Phosphorus and nitrogen, known as nutrients because they nourish plants, enter lakes, rivers, streams, springs and canals from fertilization of crops and livestock manure, stormwater runoff and municipal wastewater treatment. Nitrogen also forms from the burning of fossil fuels, like gasoline.
The proposed action, developed with state environmental officials, was released for public comment Friday, meeting a court ordered deadline in a case brought by five environmental groups.
The standards would set a series of numeric limits on the amounts of phosphorus and nitrogen that would be allowed in Florida's surface waters.
Nutrient pollution can damage drinking water sources and form byproducts in drinking water from disinfection chemicals, some of which have been linked with serious human illnesses like bladder cancer, the EPA said in a statement announcing the proposed action.
These nutrients increase harmful algal blooms, which are made of toxic microbes that can cause damage to the human nervous system or even death, the agency said.
Alligators in the Everglades covered with green algae (Photo by Andrey Sukhanov)
Nutrient problems can lead to degraded lakes, reservoirs, and estuaries, and to hypoxic dead zones where aquatic life can no longer survive. High amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus in surface water can kill fish, and reduce fish mating grounds and nursery habitats. Many studies have shown that high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus in agricultural runoff and stormwater from expanding urban areas is unraveling the fabric of the Greater Everglades ecosystem.
"New water quality standards, developed in collaboration with the state, will help protect and restore inland waters that are a critical part of Florida's history, culture and economic prosperity," said Peter Silva, assistant administrator for the EPA's Office of Water.
In the final week of the Bush administration, on January 14, 2009, the EPA made a determination that numeric nutrient water quality standards in Florida were necessary to meet the requirements of the Clean Water Act.
EPA determined that Florida's existing "narrative criteria" on nutrients in water was not sufficient to ensure protection of the state's water bodies.
The determination stated EPA's intent to propose numeric nutrient standards for lakes and flowing waters in Florida within 12 months and for estuaries and coastal waters within 24 months.
In addition, on August 19, 2009, the U.S. EPA entered into a consent decree to settle a lawsuit filed by five environmental groups - the Florida Wildlife Federation, Sierra Club, Conservancy of Southwest Florida, Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida, and St. Johns Riverkeeper - alleging that the EPA "failed to perform a non-discretionary duty to set numeric nutrient criteria for the State of Florida as required by the Clean Water Act."
St. Johns Riverkeeper Neil Armingeon said, "Excessive amounts of nutrients going into the St. Johns are making the river sick, as evidenced by last summer's extensive algal blooms."
"The EPA was forced to develop the pollution limits, because the Florida Department of Environmental Protection had failed to adequately address this significant pollution problem after having nearly 11 years to do so," Armingeon said.
"While there will be some debate about whether the standards are too stringent or don't go far enough, this represents a very important step forward for the St. Johns River."
But the Florida Farm Bureau Federation, which contested the legal action as an intervenor, says the proposed numeric nutrient standards will damage the state's fragile economic recovery.
"These regulations are a top concern for FFBF," Florida Farm Bureau President John Hoblick said Friday.
"A coalition of concerned organizations is urging citizens to contact their elected representatives in Tallahassee and in Washington to alert them that this federal action is unacceptable," said Hoblick, whose organization represents 143,000 member families.
The FFBF and other state growers' associations along with cattlemen, pulp and paper and stormwater organizations argued before the court and still maintain that the consent decree is "unreasonable and contrary to the public interest."
They argue that the economic downturn has hit Florida hard and additional major costs for nutrient treatment for local government, Florida agriculture, or Florida business "may affect the economic recovery of the state economy and employment in the state."
"Additional costs placed on Florida dischargers, which are not placed on equivalent dischargers in other states, may affect the ability of Florida to compete and attract new businesses and jobs," they maintain.
The legal argument filed with the court by the business groups quotes a Florida Tax Watch researcher who said, "Florida, experiencing some of the worst economic conditions in the nation, is not the place to experiment with expensive new requirements, particularly when they are not applied in other parts of the country or in neighboring states."
A 2008 Florida Department of Environmental Protection report assessing water quality for Florida showed that about 1,000 miles of rivers and streams, 350,000 acres of lakes and 900 square miles of estuaries are not meeting the state's water quality standards because of excess nutrients.
These waters amount to 16 percent of Florida's assessed river and stream miles, 36 percent of assessed lake acres and 25 percent of assessed estuary square miles.
The EPA says the actual number of miles and acres of waters impaired for nutrients is likely higher, as there are waters that have not yet been assessed.
The EPA's proposed action also introduces and seeks comment on a new regulatory process for setting standards in a manner that drives water quality improvements in already impaired waters. The proposed new regulatory provision, called restoration standards, would be specific to nutrients in the state of Florida.
The next step is the public comment period. The EPA will hold three public hearings in Florida:
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