DEP Hosts Suwanee and Santa Fe Basin Restoration Goal Development Rule Workshop

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection  met on March 18 with local governments, scientists, environmentalists, agricultural operators and other stakeholders in the Suwannee and Santa Fe basins to move forward in solving local bacteria water quality problems. At the meeting, the Department presented a first-of-its-kind-in-Florida basin-wide approach to setting a restoration goal, also called Total Maximum Daily Load.

Seventeen creeks, streams, and sinks in the two basins have been verified to be impaired, not meeting water quality standards, for fecal indicator bacteria—nine in the Santa Fe and eight in the Suwannee. The presence of the indicator bacteria in amounts greater than Florida’s water quality criterion, 400 bacteria counts per 100 milliliters of water, indicates the possibility of human or animal waste contamination.

Fecal coliform bacteria themselves are generally not harmful, but their presence suggests that disease-causing organisms may also be present in the water. Sources of bacteria may include wastewater treatment facilities, concentrated agricultural operations, stormwater runoff associated with urban development, and natural sources like wetlands, forests, and wildlife.

Historically, the Department has adopted a single rule for each impaired waterbody. In this case, that would involve 17 separate rulemaking efforts and all of the process that goes along with them. As an alternative, DEP is proposing basin-wide TMDLs, which will be accompanied by reports of the bacteria reductions required for each waterbody.

“When there’s a better, faster way to improve water quality, DEP wants to be first in line to deploy it,” said Tom Frick, Director of the Division of Environmental Assessment and Restoration. “Cutting unnecessary process means we can move quickly to restoration.”

While basin-wide TMDLs are not appropriate for every pollutant, they are ideal for addressing bacteria problems because the path to restoration generally involves the same basic actions no matter the scope of the problem.

Restoring waterbodies with high levels of bacteria does not typically require unique engineering solutions. The approach involves identifying potential bacteria sources and risks, like aging or poorly managed wastewater and stormwater infrastructure, septic tanks, livestock waste, pet waste, and trash. Some of the sources are obvious, others require an intensive survey of the area to identify hidden problems.

The Department’s new bacteria source tracking methods, including DNA analyses, will help identify whether fecal bacteria are related to human activities or other sources. By isolating the sources of bacteria, stakeholders can more carefully, and more cost-effectively, target the highest risks and plan and implement the right projects to clean up the problem.

More information on the basin-wide bacteria TMDL proposed for the Suwanee and Santa Fe basins can be found on the Department’s website at http://www.dep.state.fl.us/water/tmdl.

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