Advocates say Gov. Rick Scott's $37 million pledge to fix springs not enough

Published Sept. 5, 2013

With his sleeves rolled up, Gov. Rick Scott announced Wednesday that he is steering $37 million to 10 projects designed to cut pollution and boost the flow of some of the state's most popular springs.

"Our commitment to Florida families means doing our part in supporting these natural treasures," Scott said in a news conference at Wekiwa Springs State Park near Apopka.

Springs advocates expressed appreciation for the gesture from Scott, which was an about-face from two years ago when he canceled a springs restoration program that had been launched by former Gov. Jeb Bush.

However, they said the projects Scott and his Department of Environmental Protection had selected at Kings Bay, Homosassa Springs, Weeki Wachee Springs and other locations did not go far enough toward solving the springs' most basic problems from overpumping of the aquifer and pollution from fertilizer use and other sources.

Scott is "politically astute enough to know he should appear to be concerned about these things, but you won't see any measurable improvement in pollution or flow because of these projects," said Bob Knight, who heads up the Florida Springs Institute in Gainesville.

And White Springs Mayor Helen Miller, who spotted Scott at a conference last month and gave him an earful about saving the springs, said that what Florida needs is "a statewide water conservation plan" and not a patchwork of fixes.

A century ago, Florida's springs drew presidents, millionaires and tourists who sought to cure ailments by bathing in their waters. Florida's most prominent springs continue to attract tourists, and many are now owned by the taxpayers as part of the state park system.

But these days, most springs have lost flow or stopped flowing at all. Many suffer from rampant pollution that has spurred the growth of toxic algae — mats of it float in Silver Springs, so thick an alligator can perch atop it. There are signs that saltwater is intruding into the fresh water springs.

In 2000, Bush appointed a task force to explore what was wrong with the springs and find ways to fix it. The task force produced a report full of recommendations. All were ignored by the Legislature, except for one: a bill that passed in 2010 requiring inspections of septic tanks to check for leaks. There are about 2.6 million septic tanks in the state, half of them more than 30 years old.

But when septic tank owners objected to the $150 inspection price, legislators repealed it.

Prior to this year's legislative session, the DEP asked the state's five water management districts for a list of possible projects that would help the springs. The agencies sent back a wish list of projects that would cost $122 million — just to start.

At the behest of state Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness, the Legislature approved $10 million for springs restoration, but without tying it to any particular project list. A jubilant Dean joined Scott at the Wekiwa Springs announcement Wednesday.

Scott's project list uses that $10 million and combines it with money from the water districts as well as local and state governments to total $37 million, said DEP press secretary Patrick Gillespie. The list of projects Scott unveiled Wednesday includes some from the water districts' wish lists, he said.

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For instance, one $2 million project aimed at helping Kings Bay will connect up to four small wastewater package plants and up to 250 existing septic tanks to the Citrus County municipal sewer system. Southwest Florida Water Management District officials say that could result in a reduction of 6,272 pounds of nitrogen pollution per year flowing into the spring.

That's out of an estimated 212 tons of nitrogen pollution flowing into Kings Bay each year.

John Thomas, a St. Petersburg attorney representing the Save the Manatee Club, Save the Homosassa River Alliance and the Chassahowitzka River Restoration Committee, said his clients "are not overwhelmed by the governor's cash splash. … They can throw all the money they can find at it, but if they don't stop allowing too much water use and too much nutrient pollution, it won't make much difference."

Times staff writer Barbara Behrendt contributed to this story.