Pinellas County, Florida has decided to sue the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over recently announced water nutrient restrictions. The decision is noteworthy because Pinellas County has a long record of aggressively protecting its water quality.
Environmental Bona Fides
In 2010, Pinellas County, which encompasses St. Petersburg and Clearwater and is Florida’s most densely populated county, went beyond federal and state mandates and banned the summer use of certain fertilizers. Yet the Pinellas County Commission on January 11, 2011 voted unanimously to challenge the newly announced EPA water nutrient restrictions.
The commissioners said the EPA water nutrient restrictions are based on faulty science and would cost the county millions of dollars to implement.
“The levels being proposed are cost-prohibitive for all governments. Recession or no, they’re outrageous,” said commission chairwoman Susan Latvala during the January 11 County Commission meeting.
EPA claims the nutrient restrictions will cost Florida between $130 million and $200 million. State officials say the costs will run in the billions. Proposed methods of reducing water nutrients include expensive new water treatment facilities and restrictions on use of fertilizer in agricultural production.
Florida filed suit against the EPA restrictions in December 2010, while the Florida League of Cities filed suit against the EPA restrictions in January 2011. The Pinellas County suit will remain separate from the two other suits.
NASA Findings Disagree
EPA claims the nutrient restrictions are necessary to reduce destructive red tide algae blooms offshore and freshwater algae blooms onshore. EPA claims Florida agriculture is primarily responsible for the excess water nutrients.
As far back as 2001, however, NASA scientists have documented 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. This is why red tide events occur sporadically even though Florida agricultural nutrient runoff remains relatively constant on a year-to-year basis.
Aquatic Weeds a Bigger Problem
Although there is stronger evidence nutrient runoff affects freshwater algae growth than for offshore events, many opponents of the EPA restrictions say there are far bigger problems to be concerned about in any case. They point out invasive aquatic weeds such as hydrilla have long been a far more serious Florida water quality problem and aren’t related to nutrient runoff.
Hydrilla, which thrives in Florida regardless of water nutrient levels, now infests nearly half of the state’s onshore waters. According to a University of Florida environmental report, hydrilla “can occupy the entire water column,” choking out most other plants and marine life.
“Perhaps the most unfortunate aspect of EPA’s efforts to make life more difficult for Florida farmers is the complete lack of understanding of the phenomenal improvements in fertilizer application and water management which have significantly reduced chemical runoff from most farms,” Heartland Institute science director Jay Lehr said.
“With the high costs of fertilizer, every farmer has the strongest incentive to reduce fertilizer runoff and ensure that fertilizers stay in the soil instead of migrating uselessly into surface water. The Florida farmer should be rewarded for his efforts in this area, not punished by agencies that do not recognize the many environmental improvements in Florida agriculture,” Lehr explained.
James M. Taylor ([email protected]) is managing editor of Environment & Climate News.