Facts About Stormwater and Alachua County That We Need to Know

Photo Gainesville Sun

Our recent post “Saving Money Is Not a Valid Excuse to Ruin the Environment” has been expanded, documented and greatly improved by Dr. Bob Palmer, in the Gainesville Sun.  Now online, it will be in print in Sunday, August 28, 2016 edition.

The many false allegations and unsubstantiated and exaggerated statements regarding stormwater which were present in Dean Cheshire’s op-ed of Aug. 21, are corrected in this article by Dr. Palmer, who sits on the advisory board of OSFR.

Comments by OSFR historian Jim Tatum.
-A river is like a life:  once taken, it cannot be brought back-

Bob Palmer: Stormwater and the protection of our environment


Posted at 2:00 AM

By Bob Palmer Special to The Sun

In an Aug. 21 guest column, “Stormwater and the war on affordability” local developer Dean Cheshire painted an alarmist, sky-is-falling picture of the alleged effects of Alachua County’s efforts to find better ways to manage stormwater. Cheshire’s piece is filled with so much exaggeration and so many unsubstantiated allegations that it hard to know where to start in correcting the record. But I recently attended a lengthy briefing by county staff on stormwater, so I’ll give it a shot.

Cheshire claims that the County Commission is “plunging forward” and “thrusting ahead” with new requirements to treat stormwater that will “devastate any remaining hopes for affordable housing in our community.”

The county is hardly plunging and thrusting. In reality, staff is engaged in a careful evaluation of cost-effective practices to reduce nitrogen pollution from new development. Assisting them is a team of internationally recognized stormwater experts, including representatives from the University of Florida and the University of Central Florida’s Stormwater Academy.

County staff have already reached out to local stormwater design engineers, municipalities, citizen advisory groups and many other stakeholders. This review is still a staff exercise, not ready for public workshops overseen by the Alachua County Commission until mid-October at the earliest.

Cheshire claims that “current estimates predict increases of over $20,000 per new home in new regulatory costs.” Needless to say, he doesn’t cite the source of those estimates. They are pulled out of a hat and will likely turn out to be wild exaggerations.

Most critically, Cheshire never bothers to explain why county staff are studying options for reducing nitrogen pollution from stormwater, although his overall tenor suggests that staff are embarked on this misadventure because of their strong aversion to affordable housing. The actual reason for this re-examination is simple — it’s Florida law. Cheshire may not like the law. But it is the law.

State water regulation requires a “net improvement” in pollutant loads discharged into impaired watersheds. And the most recent iteration of that water law passed nearly unanimously in January, with “aye” votes from all four members of the county’s legislative delegation. Cheshire’s Business Community Coalition no doubt supported these representatives, so maybe his gripe should be with them rather than with humble county staff attempting to fulfill the law’s mandates.

State water laws provide that impaired waters must be cleaned up through Basin Management Action Plans, in which the contributions of various polluters are determined and their responsibilities for reducing pollutants are established. Virtually all of Alachua County falls within two BMAPs. All entities contributing to nitrogen pollution in the Orange Creek or Santa Fe Basins are expected to share responsibility for their clean-up (e.g. agriculture is required to implement best management practices).

As an example of a project that evolved from the Orange Creek BMAP process, Gainesville Regional Utilities and its customers spent $25 million constructing Sweetwater Wetlands Park to cleanse nitrogen flowing out of the Main Street treatment plant before it discharged into the Floridan Aquifer, the source of our drinking water.

So the county’s examination of stormwater options is not an idle exercise. It’s a sensible step in contributing the county’s fair share to the clean-up of two highly degraded aquatic systems that define our county.

To suggest, as Cheshire does, that “not a single scientific study” has implicated stormwater is ludicrous. I would refer him to the voluminous reports and publications from the two BMAP working groups for their discussion of stormwater pollution.

Cheshire apparently feels that these legal requirements are someone else’s problem besides the developers he represents. “We could take a look at septic tanks,” he suggests. However, state law wisely makes clean-up of compromised waters a group effort — those contributing to the problem should contribute to the solution.

The county is not considering applying new stormwater standards to existing development, only new development. Builders of new development, who will be contributing new pollution via stormwater, should be responsible for mitigating that pollution rather than pawning off the cost on the general population.

The county is at the beginning stage of doing what it is legally required to do and should be commended for initiating a broad discussion and for attempting to be responsible for its impacts on the environment. No decisions have been made and won’t be for many months. Economic considerations will surely be part of the picture.

Let the process go forward and let all the affected and responsible parties be mature enough to take responsibility for their contribution to a more livable community.

— Bob Palmer is a board member of the Florida Springs Council and lives in Gainesville.

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