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Legislators show no urgency in dealing with Florida springs' problems

The president of the state Senate says Florida should do more for its springs. Thousands of people have petitioned Gov. Rick Scott for more protection and restoration for the springs. A group of local government officials in North Florida has formed an activist group to push for legislation.

Yet with the Florida legislative session starting in less than a month, so far no one has filed a single springs-related bill.

"I guess there are no springs champions," said Jim Stevenson, who helped launch an initiative to rescue the springs that began under Gov. Jeb Bush and was abandoned in 2011 under Scott.

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. And geologists have found a disturbing increase in saltiness in a few of freshwater springs, which could signal future problems with the state's drinking supply.

The springs initiative begun under Bush led to the state's purchase and preservation of thousands of acres of land that could have been developed or otherwise contributed to the pollution of the aquifer, Stevenson said.

But all of his group's recommendations for new laws were ignored by the Legislature — except for one involving septic tank inspections, which was passed and then repealed before it took effect.

Because many of the springs are major tourist draws, their environmental woes have an economic impact. As a result, local officials across North Florida have formed their own group, Florida Leaders Organized for Water, or FLOW for short, to push for what they're calling the the Floridan Aquifer System Sustainability Act of 2013.

Their proposed bill calls for setting strict limits on the pollution flowing into the springs, reviewing all the water-pumping permits that have been issued around springs, setting a level for water use around the springs that ensures they will stay healthy and creating a new Florida Springs Task Force to provide annual reports to the Legislature on how all this is working out.

Ask White Springs Mayor Helen Miller, who's leading FLOW, how many legislators have lined up to sponsor this bill, and the answer is zero.

"We haven't been able to pick up a single sponsor," Miller said. "I guess the current feeling of this Legislature is that we don't have to deal with water. But clearly, the citizens of this state recognize the need for a serious policy discussion, more funding and more attention to our water problems."

Last year, springs advocates — including former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham and former Nixon administration Deputy Interior Secretary Nathaniel Reed — rounded up 15,000 signatures on a petition demanding the state do more to protect Silver, Rainbow and other popular springs, and sent it to the governor and the state Department of Environmental Protection.

The one bright spot for springs advocates is in the proposed budget offered by Scott. The budget contain $6 million for springs restoration work, which is $3 million more than last year — although that's nowhere near the $122 million that state water officials have requested. The budget also includes $500,000 to help farmers in springs areas retrofit their thirsty center-pivot irrigation systems with something that will slurp up less water from the aquifer.

Legislative leaders aren't convinced the situation is all that dire. Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said of the springs, "We need to do more than we're doing now." But he indicated he regards the projected cost as potentially excessive, calling it "a heck of a big number."

House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, contends the Legislature isn't the one that's responsible for fixing what's wrong with the springs.

"I'm not a scientist, man," Weatherford said, acknowledging he had heard something about the problems facing the springs but lacked specifics. Then he added, "But that's what we have water management districts for."

When a reporter pointed out that the Legislature has imposed deep cuts in the water agencies' budgets, hampering their ability to take action on springs, Weatherford said they still had plenty of money, but weren't spending it the right way.

"Maybe they should be buying less land and instead investing in our water resources to make sure they're protected," the speaker said.

Miller said that sounded like Weatherford is passing the buck, and as for Gaetz's concern regarding the cost: "What's the cost to the state of not dealing effectively with our water issues now?"

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

Editor's Note

This story has been changed to reflect the following correction: The group Florida Leaders Organized for Water is supporting a measure called "The Floridan Aquifer System Sustainability Act of 2013," and it does not call for a user fee on bottled water to finance its provisions. A story Monday was incorrect on those points.

>> Fast facts

Learn more about water activists

For more information on Florida Leaders Organized for Water and its proposed bill to protect springs, visit flflow.com/.

Legislators show no urgency in dealing with Florida springs' problems 02/10/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 13, 2013 6:48pm]
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