The Tampa Bay Times ran a series of articles on Nov. 25 by staff writer Craig Pittman concerning Florida's iconic springs. The extensive coverage highlights problems within Florida's springsheds that are very real, but it offers no appreciation for the dedication and tireless work ethic of the country's pre-eminent water quality professionals.
Department scientists and the Times share a view that our springs face challenging issues about nutrient enrichment. It is known that excess nutrients — specifically nitrates — can originate from human, pet and livestock waste and fertilization practices.
To reduce nutrient pollution within our springs, department scientists spend countless hours on the road every week monitoring and assessing the health of springs. Lab technicians work weekends to ensure that samples are processed expeditiously. Watershed managers meet routinely with local officials and farmers focusing on reducing sources of nutrients in our springsheds. As a result of their efforts, springs funding by the department has doubled, numerous water quality standards and reduction strategies have been set, and advanced innovative monitoring of our springs is under way.
Field technicians will begin working with agricultural operations to implement a $900,000 investment in the Santa Fe River Basin to provide advanced fertilization and irrigation technologies that will keep more than 1 million pounds of nitrogen from entering the basin. Department engineers are working on designs and funding mechanisms to send $1 million to projects that redirect lesser-treated wastewater away from Silver Springs to an advanced wastewater treatment facility miles away. Park managers are allocating $400,000 to transition Silver River State Park from a septic system to city sewer.
The article quotes a source who has inexplicably labeled this funding as "pork barrel." We should defend those professionals who chose a career in springs protection and restoration from accusations that their data collection, scientific analysis and efforts to implement projects to reduce pollution are somehow a waste of time and taxpayer dollars.
Understanding what's needed to protect springs is critical. Data collection is the lifeblood of scientific development and forms the foundation of the water quality standards for springs and other water bodies endorsed by the Environmental Protection Agency. The hard-working professionals at the Department of Environmental Protection have produced more water quality criteria in the last year than any single year in the previous decade. These criteria serve to protect and improve not only our springs but the rest of our surface waters.
The problem that Florida's springsheds face is challenging, but when a newspaper chooses to overlook the dedication and action of Florida's environmental scientists, it misleads concerned residents about this worthy public cause.
I worked for the EPA for 17 years and have been at the DEP for five. Based on that experience, I can say without question that Florida's water bodies are in the hands of the best scientists and professionals this country has to offer, and it is their work that will continue to guide positive actions that address issues troubling our state's springs.
Drew Bartlett is director of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection's Division of Environmental Assessment and Restoration. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.