NAPLES — Florida needs to go back to school when it comes to living up to the federal Clean Water Act, a coalition of environmental groups said Wednesday.
The Gulf Restoration Network gave the state Department of Environmental Protection a D+ on the network’s “Clean Up Your Act!” report card grading the five Gulf of Mexico states.
The fault rests with the political leadership of the DEP, Gov. Charlie Crist and the state Legislature for letting polluters off the hook, said the network’s Florida Program Director Joe Murphy.
“It’s the public that pays,” Murphy said. “Florida needs to put waterways first rather than as an afterthought.”
The report card comes on the heels of a lawsuit settlement in which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency agreed to step in and set numeric standards for nutrient pollution in Florida. The state failed to meet a 2004 deadline.
The EPA’s Inspector General issued a report late last month calling on the EPA to set nutrient standards nationwide — with a priority on stemming fertilizer and sewage pollution blamed for fueling a dead zone in the northern Gulf of Mexico.
In a statement released later Wednesday, the DEP called Florida a leader in the nation when it comes to protecting water quality.
“The report released today is disappointing because it does not measure the critical factors related to what is needed to achieve water quality improvement,” the DEP’s environmental assessment and restoration division director Jerry Brooks said in the statement.
The statement cites the state’s requirements for advanced wastewater treatment for discharges into the Florida Keys and Tampa Bay, a timetable for eliminating ocean discharges and restoration standards for many coastal water bodies, including the Caloosahatchee River in Lee County.
Florida has proposed numeric standards for nutrient pollution, the only state in the nation to do so, Brooks said in the statement.
The amount of water quality data collected for that proposal is nearly twice that of the next highest state and represents nearly 30 percent of the national dataset, according to the statement.
Clean water advocates, though, have accused Florida of dragging its feet and writing loopholes into the state’s water quality laws.
Florida is not alone at the back of the class, according to the Gulf Restoration Network report card.
Louisiana got the worst grade, an F, while Texas got the best grade, a C-. Alabama and Mississippi each got a D+.
Each grade is actually a composite grade that measures each state in four categories.
The report card measures states on how they judge water quality, how they measure for pathogens that can make people sick, whether they have set numeric limits on nitrogen and phosphorus pollution that can cause algae blooms and whether they use water quality data collected by citizens to determine whether a water body is polluted.
Florida got a C for water quality standards, public health standards and public participation but got an F for its failure to set numeric nutrient standards.
Florida limits nutrient pollution from some sewage plants but those limits need to be more strict in some areas, the report card says.
Too much nitrogen and phosphorus, ingredients in fertilizers and components of animal waste, can coat Florida waterways with blankets of algae.
The algae can poison water supplies, kill marine life and cause human health problems.
Most scientists point to a connection between nutrients and the red tide that afflicts the Southwest Florida coast, causing fish kills and chasing beachgoers away with coughing fits.
In 2005, an especially severe red tide was blamed for killing manatees and sea turtles.
That same year, an area of low oxygen developed off the Southwest Florida coast, smothering sea life across a wide expanse of the Gulf floor.
A so-called dead zone forms every summer at the mouth of the Mississippi River in the northern Gulf.
Follow environment reporter Eric Staats at twitter.com/ndn_estaats.