1.5. Modern environmental management (1980s to 2000s)

The deluge of new environmental legislation in the 1970s caused a backlash during the 1980s from a property rights perspective (Davis and Arsenault 2005). At the same time, readily observable symptoms of environmental degradation continued to surface. The St. Johns River began having periodic blooms of blue-green algae, lesions in fish, and fish kills (DEP 2002). Each of these conditions was a visible expression of degraded water quality in the river and represented changes that were not acceptable to the public and policymakers.

Since the 1990s, water quality improvements have been achieved in Florida through the seesawing efforts of policymakers and public and private stakeholders (Table 1.1). The policymakers push on the legislative side (via governmental regulatory agencies), while public/private interests push on the judicial side (via lawsuits in the courts). The last four decades have been marked by this oscillation between lawsuits and laws. The result has been incremental and adaptive water quality management.

Florida’s newest environmental law is the 2016 Environmental Resources bill signed into law in January 2016. This law addresses flow levels in springs, management plans for certain watersheds in South Florida, including Lake Okeechobee and the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee Rivers, and guidelines for the Central Florida Water Initiative, a multi-agency effort to secure water resources for Central Florida. The law has gotten a mixed reception. Business and industry groups, along with environmental groups like Audubon Florida and the Nature Conservancy, have supported its effort to advance protection of water resources. Other groups, such as the St. Johns Riverkeeper and the Florida Springs Council, have opposed the bill, citing weakened protections for land around springs and a lack of emphasis on water conservation (Staletovich 2016) and interbasin water transfer authority for each water management district that exceeds its jurisdictional boundaries. Another concern is the provision that when any water management district declines a consumptive-water-use permit due to impact on river or spring flow levels, that district must submit its water supply plan to DEP for additional review and revision, thus effectively weakening the water management districts’ authority over permitting (Curry 2016).

An important element of protecting the St. Johns River is the possession of a good understanding of the economic impact the river has on the region. To that end, the Florida Legislature in 2013 funded a report on the river’s economic value to the state of Florida (Hackney 2015b). This report describes the economic impact of the St. Johns River in terms of a conceptual model relating natural functions with natural values, an assessment of wetland importance for flood prevention and nutrient removal, the effect on real estate values along or near the river, the importance of surface water in both water-use and water quality dimensions, and the impact of recreation and ecotourism.

 1.5.1. Implementation of the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) provisions of the Clean Water Act (CWA)

For years one aspect of the CWA was overlooked until an influential court decision in 1999. Several Florida environmental groups won a significant lawsuit against the EPA, pushing the agency to enforce the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) provisions in the Federal CWA. For many waterbodies, including the LSJR, the development and implementation of a TMDL is required by the CWA as a means to reverse water quality degradation. In the TMDL approach, state agencies must determine for each impaired water body: 1) the sources of the pollutants that could contribute to the impairment 2) the capacity of the water body to assimilate the pollutant without degradation and 3) how much pollutant from all possible sources, including future sources, can be allowed while attaining and maintaining compliance with water quality standards. From this information, agency scientists determine how much of a pollutant may be discharged by individual sources, and calculate how much of a load reduction is required by that source (Pollutant Load Reduction Goal or “PLRG”). Once the required load reductions are determined, then a Basin Management Action Plan (“BMAP”) must be developed to implement those reductions. Monitoring programs must also be designed to evaluate the effectiveness of load reduction on water quality.

Since 1999, the EPA, DEP, SJRWMD, and numerous public and private stakeholders have been working through this TMDL/BMAP process to reduce pollution into the LSJR and its tributaries. Several TMDLs have been adopted in the LSJRB, including those for nutrients in the mainstem and fecal coliforms in the tributaries. In most cases, adoption of TMDLs is followed by development of a BMAP. According to DEP, “the strategies developed in each BMAP are implemented into National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits for wastewater facilities and municipal separate storm sewer system (MS4) permits” (DEP 2008b). A mainstem nutrient BMAP was completed in October 2008. In December 2009, the DEP released the BMAP for fecal coliform in the Lower St. Johns River Tributaries (DEP 2009b). This BMAP addressed ten tributaries for which TMDLs had been adopted in 2006 and 2009: Newcastle Creek, Hogan Creek, Butcher Pen Creek, Miller Creek, Miramar Creek, Big Fishweir Creek, Deer Creek, Terrapin Creek, Goodbys Creek, and Open Creek (DEP 2009b). In August 2010, DEP released the second BMAP to address fecal coliform in fifteen LSJR tributaries (Tributary BMAP II; DEP 2010a). Progress reports on all these BMAPs were published by DEP in 2014. As well, a new comprehensive statewide updated list of verified impaired waterbodies was released by DEP in 2014 (DEP 2014g).

Table 1.2 shows the number of 303(d) impairments in 2004, 2009, and 2014, along with delisted impairments in 2009 and 2014. The 2014 impairments are primarily due to a new mercury TMDL, dissolved oxygen, fecal coliform, and nutrients (DEP 2015a).  Figure 1.6 illustrates the breakdown of the 2014 impairments. Table 1.2 also shows the number of 303(d) impairments that were delisted in 2009 and 2014. These delistings occurred for a variety of reasons, such as satisfying water quality criteria, or confirmation that natural conditions, not anthropogenic loading, caused the observed impairment.

Current and future efforts to improve the health of the LSJR (and other waterbodies in Florida) will continue to focus on implementation of the TMDL provisions of the CWA. As this process presses forward, Florida’s public and policymakers may continue to find themselves on the litigation-legislation seesaw, as both groups attempt to balance environmental concerns with an exploding population’s desire to dwell and prosper in the Sunshine State.

Table 1.2 Summary of the verified 303(d) 2004, 2009, and 2014 lists of LSJR impaired waterbodies or segments of waterbodies requiring TMDLs.
2014239151167Statewide mercury TMDL finalized in 2013, adding many WBIDs to impairment list.
Figure 1.6
Figure 1.6 Percent of waterbodies or segments of waterbodies listed with various impairments in the Lower St. Johns River Basin in the 2014 verified list (as of April 7, 2015).

1.5.2. Water Quality Credit Trading

In 2008, the Florida Legislature passed revisions to the Florida Watershed Restoration Act that established the framework for a system of water quality credit trading in the Lower St. Johns River Basin (DEP 2010g). This system allows individual dischargers of a pollutant, such as a local utility or a municipality, to trade credits for nutrients, which consist of total nitrogen and phosphorus. Each individual discharger has a goal for reduction of nutrients. Because some dischargers are able to control nutrients with a very different cost outlay than others, some dischargers meet and even exceed their goals, while others do not meet the goals. Thus, those that exceed their goals possess “credits” that they can sell to those who do not meet their goals.

Prior to 2014, JEA exceeded its nutrient reduction goal and accumulated credits; however, the City of Jacksonville (COJ) did not meet its goal. On March 22, 2016, COJ and JEA executed an interagency agreement by which JEA conveys its credits to COJ at no charge to COJ (Kitchen 2016; Cordova 2016). This is accompanied by an agreement between JEA and COJ to contribute $15 million each to a plan to replace septic tanks with sewer lines in existing neighborhoods.