Cleaning up Florida's water, finally

Published Dec. 27, 2012

The new water standards recently announced by the federal government finally should mark a new era in cleaning up Florida's polluted lakes, streams and coastal areas. For the first time in 14 years, the state and the federal government are on the same page in committing to curb the nutrient runoff from farms, homes, utilities and big business that chokes the waterways, damages the drinking water supply, and harms public health and the economy. Federal officials must press the state to follow through on its obligations and resist any political pressure to pull back. But the announcement is a big step toward transforming a courtroom battle into a cleanup effort.

The Environmental Protection Agency has approved new state rules aimed at limiting the pollution from nitrogen and phosphorus entering the state's waterways. The nutrients spew from farms and cattle operations, dairy plants, golf courses, homes and industrial sources into streams, lakes and estuaries. They spark toxic algae blooms that foul the water supply, cause rashes and respiratory problems among swimmers and boaters, kill fish and damage public and private property.

The federal government told the states in 1998 to devise clean-up standards or it would do the job for them. The announcement several days ago could bring an end to more than a decade of foot-dragging by both sides. The EPA approved the state's limits for some estuaries and inland waters and said it would develop federal standards for the remaining waterways by next fall. The federal agency, though, said it would work with Florida over the next year to give the state another chance to write statewide criteria of its own. And the EPA announced it would give Florida latitude in addressing a fix for downstream pollution.

Environmental advocates hailed the announcement as a victory for public health and a vindication of a robust federal role in moving Florida and other states to address long-standing pollution problems. This should force the big polluters and their Republican allies in Tallahassee to switch from characterizing this as a states' rights issue and overstating the cost of clean water to actually devising a plan in concert with Washington to protect the public and the state's economy.

The EPA will need to hang tough. Republican state leaders have shown they intend to do the minimum required by the Clean Water Act and the federal courts to preserve the natural resources so essential to growth, tourism and the commercial fisheries. The EPA made clear it reserved the right to move ahead with its own antipollution standards should the state show bad faith. The agency needs to back up that promise by ensuring over the coming year that Florida moves to adopt meaningful standards for protecting inland and coastal waterways.

This is a major step in placing new limits on the level of pollution in the state's water bodies. And Florida's experience will be something of a model as the EPA works with other states to develop comprehensive water cleanup campaigns. The state will need to follow through with money and tighter regulations to begin reversing the damage. And the EPA will need to ensure that the state's cleanup targets meet the spirit of the Clean Water Act. Florida's future depends on it.