Activists aim to spook lawmakers into increasing protections for waterways

10/30/13 Janelle Irwin
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Tags: water, clean water, Gulf Restoration Network, Environment Florida, Sierra Club, EPA, Clean Water Act


Clean water advocates spoke behind ten tombstones representing Florida water problems.

photo by Janelle Irwin

Some waterways haven’t been protected under the Clean Water Act over the past decade because of some Supreme Court rulings. Last month, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed a rule change that would close those loopholes. At a press conference Wednesday at Rivercrest Park in the Seminole Heights neighborhood of Tampa, Environment Florida’s Jennifer Rubiello said without the change water bodies considered unnavigable are vulnerable to pollutants.

“This did not used to be the case, so we, with this science report and rule making would restore protections to not just larger rivers like the Hillsborough and the St. Johns, but also smaller creeks and streams and tributaries that flow into these larger bodies of water that we enjoy for recreational purposes and also for our drinking water.”

Speaking in front of the Hillsborough River, Rubiello said the years of being unprotected have taken their toll on water bodies.

“More than 80% of the lakes and reservoirs that have been tested in Florida have failed basic water quality standards, yet over 2/3 of the Florida delegation voted to undermine restoration of Clean Water Act protections.”

She added the protections are particularly important in this area because Tampa Bay is the largest open water estuary on the Gulf of Mexico.

“Yet it is assaulted by more than 4 billion gallons of oil, fertilizer ingredients and other hazardous materials each year and pollution throughout Florida’s waterways has resulted in three times more dolphin deaths in the Indian River Lagoon in 2013 than in the years past and in the deaths of over 250 brown pelicans likely due to red tide.”

Environment Florida along with groups from other states are unleashing a campaign to have the loopholes in the Clean Water Act closed. The Halloween-themed press conference featured ten tombstones, each representing a scary Florida water fact. Activists dressed in costumes including Suncoast Sierra Club spokesperson Phil Compton who was dressed as the superhero, Green Lantern.

“As a member of the Green Lantern Corp, I not only patrol the earth, but also a large section of the galaxy and I can tell you that clean, fresh water is an extremely rare commodity. On earth we take it for granted. There are many things that need to be done to protect this very precious commodity. Here in Tampa there have been some steps taken to protect it from fertilizer runoff, but things need to be done in places like Temple Terrace and Hillsborough County to also protect us from fertilizer runoff.”

Clean water advocates argue smaller waterways are just as important to protect as larger bodies. Cathy Harrelson, the Florida organizer for the Gulf Restoration Network said there have been some 1,000 scientific studies showing a link between the smaller creeks and streams and larger rivers and estuaries.

“That streams do exert a strong influence on the character and functioning of downstream waters. That headwaters are the most abundant stream type in most rivers and supply most of the water to the rivers. That streams are biologically connected to downstream waters by the organisms that use both the up and downstream habitats and that wetlands are physically, chemically and biologically connected with rivers exporting materials and storing local ground water which is extremely important in Florida.”

Harrelson said the neglected waterways also contribute to river flow.

“This is especially important right now when Florida is seeing a record decline in our river and spring flows.”

According to a Florida Department of Environmental Protection website, Florida has about 900 springs. Harrelson said the state has so many because of its karst topography which basically means, the ground is made up of layers of limestone.

“Underlying all of this that we’re standing on is like a Swiss cheese and water flows throughout this karst. It’s why we have more springs than any other state – in fact, more concentrated springs than anywhere else in the world. So, it’s why we need to step up and get these, what they’re calling, disconnected, non-navigable waterways protected and unfortunately, the Florida delegation needs to step up.”

Representatives from the offices of Congress member Kathy Castor and U.S. Senator Bill Nelson, both Democrats, attended the press conference to show support for the campaign to close the Clean Water Act loopholes. The EPA is currently accepting public comment on the issue and will hold a public meeting in mid-December to hear evidence from both experts and members of the public about the connections between smaller and larger waterways. More information is on the Environment Florida website.

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