Saturday, February 17, 2018
Opinion

Column: How a good springs bill died

Once upon a time our pristine springs, lakes and streams defined Florida as a fabulous place to live and visit. But that was then and this is now.

If you have visited a spring lately, then you know that our springs and water are in serious trouble. It's hard to imagine why anyone would not want clear, free-flowing springs and abundant fresh water. It's a no-brainer, right?

Wrong.

There are tremendous demands on our water resources due to excessive pumping of groundwater by public and private utilities, agriculture, business and industry, and shameful pollution of our springs from millions of septic tanks, improperly used fertilizer, unwise land-use practices and substandard wastewater treatment plants. Yet our Legislature continues to allow those who are responsible avoid responsibility.

Think of once famous White Sulfur Springs and Kissengen Springs — they are bone-dry — and Chassahowitzka, Silver, Rainbow, Wakulla and many other springs have lost their past splendor to murky, algae-laden water and reduced flow. Ask yourself if this is the Florida you want. Then ask yourself why has this travesty gone on so long and why is it allowed to continue.

Recently, there was actually a gallant effort to protect and restore the foundation of what made Florida a unique place in the world: its springs and water resources. It began in earnest in 2012 with the "Speak Up for Silver Springs" rally. In early 2013, another call for action was sounded at the "Speak up for Wekiwa" rally at Wekiwa Springs. The Florida Conservation Coalition followed with a report and recommendations for springs protection and restoration.

Then state Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, stepped forward and proposed significant springs legislation, SB 1576, to be considered during the 2014 session.

Sens. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness, Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, and Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, signed on to the proposal. It was an outstanding bill that would have determined where our springs are most vulnerable to overpumping and pollution, mandated commonsense rules and projects to restore and protect them, and provided almost $380 million in recurring funding to make it all possible.

Then enter the House of Representatives' leadership, which said "no" to springs legislation this year because next year's speaker wants to deal with it. Just be glad the Legislature doesn't control your local fire department or you might be told that your burning house can't be saved because the next shift really wants to fight the fire.

Of no surprise to those of us who have seen this movie before, when the House realized that a better excuse for inaction was needed it relegated its control of the issue to a group of business and agricultural lobbyists. These lobbyists crawl out of the crevices anytime good environmental legislation is proposed.

But don't put all the blame on the lobbyists; they are only high-paid pawns of big business, and in the case of the springs bill, the House and governor. They are simply mouthpieces for corporations and politicians who don't have the courage to do the dirty work themselves.

Among the groups that most actively worked to stop springs legislation from passing this year is the Florida Chamber of Commerce. It's hard to understand why companies like Walt Disney World, Publix, Sea World and Ron Jon Surf Shop, all of which are represented on the chamber's board of directors, would oppose a bill that aligns with the values they claim to espouse.

Unfortunately for Floridians, and the Senate sponsors who worked to build consensus on a springs bill for the better part of a year, it appears that the lobbyists and House, with the ever-silent blessing of the governor, were never negotiating in good faith as they continued to oppose the bill even after they were given everything they demanded. In the end, SB 1576 passed the Senate unanimously but was never taken up in the House and died.

So, despite a group of courageous senators, our springs and water resources continue to decline, while the House and governor and a handful of lobbyists breathe a sigh of relief. Everyone else — those who care for our natural treasures — should thank those senators who went to the wall for our springs.

At the end of the day, however, the people of Florida got hoodwinked, well-intended senators got misled and Florida's environment lost again.

But it's not over. Florida voters will have an opportunity this November to pass Amendment 1, ensuring 20 years of significant funding for protecting Florida's lands and waters, and to change the political leadership in Tallahassee. We need people who will stand tall alongside these courageous five senators for what is right.

Estus Whitfield, who lives in Tallahassee, worked in state government from 1971 to 1999 and was the principal environmental adviser to Govs. Bob Graham, Bob Martinez, Lawton Chiles and Jeb Bush. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

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