Springs revival languishes in Legislature

Bills languish in the House and Senate, and no one foresees the funding bubbling up.
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, center left, tours Silver Springs in a glass-bottom boat last week. He was surprised at the extent of toxic algae growth but unsure how the federal government could help. Bill Nelson staff photo
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, center left, tours Silver Springs in a glass-bottom boat last week. He was surprised at the extent of toxic algae growth but unsure how the federal government could help.Bill Nelson staff photo

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson rode around on a glass-bottom boat in Silver Springs last week to highlight how he's concerned about the state's springs. But he's not sure what he can do about it.

Gov. Rick Scott boasted to the Tampa Bay Times editorial board about how much money he's spending on the problem — but it's far less than what state water officials have said would fix the problems.

Meanwhile, a pair of bills filed in the state House and Senate calling for developing plans to fix the springs are, halfway through the session, languishing without having had a committee hearing.

"I knew it was going to be heavy lifting to pass that," said Sen. Darren Soto, D-Kissimmee, who's sponsoring SB 978, the Springs Revival Act.

The reason is simple, Soto said: "The majority of the Legislature doesn't have an appetite to have a real aggressive spring rehabilitation program, because of the expense."

Florida's gin-clear springs once drew presidents and millionaires and tourists seeking to cure their ailments by bathing in the healing waters. Now the springs tell the story of a hidden sickness: The water in many springs no longer boils up like a fountain, the way it has for centuries. The water that does come out is polluted by nitrates, spurring the growth of toxic algae. Some freshwater springs are showing signs of a growing saltiness.

The pollution comes from a variety of sources, including leaky septic tanks, cattle pastures, and overfertilized lawns and farms. The loss of flow, meanwhile, has been blamed on everything from drought and climate change to the overpumping of the underground aquifer.

One reason it's difficult to fix the blame is because the state's computer models for how water behaves in the aquifer are all based on the wrong kind of geology for Florida, and have been for years, suggesting water pumping permits are off-base as well.

A state-sponsored effort to save the springs, launched 12 years ago by then-Gov. Jeb Bush, ended in 2011 under Scott. Groups drafting plans to restore some of the most important springs were disbanded because they lost their funding. While the Bush springs initiative existed, it spent a total of $25 million.

But Scott, meeting with the Times editorial board last week, said that over the past two years his administration had spent $10 million on springs-related programs, which he said was more than had been spent previously.

Just this month, for instance, Scott and the Cabinet approved spending $1.5 million to buy 678 acres near Wakulla Springs to protect it from development that could send more pollution into the aquifer. That leaves another 3,280 acres on the state's list of properties around that spring to be acquired to protect it.

However, when the state Department of Environmental Protection solicited the five water management districts for projects that would restore the springs, they came up with a list totaling $122.4 million — just for starters. The list included $10 million to replace all the septic tanks near the state's major springs. There are about 2.6 million septic tanks in the state, half of them more than 30 years old.

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

Nelson, D-Fla., agrees with that last part. He said he had heard about the problems at Silver Springs from Marion County officials and read about it in the Times, but wanted to see for himself.

He remembers marveling at the crystal-clear waters of Silver Springs when he was a boy growing up in Melbourne. When he rode a glass-bottom boat across the spring this week, he could see how it had declined. Everywhere he looked he saw toxic Lyngbya algae, he said. "They had some statues in the water that had been placed there for a movie, a James Bond flick called Moonraker," he said. "These statues were completely covered in algae."

However, afterward Nelson was unsure how he could prod the federal government to help. One possibility might be enlisting the U.S. Geological Survey to plumb the capacity of the underground aquifer and see if overpumping indeed is to blame not only for the loss of spring flow but also for causing the sinkhole that killed a Hillsborough County man recently.

So far, even with all the talk about springs, Bob Knight of the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute said little has really changed. Knight drafted a bill that was much more aggressive about cleaning up the springs than SB 978, the bill sponsored by Soto, and HB 789, sponsored by Rep. Linda Stewart, D-Orlando. He couldn't find anyone to sponsor it. "Nobody wants to touch something like that," Knight said. What the state needs to do is determine how much water remains in the aquifer and then "not permit pumping one drop of water more than that," he said.

Despite the lack of progress on his bill, Soto said he's not discouraged. He's hunting for other water-related bills onto which he could stick amendments that could help the springs.

"I've still got a few tricks up my sleeve," he said.

Craig Pittman can be reached at [email protected].