Two Important New Water Quality Regulations
Alachua County is a “charter county.” That means we have a charter, sort of like a constitution, that is the ultimate law on certain matters, and it can only be changed by popular vote. Back in 2000, Alachua County voters overwhelming approved an amendment to its charter that authorized the County to establish countywide minimum protections for water and air. Then, for 18 years, nothing happened. Finally, after several years of analysis and an exhaustive outreach campaign with stakeholder groups, the County is poised to adopt two important new water quality regulations that would substantially reduce the harmful impacts of future development. But this effort may die on the vine.
First up, and the subject of the January meeting, is simply a proposal to extend the County’s current wetland protections to the entire County. Currently, they only apply in the unincorporated County. The County’s standards are significantly stronger than the default state standards in use by most of the County’s municipalities, which allow developers to simply pay to destroy wetlands. Consequently, a number of large large landholders have annexed into adjacent municipalities in recent years in an attempt to evade the County’s wetland protections. Plum Creek/Weyerhaeuser is the most glaring example, with large annexations into Hawthorne and to the north of Gainesville.
Second, later this spring, the County will consider whether to adopt new standards for future growth that would reduce the pollutants in stormwater runoff that foul our streams, springs, and drinking water supplies. We will provide more information on this as the date for action approaches.
The meetings so far have been during the day and largely unpublicized, so the only feedback that County Commissioners and staff have received has been from paid representatives of the folks opposed to any new law: developers and the smaller municipalities. The County Commission needs to learn whether the public at large cares. The threat is not so much that the County Commission will do nothing, but that they’ll accept so many “fine print” compromises that the final law is completely neutered, in ways that only the professionals can understand.
The time has come to translate talk into action. The Commission is divided on whether to act. Please attend, and bring a friend.
This is beginning of the fight for stronger protections for Alachua County wetlands and water! The first meeting has finally been set and we need citizens to come to the Alachua County Commission on the evening of Tuesday, January 23rd for a show of force against the business and development community that is rallying against these protections.
Alachua County wants to expand wetland protections and stormwater treatment requirements throughout the county. They have the authority under the voter-approved ordinance that gives the County authority to improve water and air quality regardless of municipal boundaries. There are two parts to this, wetland protections and stormwater treatment. Cities are objecting to the expansion of the County’s regulations. Developers say it will increase the cost of development. The BOCC voted to have workshops on these items, likely in the new year.
1. Water Quality Code to include the Countywide Wetland Protection Requirements ordinance amendment
“To strengthen local water quality protection, the proposed amendments [to the County Water Quality Code to include the Countywide Wetland Protection Requirements] would expand wetland protection requirements currently applicable within the unincorporated area to certain less developed portions of municipal areas.” This would not apply to urban cores and other exempt areas.
The county’s wetland protection requirements include greater buffers, avoidance/minimization of wetland impacts, and the county’s default wetland and surface protection standards.
2. Water Quality Code to include Stormwater Treatment Requirements ordinance amendment
The proposed ordinance amends the county’s Water Quality Code to incorporate new requirements for stormwater pollution reduction that would apply through the county. Including:
“- As required, addition of Low Impact Design techniques (treatment swales, rain gardens, pervious pavement, etc.…) to conventional retention / detention basins.
– More stringent requirements for stormwater management systems discharging to contaminated surface water bodies.
– Addition of Low Impact Design techniques applicable in the Sensitive Karst Areas of the County.
– Additional requirements for projects using retention basins constructed with enhanced infiltration.”
If you would like to help on this issue, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Few issues are of more importance to Floridians than water. Over-consumption is irreversibly degrading our natural legacy of springs, rivers, and wetlands. Stormwater runoff from agriculture, lawns, and septic tanks carries increasing amounts of fertilizers and pesticides into our groundwater, fueling algae blooms and disrupting natural ecosystems. The Sierra Club urges local governments to do all within their power to protect water quantity and quality, and to demand action from state and federal governments when necessary.
Any rational approach to water issues must begin with the obvious truth that water flows freely across jurisdictional boundaries. In a 2000 public referendum, 70% of Alachua County residents acknowledged this truth, and voted to give County government the responsibility for protecting water quality countywide, including within municipal boundaries. County government is finally acting on this clear public mandate by updating its regulations to incorporate new technologies and practices that reduce pollution in stormwater runoff from new development. This initiative is designed to be adaptable to the unique hydrogeological characteristics of individual development sites, and includes separate standards that encourage density, redevelopment, and infill in urban contexts.
The County has proposed that these new standards apply countywide. The Sierra Club strongly supports this rational approach to protecting water quality, already embraced by an overwhelming majority of Gainesville and Alachua County voters. We encourage municipal elected officials to support and coordinate with the County to implement this initiative, and to develop their own standards that exceed County protections where possible, as the proposed County ordinance allows.
ALACHUA’S STORMWATER MANUAL – SEXIER THAN YOU THINK
By Bob Palmer
On April 20, 2017, a panel discussion on the proposed Alachua County Stormwater Treatment Manual was hosted by the Alachua County Environmental Protection Advisory Committee, the League of Women Voters, and Alachua County Emerging Leaders. Although several of the speakers noted that “stormwater is not a sexy topic”, how the Alachua County Commission decides to treat this manual will have major implications for water quality and future development throughout the County, particularly in the Orange Lake and Santa Fe River watersheds.
Panelists at the April 20 “conversation” were Mark Clark (UF), Eric Livingston (Watershed Management Services/consultant to Alachua County), Rory Causseaux (Causseaux, Hewett, & Walpole, Inc.), Matt Surrency (Hawthorne Mayor) and Jim Gross (Florida Defenders of the Environment). The discussion was moderated by Marihelen Wheeler.
A substantial crowd of approximately 100 attended the panel discussion. Numerous Sierra Club members were in attendance but the size of the crowd was largely attributable to emails circulated prior to the meeting by members of the Chamber of Commerce, the Farm Bureau, and other pro-development interests. One of these emails read: “The proposed stormwater ordinance stands [as] perhaps the most dire threat to property rights, property values, and home rule Alachua County residents have ever seen.”
The Alachua County website describes the issue as follows: “The County is proposing advanced stormwater treatment requirements to protect water quality, restore watersheds, and achieve pollution reduction goals. The County is proposing to adopt minimum County-wide requirements for advanced stormwater treatment to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus pollution from new sources of urban stormwater runoff. The County proposes to encourage “best practices” for managing stormwater [by means of] low impact design, operation, and maintenance of stormwater infrastructure. The proposed standards require [reduction of] nitrogen and phosphorus pollution discharges to varying levels, depending upon site-specific factors and the existing pollutant levels of the receiving watershed.”
The new stormwater manual, if adopted, would apply only to new development; existing development and agricultural operations would remain unaffected. The basis for the new manual was explained in introductory remarks by Chris Bird, Director of the County’s Environmental Protection Department. Five-year updates to the Basin Management Action Plans for the Santa Fe River Basin and the Orange Lake Basin will likely require the County to reduce its nutrient loading to these watersheds, and stormwater is a nutrient source assigned to the County by these BMAPs. Section 62-40 F.A.C. sets a stormwater performance standard of an “80% reduction in the average annual load of pollutants that would cause or contribute to violations of water quality standards, 95% reduction for stormwater discharges into Outstanding Florida Waters.” However, a 2007 study confirmed that current design criteria in the State’s stormwater rules will not achieve these minimum levels of treatment. A new statewide stormwater standard was in development to update the treatment recommendations, but the new standard-setting process was cancelled by the Scott Administration. So we’re stuck with old, ineffective stormwater standards. Alachua County is trying to do the right thing by employing more advanced, scientifically valid standards.
Much of the discussion at the forum involved costs. The draft manual includes clean-up targets slightly more aggressive that those contained in rule – i.e. they are more in line with the 2007 study findings. Mr. Causseaux claimed that building stormwater basins on less than 100 acres of new development would cost $50 million. Mr. Livingston disagreed, pointing out that the manual has evolved from early drafts and that Mr. Causseaux grossly under-estimates the extent of various cost-effective options for achieving compliance with the proposed new rules. In any event, it is clear that the new manual, if adopted, would raise costs for new development. In the Eastern parts of the County, these costs would probably be minimal. In the western, sandier parts of the County, additional costs for development might be in the 1-2 percent range, according to Bird.
Mr. Clark is currently leading research work aimed at determining how the draft criteria would play out in various Alachua County soil types. As these studies wind down, it is expected that the Alachua County Commission will convene hearings to take comments on the draft manual, followed by a vote on adoption of the manual. Given the importance of this issue, and the vigor with which development interests will be organized in opposition to whatever form the new manual takes, it is imperative that Sierra’s Alachua members became educated on this issue and participate in the Commission’s hearings.
For an update on the stormwater manual, contact Gus Olmos at the Alachua County Department of Environmental Protection at 352-264-6806.
Also see this Gainesville Sun article.