Two months ago, when Florida's annual legislative session began, the effort to fix the state's ailing springs seemed to have a lot going for it. A coalition of powerful senators had drawn up a bill proposing a comprehensive approach to restoring their flow and cleaning up their ongoing pollution problem. Meanwhile Gov. Rick Scott had proposed spending $55 million on the problem this year.
But when the session ended late Friday, the springs bill was dead and Scott's proposed funding had been whittled down to $25 million for springs restoration and $5 million to help farmers clean up their own pollution near springs.
"I believe it was doomed from the start," said Estus Whitfield, a former gubernatorial aide turned springs advocate with the Florida Conservation Coalition.
The minute the senators unveiled their wide-ranging proposal, Whitfield said, "the lobbyists started to work on killing it." 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, opposed making any changes at all in state law to help springs, arguing the laws already on the books are sufficient.
Meanwhile House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said before the session began that his successor, Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, wanted to tackle the state's myriad water woes all at once — not just springs, but Everglades and other issues as well — next year, when he's in charge.
"The House sent a message from Day One that they wanted to wait until next year to take up all water policy issues so that Speaker-designate Crisafulli can make these issues his priority," said Audubon of Florida legislative director Mary Jean Yon.
So while the senators sweated over compromises to get their bill passed by the Senate in the final week of the session, the House version never got a single committee hearing, much less a floor vote. Crisafulli didn't like the multimillion-dollar price tag for replacing septic tanks and other pollution cleanup measures.
"When dealing with springs and other water issues, I think we need to carefully consider the impacts and costs our legislation could have on families, businesses and local governments," Crisafulli said Monday. The industry groups had a similar objection.
Although the state has more than 1,000 freshwater springs — generally hailed as the greatest concentration of springs in the world — many are suffering from nitrate pollution that fuels the growth of toxic algae blooms.
Compounding the problem is a decline in their flow that in some cases resulted in them sputtering out completely or reversing flow. State geologists have also 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, both for the ones that are privately owned and for the ones that are part of the state park system, their environmental woes have an economic impact.
The original version of the Senate bill called for earmarking about $378 million per year from documentary stamp taxes for sewage hookups and septic tank improvements in springs areas. It also would have required the state Department of Environmental Protection to create "protection and management zones" for 38 of the state's most prominent springs. Most homes in those zones would have been required to hook up to a central sewer line.
Despite the bill's defeat, one of the Senate sponsors, Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, said it was a battle worth fighting. Solutions to complex issues usually take more than one year to get legislative approval in Florida, he said, "and I think we made major headway this year. I think we're on the right path."