Published November 15, 2011

It was not a good summer for clean water. Algae blooms and fish kills popped up all over Florida, while agencies and legislative leaders backpedaled in support for strong nutrient pollution limits and swimmable/fishable water quality. The sewage, fertilizer, and other types of nutrient pollution that fueled these algae blooms and fish kills continue to spill from a host of different industries including phosphate production, paper and pulp, wastewater utilities, and agriculture. Those industries, in a rush to beat a federal deadline for numeric nutrient water quality standards, have mounted a three-pronged assault to defeat them.

The first strategy has been to use litigation to try to overturn the legal agreement between the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and environmental groups including the Conservancy. This agreement was what compelled EPA to set deadlines for when these standards would need to be enacted in order to comply with the federal Clean Water Act. The Conservancy, represented by Earthjustice, has been successful in defeating legal challenges to date, but continues to face numerous legal challenges from these polluters in an effort to thwart them.

Additionally, the industries have utilized their enormous resources to hire dozens of lobbyists, public relations specialists, and other firms to assist them in garnering political support at both the state and federal levels. As a result, several legislative interference attempts to quash EPA funding for the development and implementation of these standards have cropped up on Capitol Hill. The Conservancy and our partners have been successful in stopping them, but the growing political pressure is likely to lead to more.

The industries have also convinced the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to create alternate nutrient pollution standards to their liking. These DEP faux nutrient pollution standards would use similar numbers to EPA’s, but could be routinely exceeded without consequence – rendering them useless for protecting and improving water quality. Having been successful in making some, but not all, of the changes necessary to make these regulations acceptable; the Conservancy has now joined other environmental groups in filing a legal administrative challenge to it.

Meanwhile, the DEP has also created an end-run around any proposed nutrient standards. DEP is doing this by lowering theuse” of the waterbody from full recreation (swimming and fishing) to “limited recreation” (fishing but no swimming). Since these and other current water quality standards for most of Florida’s waterbodies are designed to support full recreation, waterbodies downgraded to limited recreation would not have to comply with them. The Conservancy was one of the only groups in the state to advocate against this harmful proposal, resulting in EPA reviewing the proposed changes for an additional year and a half. However, the EPA recently approved them in response to political pressure; leaving the Conservancy and a handful other environmental groups no choice but to challenge their approval.

As you can see, we are facing an unprecedented struggle over the future of our water resources. This upcoming state legislative session poses the strongest effort we have ever witnessed to privatize water and gut water quality regulations. In spite of this, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida is ready and will continue to be a leader in protecting our water resources not only regionally, but state-wide. “Clean water is the cornerstone to our economy and quality of life,” Conservancy Director of Natural Resource Policy says, “We will aggressively defend that it remains a public resource and sufficiently protected at every turn.”

~ Jennifer Hecker
The Conservancy of SWFL