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The Story of Water in Florida

Water is Florida's lifeblood. It is fickle. Abundant one year. Scarce another. Yet, everything that is Florida is defined by the quality of its water resources -- and deserves all the protection we can provide.

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Discover Florida's Freshwater Springs

Image of Ichetucknee Spring near Ft. White is one of many springs that contribute to the Suwannee River's flow.

Florida is blessed with one of the largest concentrations of freshwater springs in the world. These amazing ecosystems provide habitat for manatees and many other unique species as well as recreational opportunities for residents and visitors. They also provide a unique glimpse into the health of our aquifer.

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The Laws of Water

A Primer on Florida Water Law

A variety of Federal, state and local laws and programs govern different aspects of the water environment. Often citizen involvement can play an important role in establishing local ordinances and influencing state rule making. Below is an overview of major water protection laws and programs in Florida.

Image of An aerial view of the state capitol building in Tallahassee.
An aerial view of the state capitol building in Tallahassee. © Russell Sparkman

Federal Law

At the federal level the primary water laws are the Clean Water Act (CWA) and the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). Within Florida most provisions of these laws are implemented by the state under a combination of delegation from the federal government and state law. An exception is the CWA Section 404 "dredge and fill" permit program which is jointly administered by the Federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (COE) with the COE being responsible for day to day permit processing except for certain smaller projects, which are reviewed by the state under a State Programmatic General Permit.

State of Florida

At the state level the primary "water" laws are the Air and Water Pollution Control Act and the Water Resources Act of 1972. Under those laws and certain federal delegations there are a number of programs in place to manage and protect Florida's water resources including:

  • Water Quality Standards - DEP is responsible for establishing Surface Water Quality Standards, subject to review and approval by the state Environmental Regulations Commission and by EPA. The state must certify that these standards are being met prior to the COE issuing a Section 404 "dredge and fill" permit.
  • National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System - DEP implements this federally delegated permit program which controls water pollution by regulating point sources of pollution (wastewater treatment plants, industrial and manufacturing sites, etc.) and point source discharges of stormwater into surface waters of the State of Florida from certain municipal, industrial and construction activities.
  • Impaired Waters List and Total Maximum Daily Loads - under this program DEP develops a list of waters (rivers, lakes, streams, etc.) that are do not meet the state water quality standards; establishes priority rankings for these impaired waters; develops Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs), which is a calculation of the maximum amount of a pollutant that a waterbody can receive and still safely meet water quality standards; and develops Basin Management Action Plans (BMAPs) that identify the management strategies necessary to achieve the target TMDLs.
  • Nonpoint Source Management Program - this program is designed to minimize nonpoint source pollution such as stormwater runoff from urban and residential areas through federally funded grant program that conducts a variety of research projects and assists in the funding of local stormwater treatment systems in priority waterbodies.
  • State Revolving Fund - This program provides low-interest loans to communities to improve or construct drinking water facilities and water pollution control facilities such as advance wastewater treatment plants and stormwater pollution projects.
  • Drinking Water - Florida is delegated to implement the federal Safe Drinking Water Act which has the primary role of regulating public water systems in Florida.
  • Ground Water - Florida implements a number of ground water protection programs including wellhead protection, ground water delineation, underground injection control, etc.
  • Domestic Wastewater - DEP is also responsible for the development and administration of rules and policy for proper treatment of wastewater from domestic facilities. Other responsibilities include such activities as industrial pretreatment, residuals management, reuse of reclaimed water, wastewater to wetlands and coordination of on-site sewage treatment and disposal (septic systems) activities with the Department of Health.
  • Florida Coastal Zone Management program - a federally approved program under the federal Coastal Zone Management Act that provides federal funding support to assist States with managing coastal resources. In addition to providing funding, the CZMA grants Florida the authority to review a broad range of federal actions for consistency with state law.
  • Consumptive Use Permitting - primarily administered by the State's 5 regional Water Management Districts this permitting program regulates the withdrawal of water from surface and ground water sources to balance the need for water for human consumption, directly and indirectly, while maintaining an adequate supply to support natural environmental systems. In related, effort the WMDs are responsible for establishing Minimum Flows and Levels necessary to prevent significant harm to natural systems as a result of the withdrawal of water.
  • Environmental Resource Permitting - the Department administers a consolidated state stormwater/dredge and fill program in cooperation with the regional Water Management Districts. For projects that involve the use of state owned submerged lands, review of the ERP application and approval to use those submerged lands are processed together. As part of the ERP program the state implements a single delineation methodology, binding on all state, regional and local government agencies, for establishing the boundary between uplands and wetlands or other surface waters.

Local programs (Cities and Counties)

Local governments may have their own regulatory programs that can be more stringent than the state but those local programs are required to use water quality standards adopted by the Department and the single state wetland delineation methodology and may not include water consumption regulations.

In some cases local programs have been delegated authority to administer regulations on behalf of the state. Local delegations of authority exist in nine counties for the Drinking Water Program and one county for the Environmental Resource Permitting Program.

Local governments also have public policies that allow citizens to voice their opinion and help shape their local laws.

Image of During local planning board and town government meetings, citizens have the opportunity to voice their opinions and concerns about land use decisions that can affect quality of water resources.
During local planning board and town government meetings, citizens have the opportunity to voice their opinions and concerns about land use decisions that can affect quality of water resources.

Citizen involvement

In order to ensure that the public has a voice in the State rulemaking process, Florida law requires that rules be adopted through a public process and provides an administrative process whereby citizens may challenge agency rules and permitting decisions.

Citizens can influence State rulemaking through rulemaking public workshops or through technical advisory committees formed to determine the details of complex rules. Rulemaking can be tracked through the Florida Administrative Weekly website by signing up for rule notice announcements, and on the DWRM Rulemaking web page.

Citizens can influence local environmental ordinances through their city or county commissions.

Additional Resources:

Florida DEP Division of Water Resource Management - Water Rules

Florida Air and Water Pollution Control Act

Florida Water Resources Act

Florida DEP Surface Water Quality Standards

Federal Coastal Zone Management Act

Florida DEP Coastal Management Program

Florida Environmental Regulation Commission

DEP Wetlands Evaluation and Delineation Program

Florida Consumptive Use Permits

Florida Administrative Weekly

U.S. Clean Water Act

US Army Corps of Engineers Permit Program

Water Management Districts

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