Floridians who banked on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to protect the state's waters have a right to be disappointed. The agency appears to have capitulated again by approving this month the state's request to lower standards for water bodies too polluted or physically altered to be redeemed in a "cost effective" way. The true impact remains to be seen, but this puts a new weapon into the hands of the environmental wrecking crew in Tallahassee.
Florida's current standards divide the state's waterways into five categories, from Class I, for drinking water, down to Class V, or water for industrial use. Under federal law, no one is supposed to pollute the waterways to the point that any is downgraded from one class to the next. Most of Florida's water bodies are designated Class III, safe for swimming and fishing. The EPA approved the state's request to create a subcategory, Class III-Limited, which is aimed at waterways the state says are not worth the time or expense to clean up.
The rule change was years in the making, and to a degree it addressed a legitimate concern about maintaining the quality of man-made canals and other small water bodies that lacked the aquatic diversity of a natural, thriving ecosystem. But the EPA will give Florida wide latitude to define what Class III water bodies are fit to be downgraded to the new subcategory. The state would determine a waterway's highest use and whether it was feasible to restore a water body to its original condition. Waters that would be relegated to Class III-Limited status would not be allowed to deteriorate further or harm any waters downstream.
The EPA downplayed the move, insisting it is in keeping with the federal Clean Water Act and noting it must approve any downgrade. The agency said it merely hoped to give Florida "flexibility" to apply standards to water bodies that were already compromised.
But the proof of the agency's judgment is still to come as it oversees the implementation of the new subcategory. At best, Washington has written off an unknown number of waterways and lessened the imperative for environmental restoration. And it sent a terrible sign to heavy polluters and their enablers in state government who have long appeared more interested in saving money than being good stewards of the water resources all Floridians own. Floridians are right to wonder how much faith they can put in the EPA long term when it gives up so much at the outset.