The ditch was once a stream called St. Augustine Branch that flowed towards a waterfall that became a landmark in the siting of Florida’s capital city in 1823. But the waterfall eventually was wiped out when railroad tracks were built in the 1850s and the stream was ditched years later to reduce flooding.
But the ditch is still known as St. Augustine Branch to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. And it’s rated by DEP as Class III, or fishable and swimmable — a classification under the federal Clean Water Act that city officials say could establish unrealistic and expensive cleanup requirements.
Now the Florida Stormwater Association, which consists of city and county officials across the state, is asking DEP to create a new waterway classification system so that local governments are not required to spend millions of dollars improving water quality in ditches and canals rather than the lakes and rivers downstream.
“There are examples like that all over the state — these urban conveyances that have really little or no human or aquatic benefit,” said Kurt Spitzer, executive director of the Florida Stormwater Association. “You can’t go fishing, you can’t go swimming — yet they are Class III.”
But some environmentalists are concerned that the state may allow more pollution in too many waterways, including canals that people fish in and some streams where people swim or float in inner tubes. And they rankle at stormwater officials using the Franklin Boulevard ditch as an example.
“It’s not a creek, it’s not a stream — it’s not a Class III water body,” said Linda Young, director of the Clean Water Network of Florida. “They continue to act like it is and use it as a poster child to say all these water bodies (should be declassified).”
DEP says it is revising its waterway classification rule in response to the Florida Stormwater Association petition filed in July. Public hearings must be held and any rule change must be approved by the state Environmental Regulation Commission.
The department had proposed changes to the waterway classifications in 2007 but faced opposition and the proposal was shelved, according to environmentalists. DEP Secretary Michael Sole in 2007 sent a letter to local officials across the state denying that the department was trying to reduce water quality standards.
The Class III designation brings with it a requirement to meet certain minimum water quality standards that are not attainable and are unnecessary in many manmade waters, Sole said.
But Monica Reimer, an attorney with the Earthjustice law firm, said the state shouldn’t revamp the whole waterway classification system because of concerns.
“The Clean Water Act is about clean water,” said Monica Reimer, an attorney for the EarthJustice law firm. “If you want to deal with ditches, deal with ditches.”
Young, of the Clean Water Network, said the reclassification could be used to allow more pollution in any river or stream that may have been altered at one time. DEP, however, says the reclassification would allow it to better protect pristine waters and establish more realistic goals for artificial waterways.
In Orange County, the Little Econ River, Shingle Creek and the Little Wekiva Canal all are Class III even though local officials say they have been substantially altered. Shingle Creek is a ditch through Orlando on its way to Lake Tohopekaliga at the headwaters of Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades, said Julie Bortles, program manager for ecological assessment in the Orange County Environmental Protection Division.
“A lot of these areas, at least in Orlando are older and still don’t have stormwater ponds in them.,” she said. “The primary means of getting rid of stormwater is straight into these ditches. We are trying to put more (stormwater treatment) in but financially it’s not possible to put stormwater ponds in everywhere.”
Not everyone in Tallahassee agrees that Franklin Boulevard is just a ditch. Sean McGlynn, a Tallahassee aquatic biologist, said the former St. Augustine Branch is fed by small springs in surrounding neighborhoods when it’s not being flushed with dirty stormwater runoff on its way to Lake Munson.
McGlynn says the stream and floodplain should be restored on one side of Franklin Boulevard and the traffic lanes should be moved to the other side. The city has delayed plans for enclosing the stream in culverts.
Enclosing the stream in culverts or removing its fishable-swimmable designation could doom historic St. Augustine Branch, McGlynn said.
“There are fish, there are frogs. There are aquatic plants — because they (city maintenance workers) keep scooping them out,” McGlynn said. “By making it a ditch, you are destroying the habitat that’s there.”
John Cox, Tallahassee’s water quality planning chief, said removing nitrogen and phosphorus to achieve water quality standards could cost $15 million or more, and he said it isn’t worth it.
“The more of those kinds of waters that you identify as impaired,” he said, “the more you take away resources from actually protecting and restoring waters that actually have more of a chance to support a well-balanced aquatic community — if you lower the pollutant load.”
View DEP’s web page on the classification process by clicking here.
View the Florida Stormwater Association’s petition and Soles 2007 letter by clicking here.