EPA Rules Assign too Much Blame to Florida Farmers

Published January 24, 2011

Water-quality restrictions announced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will drain the Florida economy of billions of dollars, state officials claim in federal court documents. Although the ultimate fate of the state’s lawsuit against federal environmental officials remains uncertain, this is a court fight that never should have taken place.

President Barack Obama’s EPA relied on faulty logic, incomplete facts and an overt political agenda in placing costly nutrient restrictions on Florida waters. The EPA restrictions never would have been imposed except state environmental officials inexplicably handed the agency a road map for the irresponsible restrictions.

EPA’s justification for the restrictions is that agricultural nutrient runoff is causing excessive algae blooms that are destroying coastal and inland water quality. According to EPA, Florida’s farmers are responsible for offshore red tide events and the depletion of oxygen in freshwater ecosystems. Neither of these assertions is true.

As far back as 2001, NASA scientists have documented that red tide events in Florida coastal waters are closely connected with intermittent dust storms in Africa’s Sahara desert. When African dust storms become large enough, easterly trade winds carry dust and sand thousands of miles, where it is deposited in the western Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. When this happens, aquatic iron levels rise dramatically and large red tide blooms develop.

The red tide blooms typically initiate far from shore in deep water that is not significantly affected by terrestrial nutrient runoff. Moreover, scientists believe red tide events have been occurring for hundreds or even thousands of years, long before the finger can be pointed at Florida farmers.

According to NASA, red tide events can be predicted reliably by monitoring Sahara desert dust storms. Red tide events occur sporadically, yet Florida agricultural nutrient runoff remains relatively constant on a year-to-year basis. Blaming Florida farmers for red tide, and forcing them to foot the bill for costly nutrient runoff restrictions, is like blaming the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 on George Bush and Barack Obama and forcing them to pay restitution to the descendants of 1871 Chicago residents.

EPA’s case is no more compelling regarding inland water quality. Although some argue that nutrient runoff affects freshwater algae conditions, freshwater algae is a minor environmental problem compared to invasive aquatic plant species that are relatively unaffected by nutrient levels.

Hydrilla, for instance, is a voracious, non-native aquatic weed that first invaded Florida 50 years ago. Hydrilla is rampant throughout state waters and chokes out far more native aquatic plants and animals than algae. Hydrilla is relatively unaffected by aquatic nutrient levels.

Aquatic herbicides have proven effective at killing hydrilla and other invasive aquatic weeds that choke out native aquatic plants and animals, and they do so without harming native plant and animal life.

However, the same federal EPA that is imposing costly nutrient restrictions on Florida farmers has imposed a gantlet of restrictions on the application of aquatic herbicides to fight invasive weeds. EPA is cracking down on Florida farmers for being a very minor contributor to Florida water degradation while turning a blind eye to a much more serious — and more easily addressed — invasive species problem.

Adding insult to injury, the EPA uses reports prepared by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to justify the nutrient restrictions. DEP officials apparently were unaware of the minimal links between Florida agriculture and alleged water degradation or chose not to document the faulty links in state reports. Accordingly, the EPA is imposing costly, unnecessary nutrient restrictions on Florida farmers simply by running the DEP playbook.

After failing to defend Florida farmers in state environmental studies, the DEP is now in the awkward position of fighting its own studies in a court of law. The EPA may be imposing these draconian restrictions on Florida farmers, but state officials share the blame and should be held accountable.

Manatee County resident James M. Taylor ([email protected]) is a lawyer and senior fellow for environment policy at The Heartland Institute. The institute’s purpose is “to discover, develop and promote free-market solutions to social and economic problems.”