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 — caused by stormwater runoff from urbanized areas, discharges from wastewater treatment plants and fertilizer runoff from farms.
In 2008, the EPA determined that measurable limits on discharges of nutrients, known as numeric criteria, are necessary to meet the requirements of the Clean Water Act and reduce nutrient pollution in Florida's treasured water bodies. We set in motion a process to develop these standards, making clear that our strong preference was for the state to move forward on its own. When Florida did not act, the EPA issued standards in 2010.
Last week, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection proposed its own rule establishing numeric criteria for nitrogen and phosphorous pollution in Florida's springs, lakes, streams and estuaries. If adopted by the state Legislature in its current form, this rule will allow the EPA to withdraw its federal criteria for the same waters. Rather than focus on the merit of the state's proposed pollution limits, a St. Petersburg Times' Nov. 4 editorial accused the EPA of "rewarding Florida for dragging its feet on cleaning up dirty waters." Nothing could be further from the truth.
The Clean Water Act envisions — and the EPA agrees — that states should have the primary role in establishing and implementing water quality standards for their waters, allowing them to innovate and respond to local water quality needs. These standards must meet the requirements of the act, but they need not be identical to standards the EPA would adopt on its own.
The FDEP's proposed standards, in our judgment, meet this test. They rely heavily on the uniquely rich water quality database built by the state of Florida and build on the scientific analysis supporting the EPA standards. Although they do not mirror all aspects of the federal standards, the FDEP's criteria for springs are identical to the EPA's standards and are very similar for lakes.
The FDEP's proposed criteria for estuaries are based on methodologies similar to what the EPA has been using in developing its own criteria. The FDEP's numeric criteria for streams are very close to the EPA's criteria but will be applied in combination with biological information. Although the EPA did not adopt this approach, we believe it is reasonable to factor in site-specific information.
The EPA's evaluation of the state's proposed rule, as written, indicates that it meets the requirements of the Clean Water Act. The agency cautioned that posture could change if the rule or related documents used by the state are weakened as the rule is considered and potentially amended before adoption.
Florida is only the second state in the country to propose numeric criteria for all its waters, and we commend the FDEP. If adopted, the state's proposed rules will limit nutrient pollution, help protect the health of all Floridians and also preserve Florida's greatest asset — clean water — and the prosperity and jobs that go with it.
Gwendolyn Keyes Fleming is regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency's southeast region.