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Will federal pollution rules wash out local water plans?
By Kevin Spear, Orlando Sentinel
11:04 PM EST, January 24, 2010
The perilous road to the state's water future swerves through Central Florida this week when separate groups look to unify the region to share water, clean up iconic Wekiwa Springs and draft a far-reaching water bill for this year's Legislature.

As if that's not challenging enough already, the deliberations will take place under a newly formed cloud — or rainbow, depending on your perspective — arising from a federal-government move to impose stringent pollution limits on Florida facilities such as sewage plants, dairy-cow operations and industrial plants.

"It will have a huge impact if it's implemented," said Linda Young, director of the Clean Water Network of Tallahassee, of the federal initiative. "The big question is if it is all for show."

The recent intervention by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, brewing for a decade, has been cheered by environmental groups, vilified by business interests and given mixed reviews by state authorities.

"Their [EPA] numbers, I agree, are protective, but I do question whether they go farther than they need to," said Mike Sole, secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

At stake is the health of Florida's rivers and lakes — many of them sick with rampant algae growth — versus the likelihood that compliance with federal pollution controls would cost hundreds of millions of dollars. EPA officials in Washington are preparing a trio of hearings in Florida, with one in Orlando on Feb. 17, to hear public comment en route to adopting the proposed rule later this year.

"EPA is proposing these standards based on the best science to protect people's health and preserve Florida's water bodies used for drinking, swimming, fishing and tourism," said Peter Silva, assistant administrator for the agency's Office of Water in Washington.

Those same water uses will be brought up repeatedly today during three consecutive meetings in the Lake Mary Events Center. All three are open to the public.

•At 10 a.m.,, a smart-growth program at the Orlando Regional Chamber of Commerce, will coax Seminole County leaders to join in developing a strategy for sharing and finding new water supplies among seven Central Florida counties.

•At 1:30 p.m., the Waive River Basin Commission meeting will continue its push for environmental safeguards required by state law before the last segment of Orlando's beltway can be built across the Waive River. Among the controversial issues: What to do about 50,000 septic tanks suspected of polluting the aquifer waters that gush from Wekiwa Springs.

•At 4 p.m., state Sen. Lee Constantine, R-Altamonte Springs, will chair a hearing of the state Senate's Committee on Florida's Inland Waters. Constantine has scheduled several such gatherings across the state to shape legislation with the potential to address Florida's springs, water-project funding and the new EPA rule.

"It will certainly be something not seen in Florida before," Constantine said of his legislative plans.

The EPA rule could also bring with it something Florida has never experienced before: a different way of protecting state waters from pollution that contains phosphorus and nitrogen compounds. Those are essential nutrients for plants but, in excess, often cause devastating algae growths.

Florida's current pollution limits rely on a "narrative" standard, which requires that "in no case shall nutrient concentrations of a body of water be altered so as to cause an imbalance in natural populations of aquatic flora or fauna." The EPA, by contrast, is proposing a "numeric" standard that sets specific limits for phosphorus and nitrogen compounds.

EPA officials say Florida's approach is cumbersome and not up to the task of reversing the decline in state water quality.

Sole, of Florida's DEP, said his agency agrees that numeric standards are needed — and will be more costly. However, Florida has done far more scientific evaluation of its waters than the EPA has, so it can do a more precise and cost-effective job of imposing the new approach, he said.

"I've decided to go ahead and continue to work with EPA on their effort and provide them with comments and hopefully give them sufficient scientific evidence in some of the areas that the rule can be improved upon," Sole said. "Hopefully, we will see a rule that is appropriately protective of Florida waters but doesn't go unnecessarily too far and cost us more money than needed."

The timing of the EPA standards is being driven by the settlement of a lawsuit filed by five environmental groups that pushed to have the agency enforce the federal Clean Water Act in Florida. Those same groups will watch closely as EPA moves to honor the legal settlement and implement the rule.

"They are under the microscope of a federal court order, and they know we will stay in court forever if they don't do something that is scientifically sound and is going to move us in the direction of improving Florida's waters," said Young, of the Clean Water Network.