A Florida House panel yesterday made several major changes to a measure that would have blocked state and local governments from enforcing the EPA’s numeric nutrient criteria, water quality rules intended to crack down on high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus in Florida’s waterways.

The rules have drawn vocal opposition from industry and agricultural groups, which say they will be costly to implement.

The state Department of Environmental Protection has its own concerns with the nutrient criteria in their current form, but at an earlier committee hearing on the bill, department representative Jerry Brooks warned that if the legislature bars state and local governments from enforcing the rules entirely, the EPA could step in, which could lead to businesses seeking water quality permits from the federal government, according to the Florida Tribune.

A revised version of the measure creates a new classification system for waterways, and limits the prohibition on enforcing the rules to waterways where the rules would be “more stringent than necessary to protect the designated use,” according to a legislative staff analysis of the changes.

The measure’s sponsor, Rep. Trudi Williams, R-Fort Myers, said the changes were intended to satisfy concerns raised by the department and the governor’s office, and  that the classification system would allow the state to set priorities for cleaning up water bodies.

The bill would create seven levels of water quality for human use, beginning with waters clean enough for drinking water supplies, with waters reserved for “utility and industrial purposes” at the opposite end of the spectrum. The current system, mandated by the federal Clean Air Act, looks like this:

Class I: Potable Water Supplies

Class II: Shellfish Propagation or Harvesting

Class III: Recreation, Propagation and Maintenance of a Healthy, Well-Balanced Population of Fish and Wildlife

Class IV: Agricultural Water Supplies

Class V: Navigation, Utility, and Industrial Use

The bill would basically add two new levels for human contact between classes III and IV: “Protection of incidental contact and fish consumption” and “Contact limited or restricted due to unsafe conditions, protection of fish consumption.”

The classification system drew criticism from David Guest of Earthjustice, an environmental law firm that helped bring the lawsuit that led to the new EPA rules. He said the new categories in the bill would effectively sanction water too dirty for human contact.

“Instead of fixing the problem, it’s legalizing it,” he said.

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