What impact will relaxing of federal water regulations have on SWFL waterways?

Published: January 24, 2020 5:02 PM EST
Updated: September 28, 2020 12:48 PM EDT

Just what impact will the relaxing of some federal water regulations have on the Southwest Florida rivers, streams and wetlands?

President Donald Trump announced Thursday the changes originally put into place to stop pollution and development.

We’ve seen what can happen to the water here with the toxic blue-green algae outbreaks. Many blame septic tanks and fertilizer for it, but we talked with the experts.

Changes are in the works when it comes to our waterways.

“So it continues our pendulum back and forth,” said Dr. Don Duke, professor of environmental studies at Florida Gulf Coast University. “How much protection for the environment, how much money should we spend on it.”

New rules laid out by the federal government mean fewer regulations protecting our waterways, but benefits for growers and businesses. It also means more power at the state level.

“The Everglades have very strict protections under law, and state protections actually supersede federal law,” said Chris Wittman, co-founder and program director of Captains for Clean Water.

He believes Everglades restoration should be fine. “As far as Everglades go, it shouldn’t affect us.”

However, “any time that there’s a deregulation or rollback in those protections and make it easier for those wetlands to be impacted, that’s something we worry about,” said Wittman.

“Boy, we sure know in Southwest Florida that if you’re not paying attention to the water that’s coming down our rivers, we’re going to pay for it long term,” said Dr. Win Everham, professor of ecology and environmental studies at FGCU.

We also traveled to the Southwest Florida Water Resources Conference at FGCU to speak with experts in the water field.

“A lot of the time, the problems we face with water resources is that somebody makes a decision about a short term: making things easier short term, saving money short term,” Everham said.

The government says its goal behind the change is to continue protecting waters from pollution while boosting economic growth.

Several details have yet to be released. We should learn more during a public webcast on Feb. 13. There, the EPA and the Army will cover key parts of the new policy.

An EPA spokesperson released the following about the regulations:

In the Clean Water Act, Congress explicitly directed the EPA and the Army Corps to protect “navigable waters.” The Navigable Waters Protection Rule regulates these waters and the core tributary systems that provide perennial or intermittent flow into them. The Navigable Waters Protection Rule establishes four clear categories of waters are federally regulated:

 The territorial seas and traditional navigable waters,

  • Perennial and intermittent tributaries to those waters,
  • Certain lakes, ponds, and impoundments, and
  • Wetlands adjacent to jurisdictional waters

 The waterbodies mentioned in your question – the Gulf of Mexico, Lake Okeechobee, Caloosahatchee River, and Estero Bay – are jurisdictional under the previous regulations and will remain jurisdictional under the new rule. Under the new rule, perennial and intermittent tributaries to these waterbodies would be regulated as “waters of the United States.” In addition, those wetlands that are adjacent (as defined in the new rule) to these waterbodies and their perennial and intermittent tributaries would be “waters of the United States” under the new rule.