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Florida Dept. of Agriculture pushes water polluters to clean up

Christopher Pettit, Director of the Office of Agricultural Water Policy for the Florida Department of Agriculture
Posted at 3:02 PM, Dec 20, 2021

MANATEE COUNTY, Fla. — Governor Ron DeSantis is proposing pouring millions of dollars into combating Florida’s water quality crisis in the new year, as the state recovers from rounds of red tide and other harmful algae blooms.

Red tide and algae blooms: Florida waters in crisis

The I-Team found a patchwork of policies, finger pointing and enforcement, leading to a lack of accountability when it comes to the role farmers, ranchers and producers have to play in keeping Florida waters clean.

ABC Action News went away from the water and onto a Manatee County ranch, to see what it's doing to help turn the tide on water pollution.

Manatee County Ranch

Jim Strickland comes from a family that has been ranching in Florida since the Civil War.

“I’m a Manatee County cowboy,” he said. “I’ve grown up on these places, I’ve seen a lot of changes. I’m 66 years old.”

Strickland now looks to the years ahead.

“We play a part in the future of Florida, and we think we are going to be one of the answers,” Strickland said.

It’s the rallying cry of a rancher pushing people to realize their role in keeping Florida waters clean.

“We’re all part of what lends itself to the issue. Every one of us. So whether you have a septic tank or you take your dog to the local park and it poops in the park, you know, we are all part of the answer. What we’re saying is, on the ranch lands, because we are kind of the land frontier… that in itself is going to play a great part in water quality,” Strickland said.

Strickland is the owner of Strickland Ranch and managing partner of Big Red Cattle Company and Blackbeard’s Ranch — awarded the Florida Agricultural Commissioner’s 2018 Agricultural-Environmental Leadership Award, among other environmental recognitions.

“I’m not a scientist, I’m a cowboy rancher,” Strickland said. “That scientist, coupled with somebody like me or any number of thousands of ranchers or farmers across Florida — I think that’s a dream team.”

He relies on the Florida Department of Agriculture for Best Management Practices (BMPs), like monitoring how much fertilizer and phosphorus is put on the land and where cattle congregate — getting them away from streams and ponds.

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“We will occasionally put a little bit of fertilizer with the recommendations we have under BMPs," Strickland said. “We’ve got a small margin of profit in the cattle industry, so we really watch our costs."

Strickland said they are constantly trying to work more efficiently and in a way that's better for the environment.

“You don’t have much runoff that comes from cattle being concentrated because you see how quickly we’ve run through this cattle. We don’t keep these cattle in these pens, we get ‘em in, we move ‘em, we take ‘em out,” Strickland told the I-Team. “We used to use products that we do not use today.”

In August, the Department of Agriculture announced it would start conducting in-person site visits rather than relying on voluntary self-reporting — something Strickland welcomes.

“I don’t want to be the guy that ruins somebody downstream," he said.

Christopher Pettit, Director of the Department of Agriculture’s Office of Agricultural Water Policy, told the I-Team, “You look at some of the beautiful maps, it looks like veins, and all of these watersheds are so interconnected. So the practices that we’re putting in on the ground are just so important.”

His office comes up with the Best Management Practices.

“Nutrient management, irrigation management and water resource management,” Pettit explained. “We work really, really hard to really dial in, to the greatest extent possible, how folks are operating on a given landscape.”

As part of the Clean Water Initiative, announced in August, his office is updating those best management practices with the latest research, data and technologies available, and working with producers on corrective action plans.

“What we’ve done is we’ve gotten much more precise in the data that we’re collecting,” Pettit said. “We’re going to be better able to track actual reductions in water use, in nutrient use, over time.”

The I-Team asked what accountability there is for producers who are not doing what they’re supposed to be doing when it comes to water quality.

“At times there may be an enforcement case that is filed and they go after that,” Pettit said of cases referred to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) for water quality violations under state law.

“Those are few and far between,” Pettit said.

Of the thousands of cases the Department of Agriculture has referred to DEP, the I-Team found, since 2019, just two have led to enforcement cases. Those cases, seeking the maximum penalty of $50,000, remain ongoing. 

“You then have a large kind of percentage of people that we just need to cajole into getting it right. And that’s partially education, that’s partially outreach, at times, people sometimes need motivation,” Pettit said. “That means we have to have those incentive-based frameworks, those cost-share programs to make sure that we’re able to get those practices on the ground without putting people out of business.”

'It's catastrophic': Why more than 700 dead manatees are just the tip of the iceberg

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried told the I-Team during a visit to ZooTampa’s rehab center for manatees, where they nurse manatees sick from red tide back to health, that there is a greater cost to not making changes to protect Florida’s waters.

“What is the cost to not do this — and that is astronomical,” Fried said. “Agriculture definitely needs to be stepping up to the plate, we’ve got some incredible farmers across the entire state, that this is a priority for them. Unfortunately there are some bad actors. And we’ve got to make sure that we are holding them accountable.”

In February, her department referred 6,033 parcels of land to DEP for enforcement. In May, that number dropped to 2,772 parcels after removing those that were “unlikely to have agriculture activity,” according to DEP. 

DEP would not grant an interview, but in an email on Dec. 15, told the I-Team it has brought more than 68% of the properties into compliance through education and outreach, and will “continue to use all available tools” to bring owners of the 852 remaining parcels of land into compliance who have not responded. 

“Governor DeSantis has made very clear his expectations that Florida's environmental laws are enforced, and the department is committed to carrying out that directive. We will continue to use all available tools to bring producers into compliance as expeditiously as possible and hold violators accountable in order to ensure the protection of Florida's natural resources,” a DEP spokesperson wrote.

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Jerry Phillips, a former enforcement attorney for DEP, has his doubts.

“To our knowledge, we have not seen any cases in Florida, zero cases in which the DEP has stepped in and taken court action to require these facilities, these agricultural concerns to obtain a permit,” Phillips said.

Phillips has spent years reviewing the agency’s enforcement as Florida Director of the nonprofit PEER, Public Employees for Environmental responsibility.

“I think we’re at a tipping point. Where we need to make a decision as a state as to whether or not we’re going to take aggressive enforcement and require these polluters to reign in this pollution and abide by their permits,” Phillips said. “It needs to happen and it needs to happen yesterday, quite frankly.”

In response, DEP told the I-Team, “To be clear, DEP has not and will not fail to take enforcement.”

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Back in Manatee County, Strickland said he’s committed to do the work to preserve what makes Florida, Florida — and what will make his children proud.

“I want them to enjoy and say, either dad or granddad or great granddad, you know, he did their part,” he said. “Every one of us is part of this answer.”

This upcoming session, the I-Team plans to follow legislation that would give the Department of Agriculture more power to help smaller producers make water quality improvements and impose fines on violators.

A manatee sick from red tide is nursed back to health at ZooTampa's Manatee Critical Care Center

“People should be aware. We’ve got manatees dying, we’ve got people being sick, we’ve got economies shutting down, we’re seeing dead fish, red tide, I mean if people in our state are not seeing this as an emergency, I don’t know what else that it would take for them to wake up and say that we are in a crisis situation here," Fried said.

The Governor's proposed budget includes a $35 million investment to improve water quality and combat the impacts of red tide and blue-green algae.

Governor's Budget Recommendations for FY 2022-2023