By Tara E. McLaughin
November 22, 2009
BONITA SPRINGS — A move by the state’s environmental agency to change water quality designations will burden taxpayers, let polluters off the hook and endanger Florida’s rivers and estuaries, one local environmental group said.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection is proposing to add new, lower-grade water categories to its system of water quality requirements.
The Conservancy of Southwest Florida has been lobbying governments, including Bonita Springs and Naples, to oppose the change.
“It doesn’t make sense to have lower standards upstream than downstream if you truly want to promote source control and protect downstream water quality,” said Jennifer Hecker, the Conservancy’s natural resources policy manager.
The current five-grade system has been in place for more than 30 years.
In July, the Florida Stormwater Association, which represents municipalities and water management districts, petitioned the DEP to include lower-grade categories, which come with less stringent requirements for pollution and cleanup.
Cities soon will be required to clean certain waterways that don’t meet their classification standards, said Kurt Spitzer, the association’s executive director. That includes concrete-lined ditches in urban areas that have the same standards as many rivers.
“The same standards where you would go swimming or fishing would apply to these urban canals and ditches,” he said of the current system. “It doesn’t make any sense.”
Spitzer advocated shifting to downstream communities the responsibility for building costly stormwater treatment systems and meeting standards.
“That’s all very expensive in the urban area,” he said of land needed for stormwater treatment.
“Typically, where you get the biggest bang for your buck, keeping water quality higher, is the receiving water body. If we would not be forced to spend money on ditches, we would then have money to protect the downstream water.”
That’s exactly the problem for Bonita Springs Councilman Pat McCourt.
“It seems to me that the person who ought to pay to treat (pollution) is the person who is creating it,” McCourt said. “If they can’t treat it at that level, why should it be passed on to the community downstream where the taxpayer is going to clean up?”
The Conservancy has asked city officials to pass resolutions against the DEP’s plans. Naples leaders are to hear from the Conservancy on Dec. 14 and Bonita Springs officials are to hear from the DEP on Dec. 2.
McCourt is doubtful, however, that the DEP will take much stock in a resolution from Bonita Springs opposing the proposed changes.
Bonita Springs Mayor Ben Nelson disagreed, saying he trusted that the DEP wouldn’t set standards that would make cleaning Florida’s waters more difficult and that more reasonable standards should be set.
“The very idea that water in a ditch in an urban area, when the water flows from the road off into the ditch, we’re going to have to be sure that water is swimmable, fishable -- that’s not going to happen ever, ever, ever,” Nelson said. “In order to get those collections clean, we have to leave -- all of us -- and they still won’t be clean.”
The DEP staff was unavailable to provide information but its Web site maintained that the new system would bring more protection to the waterways.
“The expanded classification system will allow DEP to better protect pristine waters and establish more realistic goals for artificial waters,” it said.
The Conservancy proposed that developments be required to manage the pollution they generate on site, the same way developers now have to compensate for increased traffic.
Instead, Hecker said, the proposal could bring below-standard water into compliance and developers wouldn’t be required to manage it. Polluted water would flow into rivers and estuaries and downstream communities would be responsible for cleanup and DEP compliance.
If adopted, interested parties would have to petition for up- or downgrading with several levels of review before.
Connect with Tara E. McLaughlin at www.naplesnews.com/staff/tara-mclaughlin/