With the legislative session more than half over, lawmakers in the House and Senate remain at odds over what to do — if anything — to fix Florida's ailing springs.
In the Senate, SB 1576, sponsored by five veteran legislators, has passed two of its three committee hearings by unanimous vote. It calls for designating protection zones around 38 of the state's most prominent springs, cutting the flow of pollution from runoff and septic tanks, and safeguarding their continued flow with limits on pumping.
But its House companion, HB 1313, sponsored by Rep. Jason Brodeur, has been about as unlucky as its number suggests. After Brodeur filed it March 3, it was referred to three committees and has yet to get a hearing in any.
Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness, on Friday predicted quick approval by the full Senate as soon as lawmakers return from a weeklong break for Passover and Easter. What's unknown at this point is what the House will do with it, he said, "but that's not going to stop us. We're energized."
However, House Speaker Will Weatherford questioned whether anything would pass either chamber.
"I've met with some senators and I've heard what they're working on," Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, told reporters Friday. "It's my understanding there's disagreement even within the Senate on the policy and the funding side."
Even though Gov. Rick Scott has requested $55 million for springs restoration, Weatherford wasn't certain the Legislature would come up with a dime.
"We hope we have funding this year for springs," he said. "I think the House and the Senate have some in their budgets. But the policy associated with it has yet to be determined."
The senators are willing to compromise with the House to get the springs bill passed, Dean said. But springs advocates fear the House just wants to quash the effective parts of the bill, said Estus Whitfield of the Florida Conservation Coalition. If the senators give up too much just to get a bill approved, he said, then leaders of both the House and Senate can declare victory but the springs will continue their decline.
Both bills say that "the Legislature finds that springs are a unique part of this state's scenic beauty, deserving the highest level of protection." But over the past dozen years, biologists and state officials have realized that Florida's springs are in serious trouble.
Florida has more than 1,000 freshwater springs, hailed as the greatest concentration of springs in the world. But many are suffering from nitrate pollution that fuels the growth of toxic algae blooms caused by fertilizer and septic tank waste in storm runoff.
Compounding the pollution is a decline in flow that in some cases resulted in them sputtering out completely or reversing flow. And geologists have found a disturbing increase in saltiness in a few freshwater springs, which could signal future problems with the state's drinking supply.
Because many of the springs are major tourist draws, such as Silver Springs and Ichetucknee Springs, their environmental woes have an economic impact on their nearby communities.
And because many are part of the state park system, that means they are assets belonging to the taxpayers that state officials have allowed to become degraded.
Former Gov. Jeb Bush launched an initiative to save the state's springs in 2000, but it was dismantled in 2011 under Gov. Rick Scott. However, Scott now wants to emphasize his support for springs revival, setting aside money in his budget for two years in a row.
The senators' springs bill would earmark about $378 million per year for sewage hookups and septic tank improvements in springs areas. It would require the state Department of Environmental Protection to create "protection and management zones" for the state's most prominent springs, where most homes would be required to hook up to a central sewer line.
The DEP would be required to set minimum flows and levels for each of those springs, beyond which no pumping would be allowed. Local governments would be required to pass limits on fertilizer use. No one would be allowed a permit for new concentrated animal feeding or slaughterhouse operations near those springs.
However, just before the legislative session began, a cadre of business groups — including the Association of Florida Community Developers, the Florida Home Builders Association, the Florida Fertilizer and Agrichemical Association and the Florida Chamber of Commerce — announced its opposition to any bill.
"There is another way," the groups wrote in a Jan. 28 letter to the senators. "Florida has the regulatory tools it needs to meet the kinds of water supply and quality challenges this legislation seeks to address. These programs simply need to be fully funded and conscientiously implemented."
Meanwhile, Weatherford has told the senators and their staff that his successor, Rep. Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, wants to tackle water policy issues next year as his signature issue. That's why the House has been reluctant to take action this year.
"I don't foresee any major changes to water policy this year," Crisafulli, who hails from a prominent citrus family, told the Times before the session began.
Dean predicted the House will ultimately decide to pass something to help the springs this year, even if it's not the final answer. He figures springs advocates have one major selling point for any legislator who wants to stall until the next session.
"It's an election year," Dean said. "Let them stand up and say, 'I'm not for clean water.' Then the five of us (senators) will look them in the eye and say, 'Friend, you wrote your own epitaph.' "
Craig Pittman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @craigtimes.