Industry groups don't want new rules to protect Florida's springs

A plan by a group of key state senators to curb pollution meets powerful opposition.

Some of Florida's most powerful state senators have put their heads together to draft legislation designed to help Florida's ailing springs.

The draft bill would earmark about $378 million per year for sewage hookups and septic tank improvements in springs areas, and would require 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 be required to hook up to a central sewer line.

Given the position of the senators — all four chair key committees — the bill might be expected to have smooth sailing once the Legislature convenes March 4. But now 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 — have said: Not so fast.

"There is another way," the groups wrote in a Jan. 28 letter to the senators, then advocated sticking with the laws and rules that are now on the books.

"Florida has the regulatory tools it needs to meet the kinds of water supply and quality challenges this legislation seeks to address," says the letter, signed by Associated Industries, the Florida Farm Bureau Federation and 22 other groups. "These programs simply need to be fully funded and conscientiously implemented."

"That would be fine, except for some reason those laws don't seem to be working," said Estus Whitfield of the Florida Conservation Coalition, a consortium of 50 environmental organizations backing the bill. He paraphrased the industries' letter as, "Don't mess up this good thing we've got going here."

One of the bill's sponsors, Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, who chairs the Committee on Community Affairs, said he appreciated the comments of the developers and other business groups and looked forward to negotiating with them. "When I ask someone to come up with a better idea," Simmons said Tuesday, "they usually end up coming up with something that's substantially similar to what's already been drafted."

Florida's springs are in deep trouble. 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. 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, their environmental woes have an economic impact.

One of the industry group's big objections to changing the current laws is the potential cost of what the senators are proposing to clean up pollution now flowing into the springs.

Although the bill says the state will pay for hooking people on septic tanks up to sewer lines, the industry letter suggests the state will run out of money and the residents will be stuck with the bill for cleaning up their own pollution.

"Based on historical experience," the letter says, "it is likely overly optimistic to suggest the Legislature and governor will provide over $300 million annually for springs protection with the many other water challenges facing the state of Florida."

Former Gov. Jeb Bush launched an initiative to save the state's springs back in 2000, but it was dismantled under Gov. Rick Scott in 2011. All of the Bush springs initiative's recommendations for new laws were ignored by the Legislature — except for one involving septic tank inspections, which was passed in 2010 but then repealed before it took effect because of cost concerns.

Last year thousands of people petitioned Scott for more protection and restoration for the springs, and local government officials in North Florida formed an activist group to push for legislation. No springs bill passed, however. The Legislature agreed to spend $10 million for springs protection, far from the $122 million in projects that the state's five water management districts had listed as essential to springs restoration.

This year — an election year — may be different. Last month Scott proposed spending $55 million for springs restoration and protection in the next budget year. Meanwhile, the senators are pushing their $358 million idea, which has drawn support from such groups as Audubon Florida. So far there is no similar push for springs protection in the House.

Craig Pittman can be reached at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @craigtimes.