Continuing Resolution Undermines Pollution Protection for Florida Waters

The Continuing Resolution could limit the EPA's ability to curb nutrient pollution in Florida waters

03-17-2011 // M├ękell Mikell, Ph.D.

Stinking, slimy, poisonous rivers filled with dead fish may sound like a horror movie, but it is a real life horror story for visitors and citizens of the Sunshine State. Toxic algae blooms fed by nutrient pollution are increasingly plaguing a number of Florida’s rivers, lakes, streams, springs, and estuaries. Congressional budget cuts and proposed restrictions on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) could make it harder to keep Florida waters clean.

Fort Myers resident Richard Solveson only needs to look in his backyard to see how overwhelming a toxic algae outbreak can be. Solveson’s home lies along the banks of the Caloosahatchee River in southwest Florida.  In 2005 and 2008, he watched the green goo completely takeover the river and beach along his waterfront property.  He says the algae was at least a half inch thick and had a horrible “rotting, fish smell.” Algae blooms usually come during the hotter months and can last for weeks.  Solveson has many disturbing pictures of the ooze covering his property and the river like a gooey, green blanket. He also has shots of animal tracks going through the toxic muck. “It keeps getting worse and worse each year”, Solveson says as he talks about the decline in the state’s water quality. Florida has been his home for over fifty years, and he remembers being able to swim and fish in the water. Now, he would not even think of swimming or fishing in the Caloosahatchee River because the smelly slime could make him sick.

Major Health Hazard

Exposure to toxic algae is a major, documented health threat to people, pets and wildlife. Touching, inhaling or swallowing the green ooze can cause sores, rashes, eye irritation, infections, breathing and stomach problems and death. Toxins from the pollution have killed fish, dolphins, manatees and other animals. Excessive nutrients also feed invasive plants, like hydrilla, that choke waterways with their explosive growth. Nutrient pollution comes from excess amounts of phosphorous and nitrogen discharged into the water. The pollutants make their way into lakes, rivers, streams and estuaries via agricultural runoff, septic tanks, sewer systems, and fertilizers and pesticides from stormwater runoff.  These excessive nutrients nourish the algae and help the mossy green growth spread quickly throughout the water. In 2010, for example, an algae bloom fed by nutrient pollution in the St. Johns River stretched for over one hundred miles. Large algae blooms are a serious public health threat and a threat to Florida’s economy, hurting commercial and recreational fishing, outdoor recreation, property values and businesses that rely on beachfront tourism. Even in a seller’s market with warm weather, beaches, and beautiful homes, the nasty smell and sight of green scum along the rivers makes it difficult for real estate agent Jacqui Thrulow-Lippisch to interest customers. “It’s like showing a house that has mold,” she says. “It’s such an awful experience,” according to the real estate agent, “that you have to walk away from it.” And that’s exactly what potential home buyers, and even some residents, are doing. During a particularly bad outbreak in 2005, waterfront property values in Florida dropped by $500 million. Thurlow-Lippisch says that she is not pro-regulation, but she believes that some things, like the health of Florida’s waters, are just too important for lawmakers not to get involved.

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

A successful lawsuit filed by EarthJustice for conservation organizations, including the Florida Wildlife Federation (FWF), resulted in a consent decree with the Environmental Protection Agency to set and enforce legal limits on nutrient pollution in the Sunshine State. According to FWF president Manley Fuller, Florida has a large number of degraded waters because of nutrient pollution. “Reducing nutrient flows into Florida’s surface and ground water would help curb the incredible growth of algae and help improve water quality and public health,” Mr. Fuller says.  “A systematic approach to reduce nitrogen and phosphorous in our waterways is sorely needed." 

Water restoration and pollution limits, however, could be derailed by proposed congressional spending cuts and an amendment in the House-passed Continuing Resolution to limit the ability of the EPA to enforce clean water standards in Florida. Amendment 13, introduced by Rep. Tom Rooney (R-FL) would block EPA efforts to set and enforce limits on nutrient pollution in Florida waters. Specifically, Amendment 13 says:

None of the funds made available by this Act may be used to implement, administer, or enforce the rule entitled `Water Quality Standards for the State of Florida's Lakes and Flowing Waters' published in the Federal Register by the Environmental Protection Agency on December 6, 2010 (75 Fed. Reg. 75762 et seq.).

There is a critical need for elected officials to recognize the intimate relationship between Florida’s environment, its waters, public health and the state’s economy. Additional reductions and limits to clean water programs and the EPA’s budget and enforcement authority in the Continuing Resolution are also important factors to consider as lawmakers continue to wrestle with amendments and budget cuts. Clean drinking water, jobs, recreation, public health, property values, wildlife and Florida’s way of life could all be impacted by the final budget bill that emerges from Congress.

 

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