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Florida water management districts seek $122 million for springs restoration

Florida's springs are in trouble. Most have lost flow. Some have reversed themselves. Many of them are suffering from rampant pollution that has spurred the growth of toxic algae. There are signs that saltwater is intruding.

What will it take to fix all this? According to state water officials, $122.4 million — just to start. That's 10 times what the state spent on springs last year, and four times what the state budgeted for Everglades restoration.

A key part: $10 million to be spent replacing septic tanks and small sewage plants near some of the state's key springs in hopes of reducing their leaking of pollution into the aquifer.

State Department of Environmental Protection officials recently "solicited the lists of possible springs projects from the water management districts as part of a planning exercise to help establish a list that could provide a starting point should funding become available," DEP spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller said in an e-mail to the Times.

She said the list of springs restoration projects "will evolve and be modified over time as we know how much money is available."

Whether they will get all of that money is questionable.

"That's a heck of a big number," Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said in an interview. Still, he said, when it comes to springs, "we need to do more than we're doing now."

A century ago, Florida's gin-clear springs drew presidents and millionaires and tourists galore who sought to cure their ailments by bathing in their waters. Florida's most prominent springs continue to attract tourists, and many are now owned by the taxpayers as part of the state park system.

But many of the state's freshwater springs are now troubled by a reduced or even halted flow, and the loss of power has been accompanied by an increase in pollution, toxic algae blooms and in some cases saltiness.

An effort launched by then-Gov. Jeb Bush in 2000 to explore what was wrong with the springs and fix it was disbanded by Gov. Rick Scott. While the Bush springs initiative existed, it spent a total of $25 million.

The list of recently submitted springs proposals delighted Jim Stevenson, a retired DEP employee who spearheaded the Bush springs initiative.

"That would be outstanding if they'd come up with that kind of money," he said,

Most of the recommendations made by Stevenson's springs task force in 2000 were ignored by the Legislature, except for one: a bill passed in 2010 requiring inspections of septic tanks to check for leaks. There are about 2.6 million septic tanks in the state, half of them more than 30 years old.

But when septic tank owners objected to the $150 inspection price, legislators repealed the law last year. Among those leading the repeal effort: Gaetz.

Now getting rid of septic tanks near springs is one of the main targets of the proposed taxpayer-funded restoration effort. In Citrus County, for instance, county officials say the DEP is already helping pay for removing 500 septic tanks around Kings Bay in hopes of ending the spread of a toxic algae called Lyngbya.

The water management districts' proposed project list for this year includes not only more septic tank removals but a host of other ideas aimed at boosting both water quality and quantity in the springs. That includes everything from removing built-up sediment that's blocking spring vents to building canoe launching sites to installing new reclaimed water pipelines that will help cut back on groundwater pumping.

One proposal calls for spending $14.5 million on building a water treatment plant to take 4 million gallons a day out of the St. Johns River and use it for drinking water instead of pumping water out of the ground.

The list of projects proposed by the Southwest Florida Water Management District, which oversees the Weeki Wachee, Chassahowitzka and Homosassa springs north of the Tampa Bay region, totals $4.8 million.

Last year's final state budget totaled $70 billion, including $30 million for Everglades restoration. DEP officials boasted of devoting $11 million to "restoration, outreach, monitoring and research in our springs." However, $8 million of that was for a statewide pollution sensing system, not for restoration, outreach or research.

Scott has not yet submitted his proposed budget for this year to the Legislature.

Craig Pittman can be reached at craig@tampabay.com.

Florida water management districts seek $122 million for springs restoration 01/22/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 22, 2013 10:28pm]
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