The $10 million for restoration that state lawmakers provided in the budget and Gov. Rick Scott signed into law won't go far toward repairing Florida's natural springs. But the money can help launch a long-term approach for reviving this vital ecosystem.
Lawmakers did nothing this legislative session to address the broad degradation of the springs, once crystal-clear waters that drew millionaires, movie stars and hordes of tourists and new residents to Florida. Most of the state's springs have lost flow, some have stopped flowing at all, and some have reversed course. Saltwater is intruding on some water bodies, and many are so choked with pollution that they are wastelands of toxic algae, endangering human health, harming tourism and lowering property values.
The state's water management districts compiled a list recently of starter projects to repair the springs; the $10 million in the budget amounts to a blip toward meeting that $122 million price tag. But it is a start. The money could be directed toward cleaning up the most impacted water bodies. It could be handed to the five water management districts and used as seed money as matching grants to leverage other public and private dollars for local cleanup efforts. It could help revive a broad springs effort that then-Gov. Jeb Bush launched in 2000 and that Scott disbanded. Or it could fund septic tank inspections and the first round of a program to replace leaky sewage systems.
There is no shortage of need for the money. The real challenge for this governor and Legislature is to get serious about restoring the health of the springs. That means reinstituting septic tank inspections, cracking down on wasteful fertilizer use, creating a priority list of rehab projects and committing to a long-term plan for funding and managing the restoration work.
The Department of Environmental Protection needs to get serious about policy changes, too, if Florida's springs are going to return to a fraction of the role they played as a sustaining force in the state's natural beauty, growth, economy and quality of life.