A LONG, drawn-out battle over Florida's numeric nutrient criteria (NNC) standards has come closer to completion as the Environmental Protection Agency recently approved the state's water quality criteria for springs, lakes and streams.
The move is a sign that other states could implement strategies that offer a more scientific and economical approach to reducing nutrient runoff.
Agricultural groups have been closely watching how EPA proceeds on whether it lets states adopt NNC under the Clean Water Act (CWA). CWA allows states to develop their own water quality standards. Most states utilize narrative standards, such as "fishable" or "swimmable," as opposed to numeric, which is a specific number per segment of water. NNC offers less flexibility for state permitting authorities and increases the legal liability for riparian landowners.
Despite the fact that the state of Florida was already on its way to developing new water quality standards for its flowing waters, EPA came down with federal numeric standards for the state in 2010 as part of a litigation settlement, which drew widespread opposition.
After significant political pushback and public opposition, agency officials then encouraged Florida to continue to draft its own standards, which led to this most recent action by EPA.
For Florida farmers and ranchers, this is good news, the National Cattlemen's Beef Assn. (NCBA) said. The state of Florida has committed to working with agriculture to exempt agricultural ditches, stock ponds and other agricultural waters. NCBA noted in a recent newsletter that EPA has possibly recognized that universal numeric criteria are not always the best option for protecting water quality, and that potentially sets a precedent for the rest of the country.
According to NCBA deputy environmental counsel Ashley McDonald, EPA approval of the Florida NNC is a positive step forward in the agriculture industry's battle against overly broad environmental regulations.
"This is an important milestone in the long-standing battle between overreaching federal regulations and the ability for states to set their own nutrient criteria," McDonald said. "It is the state of Florida that has the best knowledge and expertise to set scientifically defensible standards for the state's waters."
McDonald added that EPA is pressuring other states to develop numeric criteria, and "environmental extremist groups are rushing to sue over provisions they say significantly deter efforts to regulate discharges. These groups continue to tie things up in the court system, wasting valuable time and financial resources, and all too often, EPA sides with their agenda."
She added that she hopes EPA's decision to uphold Florida's NNC sets a precedent for other states that are currently fighting to maintain equality in implementation of CWA.
Don Parrish, senior director of regulatory relations at the American Farm Bureau Federation, said the potential exists for other states -- particularly those in the Mississippi River Basin, which encompasses 31 states -- to have to deal with the "train wreck" Florida did.
Parrish said he is encouraged by states such as Iowa, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio that have put nutrient reduction strategies together in a way that accomplishes their goals through improvements in on-farm efforts such as soil quality and conservation enhancements.
In Iowa, for instance, he said farmers and state agriculture department leaders have come together to analyze and scientifically and economically determine what is achievable.
"The process is not just about telling farmers how to farm but putting science and economics in that strategy so farmers and ranchers can ultimately embrace and get behind the standards," he said.
Parrish said Iowa has one of the more innovative approaches out there, and other states are working to put together their own proactive strategy, with some positive developments.
"Nutrient reduction strategies are a real groundbreaking type of approach, and more and more states are looking at doing something along those lines. It is important for the environment, and I think it's a solid approach to address nutrient utilization and minimize nutrient loss," Parrish said.