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Friday, Sep 19, 2014
Editorials

Get moving on nutrient cleanup

Staff
Published:   |   Updated: March 19, 2013 at 12:47 AM

Nothing is more critical to the state's appeal and economic prospects than clean water. But with pollution apparent throughout the state, safeguards obviously need to be tougher.

Such fabled rivers as the Silver and Santa Fe are suffering smothering algae blooms due to too many nutrients washing into the waterways. The algae in the Caloosahatchee River near Fort Myers became so acute that a drinking-water plant with 30,000 customers stopped production.

The threat is serious, but what's important now is action, not more squabbling between environmental groups and the business and agricultural industries.

Environmentalists may be correct that the water-quality rules prepared by the state's Department of Environmental Protection are inadequate, but the standards do look to be an improvement over the status quo. DEP's rules should be adopted, closely monitored and revised if they fail to achieve the promised results.

The nutrient-pollution issue has been tied up in litigation for years. Environmentalists accused the state of failing to enforce the federal Clean Water Act. They have been successful in demanding that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency develop its own rules to clean up "impaired" waters.

EPA's resulting "numeric nutrient criteria" outraged farmers and industries, who protested the cleanup costs would put them out of business. Some of the opponents' claims were wildly exaggerated; some cleanup estimates were based on the cost of purifying water with reverse osmosis.

The EPA revised its effort but still met resistance, despite its assurances it would work with affected parties to minimize costs.

The state developed its own standards, which were approved by state lawmakers and Gov. Rick Scott and submitted to the EPA for approval. The agency has yet to act.

Environmentalists say in many cases DEP would not establish nutrient standards for a water body until an algae outbreak occurs. They want the EPA to reject the state rules and impose its own.

DEP officials counter that their standards are designed to address the diverse geology and ecology throughout the state. A certain nutrient level in one water body may be harmless but cause smelly, fish-killing "green slime" algae in another.

Drew Bartlett, director of the DEP's Division of Environmental Assessment and Restoration, says the state has the same basic numeric safeguards as EPA, but by including algae criteria, it actually strengthens water protections.

This approach allows the state to track a body of water's biological health and algae growth, not simply look at nutrient levels. Even if the nutrient numbers are not exceeded, the DEP can take action if algae levels start going up or biological harm is found.

Of course, the real test will be whether the state moves aggressively to control discharges and develop nutrient-control strategies throughout a watershed when the first sign of trouble appears in a river or lake.

The environmentalists have cause to be skeptical about the vigilance of a state in which about half of the rivers and more than half of the lakes have poor water quality. Indifferent lawmakers have even taken steps to block local fertilizer ordinances, one of the simplest, most economical ways to reduce runoff.

Yet the state now has a plan that is not drastically different than EPA's, is supported by the governor and lawmakers and looks to be accepted by industry, whose cooperation will be necessary for effective cleanup plans.

It is instructive that a few years ago a regional task force with representatives from local governments, industries and regulators developed realistic and science-based nutrient rules for the areas surrounding Tampa Bay.

Such progress can be achieved where there is trust and cooperation. That is more likely if the nutrient rules are viewed as a state and local effort and not dictated by Washington.

Another prolonged legal battle won't help our waters. It's better to give Scott's DEP a chance to prove its cleanup strategy is as effective as advertised and hold it responsible if it is not.

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