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Standards will clean up Suwannee

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By Claude Lewis

Back in 1972, the Federal Clean Water Act was passed by Congress and President Nixon, setting guidelines to ensure that our nation's rivers remain healthy and clean.

It has taken most states a long time to take action.

Some like New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Kansas, got their acts together quicker than others by drawing up widespread measures.

Many others, including Florida, dragged their feet - waiting until their backs were against the wall.

Thanks to a lawsuit filed against the Environmental Protection Agency in 1998, Florida agreed to come up with a detailed agenda to comply with the CWA.

The EPA agreed to a 13-year schedule with plans for high priority waterways due first and low priority waters second.

Ten years later, Florida is prepared to set its "Total Maximum Daily Load" standards for the Suwannee River basin, a low priority.

A public workshop presenting the draft TMDLs was held last Thursday, July 10, at the Florida DOT building in Chiefland.

Heading up the workshop was the Deputy Director of the Division of Environmental Assessment and Restoration, Andrew Bartlett, and his staff.

Attendees included lobbyists for agriculture and agricultural products, environmentalists, local farmers and concerned citizens.

Trying to satisfy all the folks can be a challenging experience, as Bartlett has learned.

TMDL stands for Total Maximum Daily Load - the maximum amount of pollutants that a water body can take before it becomes unhealthy.

To do this, studies have to identify all point and non-point source loadings.

Many factors must be examined - fertilizer runoff, cattle, dairy and poultry farm waste, septic, sewer, storm water runoff, etc.

From these, two key areas are produced - nutrients and dissolved oxygen. When a body of water has too much of one and not enough of the other, the quality of life deteriorates.

Algae blooms are usually the first visible sign.

"Right now today both the Santa Fe River, the Suwannee River and many of our springs are suffering an attack of disgusting filamentous algae due to this imbalance," explained Annette Long, president of the Save Our Suwannee environmental group.

"Species begin to die," she went on. "Sometimes the criteria seem ridiculous to the public. After all, who cares about caddis fly larvae or mayflies? Why should the FDEP regulate our local farms, industries and neighborhoods for a bunch of bugs? Well, the fish eat the caddis flies and the eagles and people eat the fish."

The idea is to find the "least common denominator" that will be the "canary in the coal mine" for the health of the river, according to Long.

The nitrate reduction target number presented was questioned by a few people in the audience.

Some said it was too low and unrealistic. Others said it was too high.

"We're quibbling about .286 and .450 when a lot of the readings now are over 1 and close to 2," Long said.

A 30-day comment period ends July 21. Final draft of the guidelines must be adopted by Sept. 30.

The FDEP is unclear how it will proceed once the TMDL standards are adopted. Once the standards become confirmed by the secretary of the FDEP, planning committees will be formed.

The recommendations of those committees will be taken into consideration by the FDEP when going forward with the plan to reduce nutrients and bacterial counts and to increase dissolved oxygen levels.