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Plan limits waste in Lake Okeechobee

Following a lawsuit, the DEP proposes new standards that would force dairy farmers to restrict the flow of phosphorus into the lake in an attempt to restore it.

By JULIE HAUSERMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 9, 2001


TALLAHASSEE -- Spurred by an environmental group's lawsuit, the state is proposing tough new restrictions to stop pollution around Florida's vast Lake Okeechobee, the heart of the Everglades water system.

The new standards would cut the amount of phosphorus going into the lake by 70 percent, according to David Guest, a lawyer with Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund.

That could mean huge changes for the dairy farms around the lake, which are blamed for sending excess nutrients into the lake from cattle waste. The nutrients tip the lake's natural biological balance and have sparked algae blooms and other ecological problems.

Every year, about 500 tons of extra phosphorus flow off agricultural lands into Lake Okeechobee. The new standard would cut the allowable amount to just 140 tons.

"After years of neglect and countless studies, there is an emerging pattern of action to restore one of the very symbols of Florida," Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary David Struhs said in a prepared statement late Thursday.

Phil Leary, a lobbyist for the Florida Farm Bureau, predicted the new standard would put many farmers out of business.

"To be honest with you, I don't think it can be achieved," Leary said. "The background levels of phosphorus in the lake now are so high that even if you stop farming today completely, it would still be leaching out."

If the new goals are met immediately, the lake will reach DEP's restoration target in 16 to 20 years.

The state may be forced to build regional reservoirs and treatment plants to clean the water that comes off farm fields. Farmers already have been asked to find ways to keep dairy waste from running off farms toward the lake.

The state's new limits come four years after Earthjustice filed a landmark lawsuit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The group said the EPA failed to enforce key parts of the 1972 Clean Water Act. A federal judge ruled in 1999 that the environmentalists were right.

U.S. District Judge William Stafford ruled that even though more than 25 years had passed, Florida hadn't done the basic science that was the heart of the Clean Water Act: figuring out how polluted each waterway had become and setting limits on how much more gunk it could absorb and still be clean enough for fishing and swimming.

Instead the state issued permits for everything from housing developments to paper mills to huge agricultural operations without first setting pollution limits for nearby water bodies.

In his 1999 ruling, Stafford ordered the state to immediately begin setting "pollution loading capacity" standards for 700 water bodies, and gave the Florida Department of Environmental Protection 12 years to do the job. The first water body on the list was Lake Okeechobee.

The state has to set new limits for parts of Tampa Bay, and the Hillsborough, Manatee and Alafia rivers by 2003. The deadline for parts of Crystal River is 2006 and parts of the Withlacoochee River is 2005.

State scientists will have to comb Florida basin by basin and test the waters, find pollution and follow the threads back to likely sources.

It is a difficult and politically explosive task. If a lake is polluted with, for example, too much phosphorous and nitrogen, then what is to blame? Suburban lawns? Farm fields? Septic tanks? An industrial plant? And which is the biggest culprit?

Environmentalists say Florida hasn't enforced the Clean Water Act properly until now because powerful industries have put pressure on state and federal agencies to back off. DEP officials said the job simply was huge and complex.

Guest, the Earthjustice lawyer, said the DEP's new limit for Lake Okeechobee is even stricter than one proposed by EPA. "Finally, the DEP is basing its decisions on science and not on politics," Guest said.

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