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Updated: 03/31/2013 08:00:35AM

Florida’s environment can’t go back 125 years

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After fighting the federal Environmental Protection Agency — and winning — over its ability to set water quality standards for state waterways, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection would have to establish those criteria by the end of 2014, under the terms of a bill quickly making its way through a state House of Representatives committee. The bill, approved Wednesday by the House State Affairs Committee, follows Friday’s deal between the DEP and EPA over the maximum levels of nitrogen and phosphorus in Florida’s coastal streams, estuaries, rivers and intercoastal waterways.

The DEP will begin holding workshops next month with a goal of having new levels set by September, according to a report by the News Service of Florida. A lawsuit by the Environmental Group EarthJustice challenging the EPA-DEP deal could upend either timeline for new pollutant levels. A prior settlement of a lawsuit against the EPA over Florida’s failure to establish minimum pollutant levels led the EPA to demand Florida set so-called “numeric criteria.” Elected officials at the state and federal levels railed against that decision and convinced the EPA to let Florida have another chance to get it right.

Officials are talking a good game so far.

“We can’t go back to where we were in this state 125 years ago, we can’t do it,” said Rep. Ben Albritton, R-Wauchula. “But we can certainly take this time right now to draw a line in the sand, make sure that we stand up as a state, we can handle our own issues, we can deal with our own challenges, and make the future the best we can.”

Not only can’t we go back 125 years, we can’t even afford to continuing doing what is allowed right now by a DEP that looks the other way while the state’s water bodies, including the Peace River, are being polluted by tainted stormwater, leaching septic tanks and run-off from agricultural operations.

Even if the Legislature were to approve marginally higher minimum levels, budget cutting at the state’s six regional water management districts and raids on funding for conservation, preservation and aquifer recharged lands would limit its ability to make noticeable headway in the fight against waterway degradation. Two purchases totalling $2.7 million trumpeted by Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet on Wednesday represent only a fraction of the property needed to ensure suitable buffering around waterways. In Scott’s 2013-14 budget, only $25 million is
allocated for land acquisition versus an average
of about $300 million a year for the Florida Forever program over a 20-year period, according to newspaper reports. In two of the four years since 2009, the state budget included no funding for Florida Forever.

This doesn’t strike us as a governor and legislators committed to water quality. Maybe they will surprise us. More likely they’ll disappoint.