By Adam H. Putnam
Special to The Sun
A ruling from an independent Administrative Law Judge last week in support of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) proposed water quality standards is the latest in a long line of affirmations that Florida is best positioned and most capable of managing the health of its own rivers, streams and coastal waters.
The health of Florida’s bodies of water is critical to the future of this state. Part of what makes Florida the ultimate tourist destination is its natural environment. Florida’s lakes and rivers offer endless family-friendly recreational opportunities for Florida’s residents.
Businesses — including energy production, real estate development and Florida’s $100 billion agriculture industry — rely on a high-quality water supply to support their operations. For these and many other reasons, Florida is committed to protecting and restoring its lakes, springs, rivers and streams.
Florida’s efforts to protect its bodies of water do not come without significant challenges, however. Nutrients, like nitrogen and phosphorus, can impact the quality of Florida waters. Though nutrients can be harmful in excessive amounts, they are natural and necessary for healthy waters.
The situation is further complicated by the diversity of Florida’s bodies of water, which vary greatly in size, shape and environmental surroundings. A one-size-fits-all approach is not an option.
Florida’s proposed water quality standards not only take these unique characteristics into account, but also adopt a scientific approach proven to measurably benefit the health of Florida’s water bodies. Florida’s water standards are the culmination of two decades of data analysis and critical discussion by some of the finest scientists in Florida.
The methodology used by DEP to derive the standards was embraced by the National Academy of Sciences and resulted in the most comprehensive set of water quality standards ever proposed by any state in the nation. They represent a sophisticated rationale to analyze and rank Florida’s water bodies so that time and resources will result in measurable benefit and environmental protection.
The standards were unanimously adopted by Florida’s Environmental Regulatory Commission and approved by the state Legislature. Currently, the standards are awaiting the approval of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as an alternative to EPA’s own proposal, developed by judicial decree rather than through scientific approach.
In contrast to Florida’s water standards, EPA’s numeric nutrient criteria, proposed in 2010, were not based on sound science and would have cost Floridians billions of dollars to implement, without an equivalent benefit. In partnership with Attorney General Pam Bondi, I filed a complaint in federal court challenging the rule and, in February this year, the U.S. District Court found that EPA’s rules were overly restrictive and unnecessary to protect Florida’s streams.
Florida’s commitment to restoring and protecting its water bodies is not only demonstrated by its proposed standards, but also by its strong track record. Florida has placed substantial emphasis on the monitoring and assessment of its waters and, as a result, has collected significantly more water quality data than any other state.
Florida leads the nation in the implementation of advanced wastewater treatment techniques and technology and in non-point source surface water resource protection and restoration programs for both urban and agricultural land use. Even the EPA has previously acknowledged that Florida has developed and implemented some of the most progressive nutrient management strategies in the nation.
Florida has also made significant progress in nutrient reduction, leading to notable successes in water resource restoration. Examples range from Tampa Bay, where sea grasses have returned to levels not seen since the 1950s and now cover 30,000 acres, to the Everglades Agricultural Area, where phosphorous levels have been reduced by 79 percent.
I urge EPA to consider the recent ruling by the Administrative Law Judge, as well as the U.S. District Court’s opinion and EPA’s own acknowledgement of Florida’s strong capabilities to manage water resources, and approve Florida’s water quality standards in their entirety. EPA’s approval will allow Florida to assume its right to exercise the authority envisioned by the Clean Water Act to develop and implement its own water quality standards through an EPA-approved and predictable process governed by existing state law and accountable to the taxpayers.
An issue so critical to Florida’s future must be addressed on the state level, where a proven track record, a scientific approach and measurable outcomes will protect Florida’s water resources for generations to come.
Adam H. Putnam is Florida Commissioner of Agriculture.