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Florida springs protection rule is overdue and underwhelming, critics say

Lawmakers determined the state was not doing enough to care for an environmental treasure. That was 6 years ago.
Jeremy Miller, of Homosassa, explores one of the vents at Three Sisters Springs on Tuesday, May 10, 2022, at the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge in Citrus County.
Jeremy Miller, of Homosassa, explores one of the vents at Three Sisters Springs on Tuesday, May 10, 2022, at the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge in Citrus County. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Jul. 3

Legislators left no doubt how they felt when they passed one of the first bills in the 2016 session.

Florida was failing to take care of its most treasured springs.

One part of the sweeping new law ordered the Department of Environmental Protection to create rules to stop local governments and big businesses from pumping too much freshwater out of the Floridan Aquifer, depriving 30 “Outstanding Florida Springs” of their lifeblood.

“Action is urgently needed,” the bill said.

Six years later, the state has taken little action on that point.

Related: Florida's vanishing springs

Environmental officials have not established the rules. They unveiled a first draft in March that “water(s) down” the defense lawmakers wanted to make for the springs, according to one of the bill’s chief architects.

“As we continue on talking and not doing, the damage continues,” said David Simmons, the former second-in-command of the Florida Senate, who helped develop the law.

It’s “disheartening ... that we are now in early 2022 and (the Department of Environmental Protection) has failed” to meet its mission, wrote the Seminole County Republican in an April letter to the head of the environmental agency.

The department said the draft is not final, and officials will listen to feedback as they refine the rules.

“All comments will be considered as we move forward,” state spokesperson Alexandra Kuchta said.

Related: State officials aren’t doing enough to protect Weeki Wachee River, advocates say

Critics say the episode is another example of Florida doing little to protect some of its most precious natural resources.

“(This is) the one thing they’ve been told to do for six years to protect the springs, (and) they balked on it,” said Ryan Smart, executive director of the Florida Springs Council, an advocacy group.

He later added: “It’s such a dereliction of duty.”

Eelgrass is abundant in the Weeki Wachee River within the boundaries of Weeki Wachee Springs State Park in Hernando County.
Eelgrass is abundant in the Weeki Wachee River within the boundaries of Weeki Wachee Springs State Park in Hernando County. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Saving a fading gem

Springs across central and northern Florida are vibrant pockets for wildlife and dazzling swimming holes for people. Water bubbles through pocked limestone in shimmering, teal pools.

The Legislature has labeled 30 of the largest and most historic as “Outstanding Florida Springs,” worthy of extra protection.

But for decades, the springs have suffered because of over-pumping and pollution.

Companies and local governments damage the springs by pulling vast amounts of water out of the aquifer and diverting it to household taps, farms and bottling plants. People spill fertilizer and other pollution, spreading contaminants such as nitrogen, which feed algae that taints the water.

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Some springs today are sluggish and sullied by slimy muck. Twenty-four of 30 springs groups are considered impaired because of nitrogen pollution, including Weeki Wachee in Hernando County and Homosassa, Chassahowitzka and Kings Bay in Citrus County.

Water quality and water quantity are inextricably tied, environmentalists say. Reducing flows to springs, they say, exacerbates pollution because there is not enough freshwater to dilute or carry away contaminants.

Mark Meyers, of Zephyrhills, swims through a limestone tunnel in early May at Seven Sisters Springs on the Chassahowitzka River in Citrus County.
Mark Meyers, of Zephyrhills, swims through a limestone tunnel in early May at Seven Sisters Springs on the Chassahowitzka River in Citrus County. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

The new rules are supposed to help reverse some of this damage by tightening the permit process for pulling water from areas around “Outstanding Florida Springs.”

That policy should result in stricter oversight of big water users, Simmons said, to stop the over-pumping that diminishes the supply of freshwater to the springs altogether.

Instead, the draft rules are bogged down with bureaucratic jargon, he said, sowing doubt about how well protected the environment will actually be.

Related: Water officials okay Ginnie Springs bottling plan after years-long battle

The draft instructs regulators to not allow permits for water withdrawals that cause problems such as saltwater intrusion or “harmful hydrologic alterations to natural systems, including wetlands or other surface waters.” It suggests officials should look at factors including whether plants and animals are harmed by pumping or whether a “contamination plume” advances toward a spring.

“It just doesn’t take all those words that end up detracting (from the law’s purpose),” Simmons said. “The standard is simple. ... ‘It shall not cause any harm.’ ”

Jeremy Miller, of Homosassa, exits Three Sisters Springs on Tuesday, May 10, 2022, at the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge in Citrus County.
Jeremy Miller, of Homosassa, exits Three Sisters Springs on Tuesday, May 10, 2022, at the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge in Citrus County. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Copy and paste?

Aside from the jargon, critics note that some language in the draft rules is nearly identical to policies that were already in effect when lawmakers determined Florida was not doing enough to protect the springs.

After the Department of Environmental Protection published the proposal earlier this year, Smart accused the agency of “copy and paste rulemaking.”

The Florida Springs Council leader wrote a letter to officials saying: “It is illogical to conclude, as the Department apparently has, that in 2016 the Legislature intended for new rules to protect (”Outstanding Florida Springs”) to be the same as the rules already in effect” across much of the state.

Despite similar wording, the draft is not a duplicate of existing policies, said Kuchta, the Department of Environmental Protection spokesperson. It offers a new definition for the term “harmful to the water resources,” she said. That definition lays out specific types of damage.

The agency is reaching out to some commenters directly to discuss their feedback, Kuchta said, including the Florida Springs Council.

Related: Companies bottle and sell Florida’s spring water. Should the state get paid?

State environmental regulators have helped the springs in other ways, too, such as dedicating more than $220 million to restoration over the last three years, said another spokesperson, Erin McDade.

Those projects, which account for a small fraction of the state’s annual environmental budget, include improving water treatment and sewer systems near springs.

“These are the right projects that address water quality and water quantity concerns, and they will make a demonstrable benefit to our springs,” McDade said.

Kayakers float along the river at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park on Wednesday, May 4.
Kayakers float along the river at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park on Wednesday, May 4. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Another way

It should not be hard for the state to fix its plan, Simmons said. His letter suggests an alternate approach. Some slight wording tweaks, he said, would make a significant improvement.

Simmons questions whether turnover in the Department of Environmental Protection has left “a lack of institutional knowledge” about the 2016 law.

“I know what we intended,” he said. “I know what we wrote.”

He was one of five senators who fought for springs reform. The only member of that bipartisan group still in power is outgoing Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, who is running for agriculture commissioner.

A spokesperson for Simpson said earlier this year he is tracking the rulemaking process but would not comment on the draft rules.

A manatee and its calf feed near Seven Sisters Springs on the Chassahowitzka River.
A manatee and its calf feed near Seven Sisters Springs on the Chassahowitzka River. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

The Florida Springs Council recommended its own policy to the state. That version would not allow permits for pumping water around struggling springs unless applicants reduced their usage or bought out other permits to lower the amount of water pulled from the aquifer overall, Smart said.

“That’s the only way to handle this problem,” he said. “To use less water.”

While the state wastes years delaying the rulemaking process, he said, water authorities approve or reapprove permits that should be held to stricter scrutiny.

Florida’s leaders have long talked about saving springs without taking serious action, said Simmons, the former legislator. He recalled watching Wekiwa Springs near his home lose some of its pristine luster.

“What do you do? You’re digging a hole and you know you’re six feet under. You quit digging,” he said. “Right now you can treat these springs as if they’re six feet under.”

A limestone tunnel, popular with swimmers, is a prominent feature at Seven Sisters Springs on the Chassahowitzka River in Citrus County.
A limestone tunnel, popular with swimmers, is a prominent feature at Seven Sisters Springs on the Chassahowitzka River in Citrus County. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
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