An algal bloom in the Caloosahatchee River in 2005 (Pic by Florida Water Coalition)

Though environmentalists have argued that Florida’s version of a set of federally mandated water pollution rules is inadequate, the state Department of Environmental Protection is defending its rules, saying they offer more provisions, and more protection, than those drafted by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The so-called “numeric nutrient criteria” are the result of a 2008 lawsuit brought by environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and the St. Johns Riverkeeper, which led to a federal mandate from the EPA requiring Florida to create stricter water rules.

Though the EPA planned to establish and implement the Florida-specific standards, the agency recently acceded to demands from industry leaders and lawmakers, many of whom have argued that Florida should develop its own rules. The Department of Environmental Protection’s version of the nutrient criteria were unanimously approved by a state Environmental Resource Commission last week, much to the chagrin of state environmental groups.

“Essentially, if you look at the numbers in EPA’s rule and the numbers in DEP’s rule, they are the same,” says Drew Bartlett, the director of the state’s Division of Environmental Assessment and Restoration and its resident expert on the nutrient criteria. “The main difference is that we included a lot more provisions and language that explains how everyone needs to implement the criteria. We want to make sure everyone knows what to do, to make sure the waterbeds are protected.”

Environmentalists say the state’s version of the rules are poor, and only acknowledges pollution after it has degraded water bodies. Bartlett disagrees, saying his department includes provisions that will help detect trends in nutrient pollution, something the EPA did not include.

“We also included a biological assessment, so that we can evaluate nutrient concentrations as well as the biological conditions of a waterbody,” he says. “Some might argue that we’re only double-checking whether or not there’s a nutrient problem, but I would counter that the biological assessment ensures that you don’t miss any nutrient pollution.”

“There are a lot of checks and balances,” says Bartlett, who calls the state’s rules “absolutely more comprehensive” than those drawn up by the EPA.

As for whether these standards were “rushed” — drawn up quickly to get them out in front of the federal version — Bartlett defends the department’s actions.

“We’ve been working on these standards since 2002, when we put a technical advisory committee in place,” he says. “Eventually, we formed a second technical advisory committee and we’ve held numerous meetings over the years, with no shortage of scientific input. … And really we are trying to get them in place before EPA’s mandatory deadline. We need to get them adopted, so that we can use them.”

Who exactly will be affected by the rules is still somewhat unknown — as is the cost of implementation. Because nutrients come from several sources (including neighborhood lawn maintenance, industry effluent and agriculture, just to name a few), the criteria will likely affect everyone.

“The unique thing about nutrients is that they occur simply because society exists — so where you have agriculture producing food for society, households in which people living, waste that is treated through septic tanks, neighborhoods with lawns … all those activities can add up to excess nutrients in the waterbody,” says Bartlett. “So basically, as we look at the waterbodies themselves, we would turn to the entities within that watershed” (i.e. utilities, neighborhoods, industries responsible for any effluent) ”to see what changes could be made.”

The Department of Environmental Protection currently estimates the cost of compliance to be between $50 and $130 million per year, a different figure than one widely touted by the EPA. Last year, the EPA estimated costs for its own set of criteria to be around $130 million, a figure disputed by both industry and the state department. During a River Summit held in Jacksonville last year, one state representative said that the department estimated the federal version to cost somewhere between $5 and $8 billion.

“The cost figures for EPA’s rules were higher,” says Bartlett. “We include so many provisions, certainty and speed by which they get implemented and we recognize that it won’t cost as much to implement them.”

The rules will next require legislative ratification — a simple “nod or shake,” says Bartlett, that shouldn’t bring about any significant changes to the rules — and then EPA approval.

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