Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Florida has an ugly problem

Florida has an ugly problem. What feeds lawns and sugar cane also fuels the scum that clogs waterways and Floridians are collectively over-feeding the scum. There are too many examples: blue-green algae smothering rivers, lakes and canals; high piles of putrid-smelling drift algae along beaches; shorelines strewn with dead fish, turtles and manatees from red tides; diminished sea grass and coral beds, fisheries and waterfowl populations in every part of the state.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) concluded in 2008 that over 1,000 miles of rivers and streams, 350,000 acres of lakes, and 900 square miles of estuaries here are impaired by nutrients – half of our rivers and more than half of our lakes are sick from high levels of nitrogen and phosphorous. And Floridians living along those water bodies are suffering too; waterfront economies, property values, drinking water supplies, human health and quality of life are negatively impacted.

Over time, our ways of life have released enough nitrogen and phosphorous into the environment to overload our water bodies. Our lakes, rivers and estuaries can no longer digest the extent of our nutrient pollution; drop by drop they have reached the tipping point and the result is the overgrowth of harmful and nuisance algae.

Unfortunately, the blame game won’t work here – we all contribute to the problem: it runs off over-fertilized and untimely-fertilized urban landscapes; it is discharged from wastewater treatment plants; it is a by-product of agriculture.

Like the blame, the responsibility for the cure can be shared by all Floridians. Luckily, the tool we need is within our reach.

A lawsuit by environmental groups to require the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to impose quantifiable and enforceable nutrient pollution limits (numeric nutrient criteria) will soon bring our state that needed tool. These limits will provide the threshold below which nitrogen and phosphorous levels must remain in order to keep water bodies healthy. We cannot determine the measures needed to sufficiently reduce nutrient levels until we have these limits, and therefore cannot adequately address the problem without them.

Because no one community or industry is solely responsible for the problem, in order to meet the new limits, a new approach to managing nitrogen and phosphorous will be required of all.

We already know what is immediately effective and a bargain for taxpayers: strong urban fertilizer management. For this reason, gulf coast communities devastated by the 2005 Red Tide blooms were the first here to adopt strong fertilizer ordinances. Communities all over the state and nation are now following suit; strict urban fertilizer management has been proven to substantially reduce nutrient pollution and decrease the need for more costly pollution controls.

For example, the Tampa Bay Estuary Program (TBEP) established a model fertilizer ordinance that codifies the pollution prevention recommendations found in the Florida Yards & Neighborhoods (FYN) Handbook published by FDEP and the University of Florida. Adoption of the model ordinance in Hillsborough County alone would prevent yearly an estimated 30 tons of nitrogen from entering Tampa Bay. 30 tons prevented would offset the annual nitrogen discharge from five wastewater treatment plants, thereby saving taxpayer dollars from being spent on additional wastewater treatment.

Utility industry claims of high wastewater improvement costs ignore the substantial reductions that can be made by urban fertilizer controls and that the cost of any needed treatment system alterations will be phased in over several years.

In agriculture, like at the residential landscape level, nitrogen and phosphorous lost to stormwater is fertilizer wasted. Broad adherence to agricultural best management practices (BMPs) can curb agriculture’s share of the problem by keeping nutrients on the farm and out of water resources.

Those utilities and industries that continue to make preposterous arguments against nutrient pollution limits ignore the obvious question; if not now, when? The longer we wait, the worse the problem will get and the more expensive the clean up will become for all of us.

Cris Costello