A recent court decision regarding efforts to impose numeric nutrient criteria has both environmentalists and agriculturists claiming partial victory.

Earthjustice and other environmental groups filed suit in 2008 to force the EPA to overstep the efforts already underway in Florida and impose what critics say are scientifically dubious limits on nutrients. The Florida Dept. of Environmental Protection started the process to establish numeric nutrient criteria, but they were derailed in 2009, when EPA entered into a settlement agreement with the environmental groups.

Several agricultural and agribusiness groups challenged the decision in federal court. In ruling on the case, US District Court Judge Robert L. Hinkle upheld a 2009 determination by the EPA that numeric nutrient standards are necessary for Florida's waters, but invalidated certain aspects of the water quality criteria the agency developed. Judge Hinkle upheld the criteria for lakes and springs, but invalidated the criteria for streams, saying they were “arbitrary and capricious.”

The Florida standards were in a narrative form as allowed by the Clean Water Act (CWA). However, EPA determined that numeric standards were necessary. Standard critics claimed that EPA tried to set a number that was based on the most pristine waters – an impossible standard to meet.

The court agreed with the argument that under the CWA, the state is actually the entity that controls how clean it wants its waters to be and that EPA cannot override that by trying to impose standards that reflect conditions “before man existed in these areas.”

Agricultural groups hope the ruling sends a message to EPA that states have the authority to determine water quality standards within their jurisdictions.