Op-Ed

EPA should let states handle water quality issues

FEENEY
FEENEY

Florida’s geology, topography and watercourses are like no other state’s in the nation, dominated by vast floodplains along the coast and countless wetlands, rivers, streams and lakes inland.

Virtually all of these features are connected underground by our precious aquifer system through sandy soils and porous limestone. Because Florida’s elevation is only slightly above sea-level and relatively flat, its history tells the story of, and its lifestyle is dependent upon, effective management of stormwater.

Additionally, Florida leads the nation in water-quality efforts, recently approving numeric nutrient standards designed to keep its waters healthy and clean. As a result, Florida is crisscrossed by manmade ditches, canals and ponds for flood control, irrigation, stormwater management and water-quality improvement. All of these factors, both natural and manmade, make Florida particularly susceptible to the proposed rule changes by the Environmental Protection Agency to the Waters of the United States under the Clean Water Act.

The Florida H20 Coalition, of the Associated Industries of Florida, urges tha tthe EPA use caution when defining what waters will be covered by the Clean Water Act. The scope of the proposed changes and the legal reform in terms of permitting is pretty drastic.

We think that if the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were to expand the scope of federal jurisdiction under the definitions currently laid out, it would negatively affect local governments, farmers and other landowners. Already, Florida is getting ready to implement the new numeric nutrient criteria (NNC). This will be an expensive water-quality program, which utility-rate customers will have to pay for.

Just last year, Florida negotiated the right to write its own NNC rule, after the EPA was scientifically off the mark when first presenting the rule. Now, the EPA is looking to put another federal mandate on the backs of Floridians, using the same confusing tests to make their decision that they claim to be “clarifying.”

We also have reason to believe that the economic projections prepared by the EPA significantly underestimate compliance costs. While the EPA’s economic impact analysis estimates all 50 states will be on the hook for $231 million, a recent fiscal impact study completed in Florida indicates that just four of Florida’s 67 counties is looking at an estimate of $4 billion, with Seminole County alone facing an estimate of $1.53 billion. Florida simply cannot afford for the EPA to move forward with this rule-making without sufficient opportunity for engagement by affected stakeholders.

How will local governments will be negatively affected by the outcome of the EPA’s ruling? Pinellas County, for instance, is a member of a coalition with the sole mission of restoration and protection of Tampa Bay, and should the proposed rule be adopted, “Pinellas County would have to divert funds from these critical waterbodies” to meet the NNC in the newly identified jurisdictional waters.

This is contrary to enhancing Florida’s overall environmental quality, and the expansion of the Clean Water Act jurisdiction to marginal waters, such as stormwater ditches and ponds, will prevent financially constrained local governments from addressing other important environmental initiatives.

It is time for the EPA and Army Corps to take a renewed and hard look at their economic analysis and extend the comment period for affected stakeholders in an effort to gain a more accurate cost estimate, while creating opportunities to identify more cost-effective approaches that still protect the environment. Even the Small Business Administration Office of Agency, the federal agency tasked with providing support and advocating for America’s small businesses, agreed recently that the rule would hurt small businesses, as it will be too expensive to comply with, and urged the EPA to withdraw the proposed regulation.

We support U.S. Rep. Steve Southerland’s H.R. 5078, the WOTUS Regulatory Overreach Protection Act, which recently passed the U.S. House of Representatives. This bill leads to a better rule and requires the EPA and Army Corps to conduct a transparent, representative and open consultation with state and local officials to develop a consensus about those waters that should be under federal jurisdiction. H.R. 5078 is consistent with the CWA and would allow all other waters to remain under the jurisdiction of the various states where they can appropriately address the diversity and availability of water and land features and how best to protect them. This legislation will lay a foundation that will achieve environmental benefits and ensure our nation’s ability to engage in the kind of robust economic activity that sustains and supports Americans working in all sectors of the economy.

Tom Feeney is president and CEO of the Associated Industries of Florida.

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