TAMPA — Environmental groups will hold 16 rallies across the state Wednesday, including one in Tampa, to pressure state lawmakers into cleaning up Florida’s degraded waterways.
The rally in Tampa will be at 11 a.m. on the city’s Riverwalk behind the Straz Center. The events will include public signing by local residents of a Clean Water Declaration that declares Florida citizens have an “inalienable right” to clean drinking water, safe rivers, streams, lakes and bays, protection from water pollution, access to information about sources of pollution, and protection from water privatization.
“Water policy in Florida is headed in the wrong direction,” said Kent Bailey, a Hillsborough County resident and member of the Sierra Club’s state executive committee. “Change is needed to protect Florida’s people and the state economy. Especially in Hillsborough County, we’re going to run out of water, and when we do, that is going to stop home building and development and economic growth.”
More than 100 civic and environmental groups, as well as some local officials are taking part in the Wednesday events, according to a press release from the campaign.
Environmentalists have been at war with state officials over clean water protections for decades. In 2008, environmental groups sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, saying the federal government was violating the Clean Water Act by failing to set standards for farm and urban runoff into fresh waters and estuaries.
As a result, the EPA finally set standards in 2010 for phosphorus and nitrogen. These nutrients originate in fertilizers and untreated or under-treated sewage and can cause algae blooms that reduce oxygen in the waters.
The federal decision, however, ignited an uproar from state lawmakers, business leaders and utilities who said the EPA regulations were burdensome to business and taxpayers. The state sued the EPA in 2011 in an effort to block the new nutrient limits.
In February 2012, the state won a judicial decision on a key element of its lawsuit. Last year, the EPA approved the water standards developed by the state; environmentalists say those standards do not provide adequate protections to Florida waters.
During that time, however, the 150-mile-long Indian River Lagoon on Florida’s east coast has been devastated by a three-years-long series of algae blooms. Record numbers of dolphins, manatees and pelicans died and the estuary lost 60 percent of its seagrass.
The pollution entered the lagoon through water released from Lake Okeechobee. Releases from the lake also damaged the ecology of the Caloosahatchee River that empties into the Gulf of Mexico on the state’s west coast.
The environmental damage on both coasts was so severe that it got the attention of Florida legislators. A state Senate select committee has been looking at possible solutions, and Gov. Rick Scott has proposed $40 million to speed up completion of a project to clean water from Lake Okeechobee and stormwater runoff that fouls the lagoon and the Caloosahatchee River.
“Clean water legislation is expected to be part of an early product out of this legislative session; a bill is being written already,” Bailey said. “What’s important is that it be the right kind of clean water legislation.”
While the Indian River Lagoon has been getting most of the headlines, environmental groups point out that there are polluted waters in every region of the state. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection has designated hundreds of water bodies as “impaired,” meaning they don’t meet the state’s pollutant limits.
Florida’s booming population also is requiring more water to be drawn from the Floridan Aquifer, causing sinkholes and saltwater intrusion into the vast freshwater chamber.
“The problems are long-term and the solutions are long-term,” Bailey said. “Florida is coming to terms with the fact that our water resources are precious and finite.”