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House takes step toward resolving water-pollution feud

A years-long lawsuit-fueled dispute over the health standards for Florida waters moved toward resolution Tuesday after lawmakers approved a proposal put forth by the state environmental agency.

A House committee unanimously accepted a measure that would allow the state to apply individual health standards to each body of water.

The changes, which would allow Florida to override federal water protection rules, cannot take effect until the Environmental Protection Agency approves them.

At issue is fertilizer runoff from farms and lawns combined with waste from old, faulty septic tanks. Those and other contaminants can lead to water with high levels of nitrogen and phosphorous, known as nutrients.

Waters with too many nutrients can be permanently polluted and bloom enough algae to damage entire ecosystems.

Experts have worked for decades trying to restore damage to the Everglades caused by high nutrient levels. The Miami area, which traditionally cleans its wastewater and sends it to tide, also struggles to meet environmental standards.

Ambitious wastewater management in Tampa, on the other hand, has partially reversed damage to Tampa Bay.

“We can ask farms to implement best-management practices, but the real challenge today is urban runoff,” Rep. Matthew Caldwell, R-Lehigh Acres, said before the meeting. “How do you regulate every single person’s yard?”

Although lawmakers' approval paves the way for the federal government to work with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, implementation must be postponed until an administrative court rules in March on a lawsuit against the federal government led by the Sierra Club and other environmental groups.

Another 2010 lawsuit filed by Attorney General Pam Bondi on behalf of the state is also in limbo.

That suit arose after the EPA settled with environmental groups in 2009, and asked Florida to maintain  uniform nutrient levels across waters. It contends that the EPA asks the state to accomplish too much too soon, to the possible peril of Florida businesses, local governments and utility companies that manage waste.

The debate before the Agriculture and Natural Resources Subcommittee rang of an issue that has dragged out too long.

Environmental groups testified that the proposed rules offer loopholes and don't do enough to protect downstream waters.

“Millions of people in the state rely on our water for drinking, and there are not enough protections in this rule to protect our drinking water,” said Stephanie Kunckle of Clean Water Action.

Yet, the debate among lawmakers—who seemed determined to accept the proposal and move on—was short.