April is the month in Florida when we celebrate all things environmental. Globally, we have Earth Day. The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services recognizes April as “Water Conservation Month.” And Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection “celebrate” April as “Springs Protection Awareness Month.”
But for anyone who is aware of the ailing condition of our springs and their continued neglect at the hands of those responsible for their protection, there isn’t much to celebrate.
Twenty-four of the 30 Outstanding Florida Springs designated for special protection by the Florida Legislature in 2016 are impaired by excess nitrogen. Many of these springs are so polluted that DEP determined it is impossible to reach water quality goals using existing programs and projects.
Water quality restoration plans adopted for these springs, known as BMAPs, often achieve only a small fraction, sometimes less than a quarter, of the nitrogen reduction necessary to meet water quality standards. Florida Springs Council members were forced to challenge five of these plans, in order to stop their adoption, rather than accept failure and dirty water for decades to come.
The Legislature never released the $50 million that they allocated, as required by law, for springs protection and restoration projects in 2018. This money just sits in the bank while projects go unfunded and our springs continue to decline.
Let’s get real about Real Florida. Springs don’t need more celebratory months or feel good websites. Springs need action and funding. And they need it now.
Here is what we need to do before we can “celebrate” springs protection.
First, the Department of Environmental Protection needs to amend the five challenged BMAPs, and others which share the same basic deficiencies, to include sufficient projects and strategies necessary to achieve water quality goals and meet other legal requirements.
Second, the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services needs to immediately develop and adopt advanced agricultural best management practices to ensure farmers and ranchers can meet water quality goals.
Third, the Legislature must require advanced septic tanks and wastewater treatment facilities, protective fertilizer ordinances and advanced agricultural best management practices in springsheds that cannot achieve water quality goals using existing projects and conventional practices alone. To implement these practices will require a new significant annual funding source similar in scale to the approximately $250 million that is guaranteed for Everglades restoration projects each year.
Fourth, Gov. DeSantis should make the same revolutionary changes he made in South Florida to other water management district governing boards. Recent decisions, like the adoption of an MFL rule for the Rainbow River that actually impedes the restoration of the river it was intended to protect, show the urgent need for change. A highly qualified and diverse group of Floridians, endorsed by the Florida Springs Council, have applied for seats on the governing boards of the water management districts responsible for springs protection. If selected, they would bring much needed diversity and expertise to the powerful boards.
Fifth, the governing boards of the Southwest Florida, St. Johns River and Suwannee River water management districts should remove the yoke put upon their necks during former Gov. Rick Scott’s first days in office by adopting budgets that meet the true needs of Florida’s water resources and restoring ad valorem tax rates to the levels described in Article VII, Section 9 (b) of the Florida Constitution.
If we did these five things, we would be well on our way to clean springs and rivers in my lifetime. Now that would be something celebrate.
Ryan Smart is executive director of the Florida Springs Council.