EPA brushes State rulemakers aside, will set nutrient standards for Florida waterways

Update:  EPA has extended the comment period on the proposed standards for Florida waters until April 28, 2010.

On January 26, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed water quality standards to protect Florida’s waters. The proposed action would set a series of numeric limits on the amount of phosphorus and nitrogen, also known as “nutrients,” that would be allowed in Florida’s lakes, rivers, streams, springs and canals. Major sources of phosphorus and nitrogen pollution include farm operations, particularly fertilizer use and livestock wastes, as well as stormwater runoff and municipal wastewater treatment.

The EPA action was initiated after the federal agency entered into a 2009 consent decree with the Florida Wildlife Federation to propose limits to this pollution.  The consent decree committed EPA to proposing numeric nutrient standards for lakes and flowing waters in Florida by January 2010, and for estuarine and coastal waters by January 2011.  EPA also agreed to establish final standards by October 2010 for lakes and flowing waters and by October 2011 for estuarine and coastal waters.

By some accounts, the consent agreement and subsequent EPA action came as a result of perception of some environmental advocacy groups that the State of Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) was dragging its feet in developing the necessary standards. Strong opposition to a potential “one size fits all” set of standards has been voiced from the industry side, due to the variety and complexity of surface water systems in the state, and the likely difficulty that key industry sectors in Florida, like agriculture, will face in achieving targeted nutrient pollution levels. (Fellow residents of South Florida who have ever swallowed a mouthful of local drainage canal water after a water-skiing slip can attest to the “impaired quality” of these water bodies.)

As a nod to the specific challenges to nutrient pollution control faced in Florida, the proposed EPA action also seeks comment on a new regulatory process for setting standards in a manner that drives water quality improvements in already impaired waters. The proposed new regulatory provision, called restoration standards, would be specific to nutrients in the state of Florida.

For more on the proposed rule, visit www.epa.gov/waterscience/standards/rules/florida/.