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DEP's water nutrient rules pass first step in approval process

Despite opposition from environmental groups, new quality standards for Florida’s waterways are one step closer to approval.

The Environmental Regulation Commission unanimously approved the Florida Department of Environmental Protection's proposal to set nutrient standards for rivers, lakes, streams, springs and estuaries. The next step is for the Legislature to review and sign off on the new standards before they are sent to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for final approval.

If that happens, businesses, utility companies and municipalities would have to spend millions of dollars improving water quality to meet the new standards. Drew Bartlett, the DEP’s director of Environmental Assessment and Restoration, said a recent Florida State University study estimated the total cost of achieving the new standards statewide could range between $55 million to $160 million a year.

“That is a lot of money, but we have to address the nutrient problem and that is what it is going to take,” he said.

If the DEP's rules are approved, they will supersede EPA standards scheduled to take effect in March. A coalition of Florida agriculture groups, water utilities and businesses sent a letter to congressional leaders on Wednesday asking for a halt to funding and implementation of the federal standards.

But there is a pending legal challenge that could tie up the DEP’s proposal.

Earthjustice, a law firm representing environmental groups like the Florida Wildlife Federation, the Sierra Club, St. Johns Riverkeeper and others, filed a complaint last week, saying the the DEP's rules allowed harmful nutrients to reach dangerous levels before waterways are labeled unsafe.

State Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam released a statement saying he was pleased the DEP's rules were approved by the Environmental Regulation Commission today.

“The unanimous action by the ERC reiterates that Florida knows best how to protect Florida’s water resources,” he said. “The ruling sends a strong message to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that, based on its strong history in protecting water resources, Florida is prepared to continue developing and implementing water resource protection programs.”