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Monday, June 24, 2024 | Back issues
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Florida Given the Reins Over Water Nutrients

TALLAHASSEE (CN) - Improvements to Florida's water nutrient standards justifies taking the reins from the Environmental Protection Agency, a federal judge ruled.

Florida's standards to control water pollution came into question for the EPA in 1998 as nitrogen and phosphorous contamination of the state's water steadily rose.

This reproach led the Florida Wildlife Federation and other environmental groups to sue the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency a decade later, claiming that the EPA had a nondiscretionary duty to adopt new nutrient standards.

In early 2009, the EPA determined that Florida needed a standard that used numeric nutrient criteria to meet the Clean Water Act's requirements.

Water-quality criteria can be numeric or narrative. The ruling explains the difference with a speed-limit analogy: 70 miles per hour is the numeric standard, don't drive too fast is the narrative standard. A combination of the two would read: don't drive over 70, and don't drive too fast for conditions.

With limited exceptions, Florida did not have numeric nutrient criteria, according to the ruling.

The EPA's determination obligated it to promptly propose and adopt a new standard, unless Florida did so first.

U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle entered a consent decree between the parties later that year that required the EPA to propose and adopt numeric nutrient criteria for lakes and flowing waters in one phase, and coastal and estuarine waters in the second. The decree left room for Florida to propose its own numeric criteria, subject to EPA approval.

The wastewater treatment, power generation and cattle-ranching industries, which contribute to nutrient contamination, complained that the standards were too harsh. Environmental organizations meanwhile claimed that the criteria did not do enough.

Eventually the Northern District of Florida in Tallahassee consolidated 13 complaints involving 25 parties. Judge Hinkle upheld most of the criteria on Feb. 18, 2012.

Some months later, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection submitted to the EPA for approval a set of nutrient criteria for all Florida waters.

Though the state agency's proposal included numeric criteria for lakes and springs, it proposed to govern other waters with narrative criteria that incorporated a quantitative approach. Those waters governed by narrative criteria would include South Florida streams and for marine lakes, tidally influenced streams, and conveyances primarily used for water-management purposes with marginal or poor stream habitat components.

Concluding that the proposed criteria met the requirements of the Clean Water Act, the agency gave them its approval and moved to modify the consent decree so that Florida's criteria can control across the board.

Judge Hinkle modified the consent decree Tuesday, finding it "suitably tailored to - indeed, a perfect match with - the changed circumstances.

"The decree is amended to exclude any requirement to adopt numeric downstream-protection criteria or numeric nutrient criteria for South Florida streams or for marine lakes, tidally influenced streams, or conveyances primarily used for water-management purposes with marginal or poor stream habitat components," Hinkle wrote.

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