Wednesday, April 25, 2018
News Roundup

DeWitt: Tallahassee finally gets it — we love our springs

You want to see happy kids? Park yourself on the stretch of sidewalk at the Buccaneer Bay water park where little ones get their first glimpse of Weeki Wachee Spring.

Usually, there are shouts of delight, walks that turn into skips or sprints, and eyes shining like it's Christmas morning. Most of the chaperoning adults look pretty thrilled, too.

The point is, people love Florida's big, boiling first-magnitude springs, even people who might not normally know or care that much about the environment.

That means, of course, it's not good politics to be anti-spring, which even the state's Republicans are starting to realize.

It's strange to see. After years of tearing apart environmental protection, members of Tallahassee's ruling party are now practically fighting among themselves to show their concern for nature, especially the springs.

Why?

Mostly, I'm sure, it's backlash on several issues and especially Gov. Rick Scott's earlier decision to do away with a long-standing springs restoration program.

The other, more charitable theory is that the state has been broke for the past several years and finally has money to spend on the environment.

Either way, Scott's election-year budget proposal — besides setting aside more cash for natural land acquisition and the Everglades — increases funding for springs restoration by more than five times, to $55 million.

Even that is pocket change compared with the $372 million for springs included in a bill being prepared by five senators, including Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, whose district includes all of Hernando and most of Pasco counties.

That money, by the way, doesn't include the funding Simpson is seeking to get started on an $8.7 million plan to improve Weeki Wachee Springs State Park — work that, among other things, will protect the spring from contaminated runoff.

• • •

The Southwest Florida Water Management District's recent decision to add its first-magnitude springs to a program that puts them in line for restoration funding might also be a sign of political changes in Tallahassee; the district board is made up mostly of Scott appointees.

One final indication that conservatives, who traditionally value enterprise over nature, are starting to understand that the two actually go hand-in-hand: a recent, multi-county get-together on how to spend settlement money from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill, where the consensus was summed up by Hernando County Administrator Len Sossamon.

"To sustain economic development we have to sustain the environment. We only have one Mother Earth," he said.'

This does not mean big agriculture and business are suddenly willing to make big sacrifices to clean up Florida.

The springs bill, for example, is less about restraining polluters and water hogs than about spending money on sewage treatment systems.

But at least powerful people are talking about springs, talking about the environment in general, said Eric Draper, the executive director of Florida Audubon.

For the past few years, Draper's organization and its causes "were the dog that everyone liked to kick," he said. "And now, suddenly, we're the belle of the ball."

It's a big change. I'd even say it's disorienting if it weren't so obvious that this a step in the right direction.

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