Thursday, July 28, 2011

Facts & Fiction: Numeric nutrient criteria and water quality

Guest Column
by Rae Ann Wessel
Natural Resource Policy Director
Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation 

Residents and businesses in Southwest Florida know the truth about nutrient pollution first hand. We live with the truth in our backyards. Devastating and ongoing algae blooms impact our livelihoods, our use and enjoyment of area waters, our properties, businesses and the natural resources that are the engine of our local economy.

The serious and persistent algae blooms that continue to affect Southwest Florida — and other areas of the state — are the direct result of too much nutrient enrichment of our region's waters. Simply put, nitrogen and phosphorus levels are way beyond what the natural system can absorb. Southwest Florida is not alone, the problems of nutrient enrichment reach all corners of our state and nation, impacting some of our most unique and precious resources.

This is why the current effort to establish standards for nutrients is so important. Decades ago, regulations were developed to address many aspects of water quality. Unfortunately in Florida, the regulation of nutrients has been ineffectual since no numeric standard of harm was established to measure nutrient enrichment. Instead, Florida adopted a subjective, narrative standard of “healthy well-balanced systems” which has no scientific method of measurement. My definition of "healthy well-balanced" may not be the same as someone who is contributing significant nutrient pollution.

In fact, under the current definition we have seen the degradation of local waters that in the 1980s were such unique and special resources they were awarded the status of Outstanding Florida Waters (OFW) by the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).  Today, these same waters are impaired by nutrient pollution that affects water quality and the amount and quality of the habitats upon which our unique aquatic life forms depend.

After years of deteriorating water quality and ten years of inaction by our State water quality agency, the Federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has developed a numeric standard for nutrients in Florida called the Numeric Nutrient Criteria. This first set of standards for lakes and streams has become a tug of war between the State Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and Federal EPA and is being hotly debated in the press.  As a result there is a lot of misinformation and spin that is misleading the public on this critical issue.

Last week, a group of industry groups submitted an opinion to The Florida Independent news misrepresenting the scientific facts, including the suggestion that Caloosahatchee algae blooms are not due to nutrient pollution but are the result of this year’s drought! The industry opinion is copied below and can be read on the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation website.

In the interest of clarifying the facts associated with our water quality conditions and the need for numeric nutrient criteria we provide a few facts to address statements made to set the record straight:

Industry statement
“The [Caloosahatchee] algae bloom was a result of the lack of freshwater flow to the Caloosahatchee River due to the historic drought in South Florida.”
Nutrients are needed for algae to grow, without nutrients the toxic algae would not have formed. Lack of water flow concentrated the nutrient soup compounding the problem, but the bloom would not have occurred had there not been noxious levels of nutrients in the water to begin with.

Industry statement:
Unsurprisingly, water quality is improving.
Improving water quality from a toxic condition to a less dangerous condition must not be confused with clean, healthy, fishable, swimmable water quality — the standard that numeric nutrient criteria are designed to establish.  Rain washing algae downstream merely moves the nutrients downstream to our coastal waters where they will continue to pollute, preventing us from achieving  fishable, swimmable waters.

Industry statement
Mr. Guest’s letter failed to mention that the Caloosahatchee River already has an EPA-approved numeric nutrient pollution limit.
Setting a TMDL  (Total Maximum Daily Load- a pollution limit) and achieving it are two very  different things.  Targeting the actual sources of and forms of pollution is crucial.   The Caloosahatchee TMDL addresses less than ¼ of the problem; less than half the river and only half of the nutrients responsible for the pollution.
1. Addressing sources of pollution requires addressing the entire watershed from the headwaters downstream.  Unfortunately DEP s Caloosahatchee TMDL was only set for a fraction of the rivers watershed- the downstream portion.  The majority of the river-  including all the freshwater portion of the river and upstream tributaries that flow into the tidal waters - are not covered by the TMDL.
2. With no TMDL for upstream freshwaters nitrogen sources upstream will continue to pollute while sources downstream work to clean up.  Without an equal effort upstream the best efforts in downstream tidal waters will be undermined.
3. The TMDL was established only for nitrogen even though phosphorus is a significant source of pollution.  

Industry statement
The state law requires a 22.8 percent reduction in nitrogen loads to Tidal Caloosahatchee estuary downstream of the S-79 Franklin Lock and sets a numeric nutrient limit of 9,086,094 pounds of Total Nitrogen per year.
• Facts:
1. The Caloosahatchee River Watershed Protection Plan completed by the SFWMD in 2009 identified the downstream tidal portion of  the river as contributing only 29% of the nitrogen pollution.  The upstream, freshwater portion of the river responsible for  71% of nitrogen pollution is not covered by the TMDL.
2. The same plan identified the tidal Caloosahatchee as responsible for 41% of the phosphorus pollution, but there is no TMDL for phosphorus. 
3. Unfortunately the toxic bluegreen algae that has plagued the Caloosahatchee for the past eight weeks needs only phosphorus to bloom, it can obtain the nitrogen it needs out of the air. So even if the nitrogen TMDL limits were magically met tomorrow, the toxic algae could still continue to bloom.
4. The process of determining the sources of pollution and assigning  responsibility  for  cleaning them up is established in the next step called a Basin Management Action Plan or BMAP.   It has been 2 years and we still do not have an implementation plan for cleaning up the Caloosahatchee.  
5.  In fact, DEPs current modeling attributes just 38% of the nitrogen pollution to human activities and  62%  of the nitrogen pollution to  undeveloped natural areas, forests and wetlands.  If this were even plausible, waters would have been polluted before any human development added its minor contribution.

• Industry statement:
We are confident that as the full story of Florida’s nutrient water-quality-control programs continue to unfold, it will become increasingly apparent that EPA’s flawed numeric nutrient criteria rules are not needed, and the state of Florida is best situated to manage its own waters.
• Fact: 
Under the State oversight and “unfolding” program, water quality has plummeted across the state.  What is increasingly apparent is that the State has been unable to come up with a plan in the 10 years since EPA mandated they develop numeric standards.  We are now out of time and the EPA standards are scientifically based and structured to allow the state to achieve them over time.  

The devil is always in the details… and in the scientific facts. We need numeric nutrient criteria and we need them now. We must not allow inertia and fear to prevent science from moving us to clean, healthy, fishable, swimmable waters for ourselves and the generations to come.

By Rae Ann Wessel,  SCCF Natural Resource Policy Director