A recent string of opinion columns proves just how intense the debate over new water rules proposed by the EPA have become in Florida.

The “numeric nutrient criteria” are currently mandated by the EPA, which has been calling on states to develop stringent measurements of nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen (which cause algal blooms and fish kills) since 1998. In January 2009, following a lawsuit in which a judge determined that the state of Florida was not meeting requirements in the Clean Water Act, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection committed to a deadline to establish numeric criteria in the state.

Despite an extended deadline, the department was unable to draft the criteria in time — forcing the EPA to step in and draft the criteria itself. Despite the fact that Florida is inundated with fish kills and algal blooms (which hurt the tourism, real estate and fishing industries), nearly every state lawmaker, agricultural interest and utility representative is now vehemently opposed to the criteria, and argues that the EPA is unnecessarily singling Florida out.

Ina recent op-ed, Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Ocala, defended a hearing on the criteria, which he sponsored in Orlando on Aug. 9. Stearns was heavily criticized for his failure to include environmental representatives in the hearing. Only one environmental advocate (Earthjustice attorney David Guest) was invited to the hearing, and several others were denied the opportunity to speak on the panel. The St. Johns Riverkeeper’s Neil Armingeon (a vocal proponent of the criteria) fired back at Stearns in a letter to the editor, published in The Florida Times-Union on Sunday.

“Unfortunately, most of Florida’s Congressional delegation has spent the summer misleading the public about the effectiveness and need for the Clean Water Act and important environmental safeguards,” writes Armingeon. “U.S. Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., is the latest to produce inaccurate and misleading information.”

As Armingeon points out, Stearns’ hearing (which aimed to evaluate the economic impacts of implementing the criteria) was a bit unnecessary. In fact, the National Academy of Sciences has been tasked with evaluating the economic impacts of the criteria, and they recently met — in Orlando, in late July.

“Shouldn’t the hearing have at a minimum explored the acute need for numeric nutrient criteria and, more importantly, the cost of doing nothing about Florida’s rapidly degrading environment?” asks Armingeon in his op-ed.

The Orlando Sentinel recently interviewed players from both sides of the issue: Rich Budell, director of the Florida Department of Agriculture’s Office of Agricultural Water Policy, and David Guest, the lead attorney in Florida for Earthjustice. The interview was much of the same, with Budell arguing that the criteria would end up costing agriculture (agricultural pollution dosn’t typically fall under the Clean Water Act) and Guest decrying such claims as “scare tactics.”

The rules are set to take effect in March 2012, but the opposition is likely to fight against them, tooth and nail, until then.

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