A lawsuit-fueled four-year battle over safety and health standards for Florida waters inched toward a possible resolution in the Legislature Tuesday.
A House committee unanimously accepted a proposal by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to bypass stricter federal water pollution rules and instead apply its own state standards.
The proposal - which proponents say attempts to balance environmental concerns against additional burdens on businesses and homeowners - still must be approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and withstand a legal challenge from a statewide environmental advocacy group .
At issue is fertilizer runoff from farms and lawns combined with waste from old, faulty septic tanks. Those and other contaminants, such as sewage and manure, can lead to water with high levels of nitrogen and phosphorous, known as nutrients.
Waters with high nutrient levels can suffer permanent pollution and bloom enough toxic algae to harm wildlife and cause epidemics such as Red Tide.
"We can ask farms to implement best-management practices, but the real challenge today is urban runoff," said Rep. Matthew Caldwell, R-Lehigh Acres. "How do you regulate every single person's yard?"
Environmental groups say the current standards are weak, and the proposed changes would make them weaker. Even the Tampa Bay area, which has made more water restoration gains than most other parts of the state, sees yearly consequences.
As recently as August, a slimy, brown algae covered a large swath of Tampa Bay north of the Howard Frankland Bridge.
"If you see a brown, red spot where the water should be blue ... that's algae that consumes oxygen and kills fish" said Frank Jackalone, Florida staff director of the Sierra Club.
Earthjustice, which represents a coalition of environmental groups, has sued to block the proposed rules, saying they require that Florida waters reach a dangerous and potentially toxic level before they are deemed unsafe. A ruling is expected in March.
Another 2010 lawsuit filed by Attorney General Pam Bondi on behalf of the state is also pending. That suit contends that federal regulators are asking the state to do too much too soon to clean up Florida's waterways - to the possible peril of Florida businesses, local governments and utility companies that manage waste.
Tuesday's debate before the Agriculture and Natural Resources Subcommittee rang of an issue that has dragged on too long.
Environmental groups testified that the state's rules don't address downstream waters or adequately protect drinking waters.
Yet, the debate among lawmakers - who seemed determined to accept the proposal and move on - was short.
"When this issue first came up, I made the comment, 'How can we resolve this issue without succeeding from the union?'" said Rep. Rich Glorioso, R-Plant City. "We obviously found a way to do that."