Florida's Republican leaders are ignoring threats to public health and the state's economic future with their indifference to the rapid deterioration of the state's natural springs. The crystal-clear waters that for more than a century drew tourists and Floridians alike are barely flowing and drying up or becoming polluted ponds. Gov. Rick Scott and the Republican-led Legislature should revive a broad-based effort to study the growing crisis and create a comprehensive approach to reviving the springs and conserving the state's water supply.
A package of stories Sunday by Tampa Bay Times staff writer Craig Pittman captured all that has gone wrong in recent years as Republican leaders backed away from what had long been a bipartisan acknowledgement that Florida's natural springs are a critical public asset. As Pittman chronicled, the water in many of the springs no longer boils up as it had for centuries, a sign that overpumping has drained away these natural resources. Some of the water that is rising is so polluted by nitrates it puts human health at risk. And geologists say some freshwater springs are showing signs of an increasing saltiness, a worrisome sign that calls into question the safety of the state's future drinking water supply. The governor and Legislature have made the situation worse, and they have a responsibility to Floridians to fix it.
This crisis does not call for half-measures or for stalling for time by questioning the science. The underground rivers that should keep the springs flowing year-round have been devastated by overpumping. Between 1970 and 1995, withdrawals from the aquifer increased more than 50 percent, as farmers watered their crops, homeowners sprayed suburban lawns and industry turned the water into gold in the form of everything from bottled water to steam-generated power.
Gov. Jeb Bush launched an effort to revive the springs 12 years ago. The Florida Springs Initiative pulled together experts from the government, academia and industry who recommended more than 100 ways — from new laws to regulating land use — to protect the springs. The state spent $25 million over the next decade, preserving land and enriching water recharge areas. But the Legislature failed to adopt more sweeping regulatory changes. One measure lawmakers did approve — an inspection requirement for septic tanks — was overturned this year after property owners and big businesses complained. Now all Floridians are paying the price for those leaky tanks that are contaminating the drinking water supply. And Bush's Springs Initiative was disbanded at the start of the Scott administration, another casualty of avoidable budget cuts.
Scott's environmental chief, Herschel Vinyard, told advocates this year that the Department of Environmental Protection is doing more than ever for the springs. But the $11 million in spending he cited was aimed primarily at monitoring pollution, not for restoration or research. And the two success stories the Scott administration cited actually got under way through the now-defunct Bush Springs Initiative.
The state needs to revive the Bush-era project and then commit more toward restoring the springs. Scott's projects look like pork barrel giveaways to the polluters, who should be paying themselves for the damages they cause. The governor also needs to make up for the harm he caused by decimating the water management districts, starving them of the funding, expertise and public credibility they need to protect the state's natural resources. Unless Scott and the Legislature change course, the springs will get more polluted, and the risk of saltwater intruding into the headstream of the drinking water supply will worsen.