For many years, Florida water sources have been under duress. Water quality has diminished throughout the state. The culprit? Much of the time, the problems associated with water pollution can be traced back to the agricultural industries in the state. In an attempt to combat the agents of pollution (such as nitrates from the fertilizer industry, cattle farm sewage, pesticides from crop monocultures, and other various forms of non-point source pollution), the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (or FDACS) began officially implementing Best Management Practices (BMP’s) in 2009. Although they have existed informally for many years, as far back as the 1970’s, BMP’s have only recently become the popular state-imposed solution to protecting water quality. The type of practice varies among the industries and different businesses, but all are focused on reducing and mitigating the negative environmental impacts that result from agriculture to the Florida aquifer.

The current Commissioner of FDACS, Adam Putnam, has been heavily involved in promoting BMP’s. He touts BMP’s as a state solution towards environmental problems. Commissioner Putnam has been critical of federal intervention into agricultural water quality issues by the national Environmental Protection Agency, as he does not want the EPA to enact a “power grab” on Florida’s water programs and “threaten” the “sound environmental programs” that Florida agriculture has developed with larger proposed federal regulation of water by the EPA. BMP’s are broken down into two types: structural and management. Management BMP’s are the most common, and they include nutrient and irrigation management. Structural BMP’s include water control structures, fencing, and tailwater recovery systems . BMP’s are usually recommended as “economically feasible”.

There have been many supporters of BMP’s throughout Florida for the last five years at a bipartisan level. In 2013, the State legislature passed an Everglades restoration bill that affects the everglades by continuing to promote BMP’s, as according to the sugar companies BMP’s have helped to contribute to more than a “55%” reduction in phosphorous levels in the Everglades water ecosystems. The BMP practices for diminishing the effects of phosphorous pollution are varied and more complex than simply reducing consumption. Fields will first be leveled, followed by filling canals. From there, the canals and ditches will be regularly cleaned, cover crops and culverts will bed added, and canals will slowly be drained near “exit pump stations.” Because of the documented success, US Sugar, Florida Crystals, and other large corporations have increasingly begun touting the environmental improvements through BMP’s in South Florida.

BMP’s also have been applied to other areas of civilian life, including landscape architecture and residential neighborhoods. Ms. Jen Marvin is the GI-BMP coordinator at the University of Florida within the Center for Landscape Conservation & Ecology & Environmental Horticulture Department. This department is run through the UF/IFAS extension offices, which help with directly addressing agricultural solutions on a statewide basis. Ms. Marvin works as the education and training coordinator for this program that follows nine principles set forth within the various manuals for the “Florida Friendly Landscape program.” Green industry professionals can take courses online with UF and complete the courses to earn the GI-BMP certificate. Ms. Marvin was proud to note that over “37,000 professionals” have so far passed the courses and earned their certificates. Some of the benefits of BMP programs like the GI-BMP program are that it is a “one-time certification” and that certification attracts more customers and employers, according to Ms. Martin. The central principle of “right place right plant” helps to enforce native vegetation, while the manuals also describe in detail how modern techniques like Integrative Pest Management reduce the use of pesticides and fertilizers in residential lawns. However, the program is working on addressing challenges like language barriers and cultural attitudes to environmental protection. Ms. Marvin says that it is a huge challenge to change behavior, as people “can have all the information” they want yet still not change. Still, the backing of UF and scientific research has helped bolster the program in recent years, and Florida is one of only two states that have residential certificate programs like this.

State officials also work in conjunction with UF Extension agents and the water management districts. Mr. Darrell Smith is Assistant Director of the Office of Agricultural Water Policy under FDACS. As assistant director, Mr. Smith collaborates with the staff and Commissioner Putnam in overseeing “41 other positions” and ensuring development of water supply planning with the assistance of the FDEP . Mr. Smith is optimistic about the progress that BMP’s have had, especially in the St. John’s River area, Lake Okeechobee basin, and the Suwanee River Basin. Mr. Smith states that Commissioner Putnam is very much for a holistic “water policy” and several Florida state senators are interested in “making water a priority.” Mr. Smith also acknowledges that the cattle industry was “one of the first” to implement BMP’s consistently, along with the citrus industry. To Mr. Smith, BMP’s are successful when they help to develop “good working relationships” with farmers and agricultural businesses. Mr. Smith admits that BMP’s can be limited in their success because of “limited technology” and the how the pace of technological breakthrough lags behind production. Mr. Smith also emphasizes that BMP’s work very well in tandem with “conservation easements” and “water trading” programs, which are increasing in Florida. As long as “research funding” for new technologies go hand in hand with BMP’s, Mr. Smith is confident BMP’s will continue to be successful and well received amongst the agricultural industries.

Other experts also are optimistic about BMP’s. Professor Borisova is an Assistant Professor at UF and works as an Extension specialist with IFAS and as an economist for Water Economics and Policy within the state. As an economist, Professor Borisova examines “all the practices” that agricultural companies and the state government utilize . BMP’s, she mentions, are “just one of many strategies” for addressing pollution reduction in the state. BMP’s are very site-specific, and each one will have different costs. This can be a challenge of BMP’s, she says, as “reaching producers who haven’t committed” yet can be difficult. Professor Borisova, like Mr. Smith, emphasizes the importance of “new types of technology.” She is very excited for precision agriculture as it has been successful in the strawberry industry. She says that while fees for water withdrawal from an economic standpoint can have benefits, she wonders which price would be appropriate, as too high a fee would severely affect the livelihood of the average farmer. Professor Borisova says that nitrates also as pollution sources can be “difficult to trace” and that can lead to delays in North Florida with BMP’s curbing nitrate pollution. Professor Borisova also notes that culture and locations are very important for the success of BMP’s. In South Florida, farmer “get points for implementing BMP’s” and have more “concrete goals and feasible targets” to reach. Professor Borisova says that the counties that have adapted Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDL’s) from the national Clean Water Act have been successful at encouraging more farmers to use BMP’s. Still, Professor Borisova is confident in the new technologies and is working hard to make sure they are economically practical.

On the other hand, there are increasing dissenting opinions from environmental experts and advocacy groups. Dr. Robert Knight is the Director of the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute based in Gainesville, FL. This non-profit organization is working with several environmental groups and consultants in developing plans to effectively manage the water quality of Florida’s springs . “BMP’s are written to provide nutrient reductions only if they do not add cost to the farmer,” he says. This means, in his opinion, that BMP’s fall far short at being “measurably effective” in North Florida in terms of nitrogen reduction. Dr. Knight does concede that in South Florida with phosphates BMP’s have been effective. Dr. Knight proposes that there should be a “higher fee on fertilizer” to help dissuade overuse of fertilizers, as well as “more advanced BMP’s” need to be “mandatory in all spring sheds” especially in North Florida. “Water use monitoring, reporting, and taxing are essential to encourage efficient water use,” he explains.

Other environmental professionals also are curious about the enforcement of BMP’s. Dr. Tom Hoctor of the Landscape Conservation Center at UF works on development plans within Florida, and uses modeling and environmental plans to help conserve Florida’s natural resources, with projects like the Florida Wildlife Corridor. Dr. Hoctor mentioned that, although he is not an expert on BMP’s, he has had many discussions with professionals within the state government and outside the FDEP that have varying opinions on the effectiveness of BMP’s. He suggests that more regulation needs to be added. Voluntary BMP’s, Dr. Hoctor explains, are only as effective as the data that is being produced suggests. Incentive based conservation programs work well, he says, as well as federal programs that work on dispersed water storage.

BMP’s have recently been under further scrutiny as an increased in tax revenue is required to sustain certain programs. Recently a bill passed in the state legislature that increased regulations on water near Lake Okechobee, but also “loosened” regulations on landowners near the lake, allowing them to more easily opt for BMP’s and other “business-friendly” programs. In fact, these financial incentives and subsidies for BMP’s in this region are estimated to increase BMP’s for “$10 million” in the Everglades region and “$15 million” for projects near Lake Okeechobee. Groups like the Everglades Foundation, Sierra club, Florida Springs Council, Audobon Society, and Earthjustice all opposed the bill. The Everglades Foundation notably said that the bill has no concrete deadline for cleanup of Okeechobee, eliminates the mandatory regulations, and does not enforce the voluntary BMP program. The Florida Springs Council went as far as to say that the program is “ineffective” and will have “little positive effect” in restoring Springs.

The success of BMP’s in the future depends highly on the agricultural sector and how committed agriculture will be to current and also more advanced BMP’s. Many Florida citizens are concerned BMP’s are not strong enough to effectively address water quality. Still, there has been success in certain regions spurred by increased financial incentives, as seen in the Northern Everglades. Only time will tell if regulations will be added to enforce BMP’s, allowing them to become the widespread sustainable standard for Florida’s water security.

Photos by Caroline Nickerson