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Hot Topic: State Water Quality

To protect the quality of Florida’s rivers, lakes, springs, estuaries and coastal watersheds, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection executes and oversees a continuous cycle of water quality assessment, protection and restoration. The department’s Division of Environmental Assessment and Restoration is primarily responsible for the programs that implement this process.

The cycle starts with state water quality standards, which set the baseline for healthy water quality. Florida’s standards involve establishing “designated uses” for waterbodies, whether drinking water sources, shellfish harvesting, recreational areas or agriculture. The department has adopted a matrix of water quality criteria, varying based on the designated use and type of waterbody, to limit the introduction of pollutants and protect the uses. The Water Quality Standards Program is responsible for continually evaluating and periodically revising standards to ensure they continue to protect public health, aquatic life and the public uses Florida’s water resources provide.

To gauge water quality, the department works with Florida’s water management districts and local governments to sample surface and ground waters across the state. The samples are analyzed and the resulting data are used to support a variety of department actions. One purpose for the data is to gain a general understanding of Florida’s statewide water quality status (current conditions) and trends (changes over time), determined through statistically representative monitoring networks. The results are available in electronic “water quality report cards.”

The division also implements strategic monitoring to assess the health of individual surface waters, conducted primarily by staff in Tallahassee and regional operation centers located in the department’s district offices. The program assesses approximately 20 percent of Florida’s watersheds each year to identify waterbodies that do not meet water quality standards (“impaired waters”), which are then placed on a “Verified List” to guide restoration priorities. Other potentially impaired waters, where more data are needed, are listed for further investigation.

Many of the monitoring program’s samples are analyzed in the department’s nationally recognized Central Laboratory. The lab can detect and measure a broad range of chemical compounds at low concentrations, including molecular markers of bacterial contamination, assuring the accuracy and scientific defensibility of the data the department uses in its water quality assessments and other programs. Lab staff perform more than 140,000 analyses per year.

Using information from the assessment program, local stakeholders and other sources, the TMDL program develops water quality restoration targets for verified impaired waterbodies. Each TMDL, or total maximum daily load, identifies the maximum amount of an impairment-causing pollutant(s) that may be present in a healthy waterbody. It is a scientifically-derived value based on site-specific water quality data and advanced computer modeling. TMDLs may be refined based on input from public workshops and are adopted by rule. In effect, each TMDL identifies the pollutant load reductions necessary to bring the waterbody back to meeting water quality standards.


The water quality restoration program, in turn, is responsible for developing detailed restoration plans, known as Basin Management Action Plans, or BMAPs. Each BMAP must account for related TMDL water quality targets; the geography and hydrology of the watershed, including areas most vulnerable to pollutant loading; local land uses; the types of projects and activities that will cost-effectively reduce pollutant loadings; and stakeholder participation. Each BMAP is developed through a series of technical meetings and public workshops and is adopted by an enforceable Secretarial Order. The department helps local stakeholders implement each BMAP through technical guidance and, when available, cost-share grants or low-interest loans. BMAP implementation progress is reviewed regularly, and BMAPs may be updated as necessary.

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Last Modified:
June 12, 2023 - 11:19am

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