Florida’s waterways have been choked by blue-green algae and red tide for years, and are now on life support.
On July 2, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the “Clean Waterways Act” at the Loggerhead Marinelife Center in Juno Beach. Relief for our waterways was on the way, he said.
What a laugh.
For starters, the Clean Waterways Act does nothing to reduce agricultural pollution – far and away the largest contaminator of Florida’s waterways. The law also does virtually nothing to reduce pollution from the state’s next largest waterway defilers, sewage systems and septic tanks.
Relief is most decidedly not on the way.
Agriculture accounts for more than twice as much of the pollution flowing into our waterways as the next two largest pollution sources combined (the aforementioned sewage systems and septic tanks).
Yet the new law contains no agricultural pollution reduction requirements and no agricultural pollution reduction plan.
Rather, the law says sugar growers and other agricultural producers can go on using the same “Best Management Practices” (BMPs) regarding their pollution that they’ve been using, and that have already been proven to fail — causing the catastrophic proliferation of algae in our waterways.
The governor’s own Department of Environmental Protection has admitted as much in sworn testimony and in court filings.
The law does say that the Department of Agriculture will check with agricultural producers every two years to see if they’re following the already-proven-to-fail BMPs. Why bother?
From late 2019 to early 2020, aging and broken Fort Lauderdale sewer pipes discharged an unimaginable 211 million gallons of raw sewage into the city’s neighborhoods and tourist areas. In the decade leading up to the Fort Lauderdale disaster, 1.6 billion gallons of sewage was discharged from deteriorating municipal sewage systems into waterways around the state.
It goes without saying that municipal sewage treatment facilities in Florida are in dire need of upgrading, and that laws are needed to incentivize municipalities to do the upgrading. The Clean Waterways Act obviously does not meet these needs.
The law requires local governments with broken-down treatment facilities to develop a plan to upgrade those facilities enough so that they comply with “the total maximum daily load requirements applicable to the [sewage treatment] facility.”
“Total maximum daily load” means the maximum amount of a pollutant that may be present in a body of water and it still be healthy. But no “total maximum daily load” standard is identified either in the law or in existing law.
In other words, the law calls for local governments to achieve a “total maximum daily load” standard that does not exist. Expect more Fort Lauderdales.
About 280,000 of Florida’s more than 2.7 million septic tank systems are old and deteriorating, and are leaking vast amounts of human waste into Florida’s waterways, helping fuel huge algae blooms.
Fewer than 20,000 of the 280,000 leaking tanks were repaired in 2018. The numbers appear to have been similar in 2019.
Florida urgently needs laws providing for septic-tank systems to be regularly inspected and repaired.
However, the law contains no septic tank inspection program. Without regular inspections, nothing else is going to matter.
The law does require local governments to come up with septic-tank system “remediation” plans, including projects “necessary to achieve the nutrient load reductions required for” septic-tank systems. “Nutrient” means pollutant.
But there is no required “nutrient load reduction” for septic-tank systems, either in the Clean Waterways Act or in existing law.
Put another way, the law requires local governments to develop septic-tank remediation plans that achieve nothing in particular. And that is what they will achieve.
The law also transfers responsibility for septic tanks from the state Department of Health to the Department of Environmental Protection. But with no regular inspection program and no pollution-reduction standards to enforce, what does it matter?
We can spend billions of dollars constructing all the reservoirs and treatment marshes we want, but we won’t begin to clean up our waterways unless we attack our pollution problem at its source.
The Clean Waterways Act does some small things, but on the thing that counts, cleaning up our waterways, it’s a joke.
Jim Carroll is an attorney and environmental activist from Palm Beach Gardens.