Presentation at the League of Women Voters Forum

By Linda L. Young

Clean Water Network of FL

March 29, 2012

OVERVIEW OF FLORIDA WATER QUALITY

ISSUES AND CHALLENGES 

Twelve years into the 21st Century the State of Florida continues to ignore science and lessons from the past with water policies that lead only to one outcome:

  1. Massive failure of fisheries within the state and in our surrounding oceans;
  2. Toxic algae overtaking our springs, lakes, streams and estuaries;
  3. Severe shortages of safe water for drinking, swimming and fishing;

In June 2011 an international panel of marine experts warned in a report that the world’s oceans are at risk of entering a phase of extinction of marine species “unprecedented in human history.”  Florida, a state surrounded by oceans is doing everything within its state powers to accelerate this unthinkable situation.  How?  Here are a few examples:

  1. Florida DEP has acknowledged for years that the state’s nutrient problems are widespread and serious.  The problem has troubled Florida water scientists since 1970 and they have documented increasing nutrient levels since the 1970’s.

“Freshwater harmful algal blooms (HABs) are increasing in frequency, duration, and magnitude and therefore may be a significant threat to surface drinking water resources and recreational areas. Abundant populations of blue-green algae, some of them potentially toxigenic, have been found statewide in numerous lakes and rivers.  In addition, measured concentrations of cyanotoxins – a few of them of above the suggested guideline levels – have been reported in finished water from some drinking water facilities.”  2008 FDEP report at 37 (AR005791).

Yet in spite of this acknowledgement (and others) the state is leading a legal battle to defeat any and all efforts to put meaningful legal limits on the discharge of nitrogen and phosphorous into our waters.  They are doing this in several ways:

  1. Numeric Nutrient Criteria – legal battles
  2. Impaired Waters Rule
  3. Clean Water Act permits that protect polluters and not our waters
    1. NPDES
    2. Wetlands
    3. Stormwater
  1. Numeric Nutrient Criteria – WHAT WILL IT DO FOR US?

The short answer is:  NOT MUCH!

STATE AND FEDERAL NUTRIENT CRITERIA:

  1. Do not apply to agricultural pollution at all;
  2. Do not require numeric limits on any urban stormwater pollution;
  3. Do not apply at the point of discharge into a stream or estuary from any pollution pipes;
  4. DO require that the criteria be a water-body wide annual geometric mean that must be exceeded two out of three years to cause a problem;
  5. Do provide numerous loopholes that make it easier to keep polluting instead of making needed improvements:
    1. SSACs
    2. Downgrade to designated uses
    3. Variances
    4. Long-term compliance schedules
  1. Impaired Waters Rule.  How does it work?
    1. Changes the definition of pollution so that polluted waters become miraculously “unimpaired”.
    2. Creates endless “hoops” that polluted waters must pass through before limits can be required.
    3. Creates false alternatives to real (measurable/enforceable) pollution limits.
    4. Contains dozens of ways to get polluted waters delisted.

Florida’s TMDL program is totally controlled by polluters.  They write the rules, they dictate what the few reductions that are required will be and they control the “volunteer” BMAPs.  Consequently, improvements are rare or non-existent.

  1.  Clean Water Act permits that protect polluters and not our waters
    1. NPDES – Georgia-Pacific is a perfect example of a major polluter that has been allowed to operate for years without the requirements of a CWA permit, to cause major destruction of a valuable resource and to put public health at risk.
    2. Wetlands – are not protected!
    3. Stormwater – MS4 permits are a joke.  A cruel joke.

The state has abdicated its authority to protect our waters to the politically powerful polluters that it purports to regulate.  The federal government refuses to stand up to the state and to enforce federal pollution laws.

The best and maybe only route to better protection of our waters is on the local level, and the state legislature is constantly taking away local power to protect our communities from pollution. A good example from the 2012 legislative session is the passage of HB 1263 with the bad septic tank language in it and which sets a very low ceiling on what can be done by localities on the septic tank issue.

It allows counties and municipalities to opt out of the program and specifically excludes drainfield problems from the definition of “system failure” and thereby precludes any requirement for a fix. The preemption in the bill is a sort of one-size-fits-all or smaller.  Localities can do what is in the bill… or they can do less.  But they cannot do anything that repeals, suspends, or alters the requirements or limitations of the bill.

A Florida Dept. of Health report estimates that 1.7 million septic tank systems in Florida date from before 1983 – and the passage of HB 1263 guarantees that many of them will not be inspected, even if local folks want to pass an ordinance because of nutrient pollution and threats to public health.

 


About the Author

Linda Young has been the executive director of the Clean Water Network of Florida since 1994. From 1989 to 1997, she founded and published a monthly statewide environmental newspaper. Over the past twenty three years, she has co-founded some of the most long-lasting and effective environmental organizations in the Southeast, including the Gulf Restoration Network, Gulf Coast Environmental Defense and C.A.T.E. She holds a B.A. in Communications from Southern Oregon University and a M.A. in Political Science/Campaign Management from the University of West Florida.



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