EPA Finalizes Florida Numeric Water Quality Standards, Delays Implementation 15 Months

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TAMPA, Fla.--The Environmental Protection Agency Nov. 15 announced it had finalized a rule to set specific numeric limits on phosphorous and nitrogen pollution in Florida's lakes, rivers, streams, and springs.

EPA, however, said it would delay implementation of the rule by 15 months to give affected parties “a full opportunity” to review the standards and to develop compliance strategies, EPA Region 4 said in a written statement.

The agency is to issue standards for Florida estuaries and coastal waters by August 2012 (109 DEN A-6, 6/9/10).

The goal of the “flowing waters” rule is to reduce algae blooms caused by phosphorous and nitrogen pollution from fertilizer, stormwater, and wastewater, EPA said. It added the nutrients impaired approximately 1,918 miles of rivers and streams, 378,435 acres of lakes, and 569 square miles of estuaries in the state. The rulemaking meets the terms of a November 2009 consent decree requiring EPA to develop numeric nutrient standards for Florida waters over the next two years (Florida Wildlife Federation v. Johnson, N.D. Fla., No. 4:08-CV-324, 11/16/09; 220 DEN A-8, 11/18/09).

The 168-page final rule replaces the state's narrative water-quality standards, which EPA said were too general and difficult to apply.

Davina Marraccini, a Region 4 spokeswoman, told BNA the water quality rule was the first time EPA established statewide numeric nutrient criteria.

Cost Debate.

A number of state officials, members of Congress, and Florida Governor-elect Rick Scott (R), as well as business and other groups, have strongly opposed the rule, citing its costs and their impact on the state's economy. Among the issues were widely varying projections on the overall dollar cost (218 DEN A-8, 11/15/10).

EPA said it estimated the annual cost at between $135 million and $206 million, assuming waste water treatment plants discharging to impaired inland waters may need to install advanced treatment, but not reverse osmosis, and that agriculture operations would need to implement a range of state-recommended best management practices to address impaired waters.

Opponents have maintained the agency's projection was far too low, saying it could be as great as $8.4 billion annually for the next 30 years.

EPA countered that it believes such cost estimates “substantially” overstated both the number of nitrogen and phosphorous pollution sources that may be affected by the rule and the types of treatment that may be required to meet the rule.

Ryan Banfill, a spokesman for Don't Tax Florida, a coalition of Florida business, municipal, and political leaders who oppose the rule, disagreed.

“We are reviewing the final rule and continue to have deep concerns about this costly water mandate from the federal government. This water edict from the EPA is an unprecedented federal action on a state. Florida is being treated differently than the other 49 states. Every analysis done on this issue (except the EPA's) shows this mandate will cost Florida's employers and families billions of dollars--with utility costs skyrocketing,” Banfill told BNA in an e-mail.

“It's important to remember that while the implementation of the federal water mandates may be delayed, the immediate compliance costs won't be,” Banfill said.

EPA to 'Work Closely’ With State.

EPA said that during the 15-month period before the numeric standards take effect it would “work closely” with the state to determine the next steps needed to achieve the objectives of the standards.

“The standards do not take a 'one-size-fits-all’ approach, but reflect conditions in five different watershed regions and allow for case-by-case adjustments based on local environmental factors while maintaining water quality,” the statement said.

“Governments or other stakeholders can seek special consideration in cases where the state and local communities have extensively assessed water bodies and effective measures are in place to reduce nutrient pollution,” the statement said.

EPA Region 4 Administrator Gwen Keyes-Fleming said one of the goals of the standards was to protect clean water--which she said was essential to home values and was a foundation of state industries, such as tourism.

Keyes-Fleming also noted that the numeric standards “draw heavily on the technical expertise” of the state's Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) and “align closely” with draft standards put forward by the state two years ago.

“The state has done excellent work and developed extensive information on the condition of Florida's waters. EPA spent months in close collaboration with FDEP and crafted the new standards on the best available, independently reviewed science,” she said.

State 'Analyzing’ Remaining Issues.

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (I) and Mimi A. Drew, state environmental protection secretary, said in separate statements they were “pleased” for the 15 months between promulgation and implementation of the rule. The time would lead to better understanding of the criteria and development of implementation strategies, Drew said.

Drew also said EPA agreed to use DEP data and analyses in developing the criteria and to include a method “for establishing alternative criteria to account for the varying impacts of nutrients on different types of water bodies under site-specific circumstances.”

DEP also would “analyze and address the remaining legal and scientific issues, as well as the policy considerations associated with moving forward on nutrients, to assure that the benefits are worth the costs to Floridians,” Drew said.

By Drew Douglas

The final rule and additional information on federal standards for Florida water quality are available at http://water.epa.gov/lawsregs/rulesregs/florida_index.cfm.