SILVER SPRINGS STATE PARK — The Florida Department of Environmental Protection plan that outlines how to repair the polluted Silver Springs presented the local environmental community with an interesting quandary: Was it better to continue participating in the state exercise, even though it seems ineffective, or to walk away from the table in disgust and give up its role in the formal process?
Environmentalists chose the latter and say they have no regrets.
The rift, long brewing, boiled over in November. The Silver Springs Alliance had been a local stakeholder and participant in the two-year, DEP-led process that yielded a report and cleanup recommendations. The alliance said the report ignored its recommendations and was, essentially, a sham.
The alliance asked that its name be taken off the report. In December, the Florida Springs Council, an umbrella organization for more than 30 environmental groups, upped the ante by asking the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to intercede, saying the state's plan falls short of what's needed to repair the popular spring and river.
The department, for its part, says that while its plan is not perfect, it's a start and will help to clean out dangerous nitrogen from the waterways.
But the state and environmentalists differ strongly on how to achieve that benchmark.
"We all want the best for Silver Springs … and the BMAP (Basin Management Action Plan) is the best way to go," said Drew Bartlett, the department's deputy secretary for water policy and ecosystem restoration.
"This is nothing but political cover," counters Robert Knight, director of the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute in Gainesville and president of the Silver Springs Alliance.
There are several such plans for Florida water bodies. BMAPs, as they are called for short, guide Florida agencies on how to repair damaged springs and rivers. The plans are referenced when grants are allotted for environmental projects.
In its December letter to the EPA, the Florida Springs Council asked the federal agency to "exercise your full authority to require the State of Florida to follow the letter of the law with regards to this BMAP."
The environmental group has yet to receive a response from EPA.
Bartlett says the BMAP is a good place to start and that changes can be phased in for the future — contrary to the pessimistic picture that environmentalists paint.
Bartlett's problem, and one that environmentalists pin part of their argument to, is that he can't say whether nitrogen would be reduced 79 percent, even if all of the BMAP's programs — present and future — get implemented.
But the depth of that dent doesn't come close to satisfying Knight. He contends that at state's current projection levels, nitrogen will be reduced only 6 percent.
The department has allowed Silver Springs to be polluted for the past 40 years, and the government mentality that allowed such degradation hasn't changed, Knight said. If the agency was serious about reducing nitrogen, it should have each pollution source reduce its contribution by 79 percent and be done with it, he said.
Knight said state scientists, such as Bartlett, mean well. But they work for a Florida government not willing to go against political pressure and mandate significant pollution reductions. Knight said rather than implement a BMAP that at least is a start, the department and its scientists should be honest and tell the public this is the best they could get — politically speaking.