view current print edition




Florida farmers exhale as EPA delays new water regulations

by Chip Carter | November 21, 2010
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced Nov. 15 that it will delay by 15 months implementation of a new set of numeric nutrient criteria water regulations for Florida's lakes, springs and rivers that the state’s farmers claim could drown them in a sea of red tape and increased costs.

The new rules, initially intended to go into effect Oct. 15, were first delayed until Nov. 15 and have now been pushed back until February 2012.

"Through strong bipartisan efforts, the Florida Congressional delegation has taken a lead role in advocating for sound science and the people of Florida throughout this process," said U.S. Rep. Adam Putnam (R-FL), who on Nov. 2 was elected commissioner of the Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services. Mr. Putnam made fighting the new requirements a significant part of his campaign platform and has been working for a delay via his role in Congress since the new regulations were announced earlier this year.

Following the announced delay, Mr. Putnam said, “While the EPA heeded our calls for additional time to implement numeric nutrient criteria in Florida by setting an effective date 15 months beyond the date of promulgation, the issue remains unresolved and regardless of when implemented, the federal mandate will have a dramatic impact on our state’s economy.”

He continued, “EPA’s announcement does not reflect the strides Florida has made in water quality, and this costly mandate is born out of litigation, not science. It not only unfairly treats Florida differently than the other 49 states, it jeopardizes jobs throughout the state. I urge my colleagues as well as other state and federal leaders to continue to press on for Floridians against this federal overreach and let sound science prevail to sustain our state’s economy and natural resources.”

Growers are up in arms because the new EPA criteria specifically target Florida’s wetlands and waterways. Representatives from the Florida agriculture industry claim that this is because the state is the first in the nation to collect the kind of extensive data the EPA eventually wants from all states. The information gathered from that ongoing process, Florida growers feel, is being used against them to create standards that are simply unattainable.

The standards are particularly unfair, growers say, because the culprit in many cases is Mother Nature. Naturally occurring nitrogen and phosphorus — much of them from decaying organic matter — have polluted many Florida waterways to levels unacceptable under the proposed EPA standards. Suburban and urban areas add to the problem. Domestic supply wells in Jacksonville and Gainesville have stopped or slowed the flow of many of the natural springs that dot the northern half of the state and provide potable water for much of the rest.

The concern is that elevated levels of nitrogen and phosphorus in flowing and standing waters could choke Florida’s wetlands, turning vibrant estuaries into stagnant pools and lifeless marshes.

A consortium of Florida agricultural industry and political leaders contend that the new rules will cost $50.7 billion to build new or enhance existing treatment facilities, and an additional $1.3 billion in capital costs — an average cost of $700 per household in Florida.

An April report issued by the Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services in conjunction with economists from the University of Florida’s Institute of Food & Agricultural Sciences placed total initial costs for implementation between $855 million and $3.069 billion. Recurring annual cost estimates range from $271 million to $974 million. Lost revenues from land taken out of production to implement on-farm water treatment practices add another $631 million to the annual toll. The ripple effect from diminished revenues — including the loss of 14,545 full-time, part-time and seasonal jobs — tallies $1.148 billion annually.

The EPA does not support those cost analyses. Following the Nov. 15 decision, EPA Regional Administrator Gwen Keyes Fleming called Florida farmers’ concerns “exaggerated doomsday claims” and said that the real cost to the state will be between $135 million and $206 million. She did not define whether that estimate was a projection of total costs or an annual tally.

In January 2009, the EPA determined that Florida was not moving quickly enough toward adoption of numeric nutrient criteria in response to resolution of a lawsuit brought by conservationist groups.

In August 2009, the EPA entered into a consent decree to settle the 2008 litigation, committing to propose numeric nutrient standards for lakes, flowing waters, estuaries and coastal waters in Florida.