standards for nitrogen and phosphorus in Florida waters.
The dispute has been characterized by some as an agricultural issue. The concern is far broader than that, affecting industries, local governments and other agencies in their ongoing programs to restore the quality of Florida's waters.
What is not in dispute is that Florida's agricultural producers and other parties concerned about the proposed federal action have long been active supporters of state efforts to establish science-based standards to address nutrient issues in our waters. Florida's program to develop and implement water body specific "total maximum daily loads" has been described as a model approach to achieve restoration by the National Science Foundation. And agricultural "best management practices" implemented throughout the state to comply with those standards already restrict the amount of fertilizer used on farms and ranches.
Moreover, Florida is recognized as a national leader in aggressively implementing permitting and stormwater management programs. These programs have dramatically limited nutrient discharges into lakes and rivers, and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection has spent tens of millions of dollars in the last decade evaluating the quality of Florida's surface waters so that measures relying on sound science can be put into place to further reduce pollution.
Yet the EPA, in an effort to settle a lawsuit brought against it by Earthjustice, is proposing to pre-empt DEP's science-based approach to cleaning up our water bodies by imposing arbitrary numeric nutrient standards on numerous lakes, streams and water bodies throughout Florida.
No other state is being asked to accept similar arbitrary regulatory action by the federal government, and there is widespread scientific disagreement as to what the appropriate standards should be or whether the new standards are even attainable.
There is, however, general agreement that imposing those standards would carry a hefty price tag — millions and possibly billions of dollars — that would be borne by citizens and businesses alike as Florida is attempts to recover from an 11 percent unemployment rate and the widespread economic effects of the current recession.
Local governments and the taxpayers would be hit particularly hard to pay for changes to public utilities and drainage facilities. Palm Beach County utility companies estimate it would cost them $125 million in improvements to store reclaimed water. Panhandle utilities have preliminarily calculated that the capital costs of increased wastewater treatment could range from $4 to $8 a gallon.
From a public safety standpoint, it is unclear whether the EPA proposal would enable Florida to continue its longstanding practice of doing prescribed burning to reduce the threat of wildfires. Long recognized by professional land managers and conservationists alike as vital to protect lives, property and wildlife, burning the underbrush that contributes to the spread of wildfires inevitably sends pollutants into the air, and some of them settle in or around bodies of water.
Agricultural producers would be affected, and perhaps many of our locally grown foods could be replaced by food coming from offshore sources whose safety standards are far more lax than ours.
The sensible solution is to allow DEP to continue developing through a transparent public process science-based nutrient standards that consider the unique qualities of Florida's waters. A decision between two parties that rushes this process to an arbitrary conclusion, fails to consider the extensive scientific data and water quality expertise that Florida possesses, and arrives without open public discussion, is not the way to address this important issue.
Charles Bronson is the Florida commissioner of agriculture.