STUART, Fla. — Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried toured the state this week to discuss a new initiative that she said will better control the amount of harmful nutrients entering waterways from farms.
She stopped in Stuart on Wednesday to discuss her department's clean water initiative.
It will update the state's Best Management Practices program, which hasn't been updated since 2008.
The program lays out ways farmers can improve water quality in agricultural discharges, including nutrient management, irrigation management and water resource protection, such as using buffers to stop the movement of runoff into local waterways.
Fried said the current program wasn't making enough of an impact because it was only voluntary to comply with the BMP program.
"The last thing we want is to have this BMP program in place and it's not helping," Fried said. "Then it completely defeats the purpose. So it's really important if we have this BMP program in place and it's not making things better, then we have to go make changes."
Now, she said, compliance will be mandatory and failure to meet standards could come with consequences.
Fried said there are more than 67,000 farmers and producers in the state, which makes oversight a large task.
She said the new changes will call for sending state crews regularly to those sites to see first-hand that they are compliant with BMPs.
If they are not, they would be referred to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
The plan also requires agriculture producers to submit more organized data to the state regarding their nutrient use.
However, the state DEP lacks an acting secretary and Fried said the department had not been strict on enforcement in the past. Fried acknowledges more resources would be needed to visit the 67,000 sites. The visits would be prioritized, most likely, by size and impact.
Fried said more than 6,000 farmers have been referred to the DEP for a variety of reasons, some including poor management of nutrient runoff.
Fried, while in Stuart, met with ORCA founder Dr. Edie Widder, who discussed shoreline buffers ORCA created at Shepard Park in Stuart.
The buffers are another way to stop runoff from entering the St. Lucie River.
"[They] allow for what's called green filtration, so you allow nature to do its thing and clean up the water," Widder said.
The project, in partnership with the city of Stuart, aims to prevent what Widder considers the biggest threat to water quality and the creation of toxic algae blooms.
"I've realized that there actually is a smoking gun, and that's stormwater runoff," Widder said.
Already, buffer zones have made a difference in other communities and can be implemented around homes and farms, Widder said.
"There's data to show this could really make a major improvement," Widder said.
She said agriculture tends to be more willing to create buffers than residential areas.
Widder said the real solution lies with minimizing nutrient use in the first place, which she hopes changes being made to the BMP program will help.
Alexandra Kuchta, press secretary for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, provided this statement to WPTV the next day:
DEP is addressing a key nonpoint source pollution at its source: agricultural lands.
Several months ago, FDACS referred 6,033 cases to DEP for enforcement for failure to comply with FDACS’s agricultural best management practices program. When DEP received the list, staff immediately realized that they were going to have to do quality control on the contact information and addresses provided. DEP did its due diligence to ensure it did not bring enforcement action unnecessarily against landowners.
To be clear, DEP has not and will not fail to take enforcement. From that review, approximately 2,800 letters were sent out by DEP to bring those agricultural landowners into compliance. It should be noted that FDACS has the authority to take enforcement on its own. They have simply chosen to rely on DEP to do so. About 50% are now enrolled as a result of this enforcement action. At this time, about 1,100 have not been responsive and may require further enforcement action.
Additionally, in June, the department received nitrogen and phosphorus application records from FDACS. DEP has reviewed these records which will also help inform water quality protection efforts. The department has a meeting scheduled for this week with FDACS's Office of Water Policy to go over the data.