Crisis over Florida's waterways calls for action

A manatee swims in Kings Bay, in Crystal River, whose sandy bottom is covered with algae. Under Gov. Rick Scott’s watch, Florida is on the brink of losing 40 years of progress on environmental protection.
A manatee swims in Kings Bay, in Crystal River, whose sandy bottom is covered with algae. Under Gov. Rick Scott’s watch, Florida is on the brink of losing 40 years of progress on environmental protection.
Published Feb. 4, 2013

Recent investigative reporting by Tampa Bay Times reporter Craig Pittman reveals the dramatic and widespread pollution and flow problems facing so many of Florida's rivers and springs. These reports were echoed by editorials across the state calling on Florida's governor, Department of Environmental Protection and Legislature to take action to protect and restore our impaired waterways.

Unfortunately, instead of resolving the serious problems that threaten our state's most precious natural resources, Tallahassee has focused on rolling back environmental safeguards and growth management guidelines, cutting funding for conservation and regulatory programs, reducing enforcement against polluters, and liquidating public lands.

Severe budget cuts are already seriously compromising the ability of Florida's DEP and water management districts to protect our state's natural resources. Funding for many important conservation, restoration, monitoring, research, enforcement and education programs has already been either drastically reduced or eliminated. Our state has also lost decades of valuable knowledge and expertise from significant layoffs, resulting in less capable agencies with insufficient resources and demoralized personnel.

Although the DEP recently claimed "these reductions have done nothing to erode the agency's role in regulating industry and protecting the environment," it is not hard to find evidence to the contrary. In 2012 the St. Johns River Water Management District cited "staffing capabilities" when asked why it reduced the number of monitoring stations in the St. Johns lower basin by nearly two-thirds.

In addition, the recent decision by the Northwest Florida Water Management District to delay setting minimum flows and levels for Wakulla Springs for 11 years raises serious concerns about the ability of Florida's water management districts to perform their critical missions at current funding and staffing levels. Reduced monitoring and legal protections endanger our environment and public health, while polluters profit.

DEP efforts are under way to streamline permitting requirements for large water users that will result in longer permits, less oversight and no additional requirements for conservation and efficiency. These changes benefit select industries at the expense of our water resources and the majority of Floridians.

Under Gov. Rick Scott's watch, unwise policy decisions, draconian budget cuts and the excessive influence of special interests have put Florida on the brink of losing 40 years of progress on environmental protection, land conservation and growth management. This is bad water management policy and even worse economic policy for our state.

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We face one of the greatest emergencies in Florida's modern history. Our prized and supposedly well-protected rivers and springs are "sick" from pollution and in need of restoration and protection by our state governmental agencies and a Legislature that shares our citizens' concerns and determination to correct the abuses of negligence.

The Wekiva River, north of Orlando, is designated as an "outstanding Florida water" and a national "wild and scenic river" and is protected by two major pieces of state legislation. Tragically, the Wekiva remains "sick" in terms of both water quality and quantity.

The three major springs in the Wekiva River have reported nitrate concentrations 480 percent higher than the maximum levels for healthy waters. And while the largest of Wekiva's springs, Wekiwa and Rock, have reported flows below established minimum flows and levels for two years, the St. Johns River Water Management District refuses to meet its statutory duty of restoring flows to these natural jewels.

As a result, the Florida Conservation Coalition and our partners are hosting "Speak Up Wekiva" on Feb. 16 at Wekiwa Springs State Park. We are organizing this event to celebrate our outstanding water resources, to educate the public and policymakers about the challenges facing the Wekiva River and the springs that feed it, and advocate for the protection and restoration of all of Florida's impaired waterways.

Join the Florida Conservation Coalition on Feb. 16 to speak up for our environment and ensure its protection for generations of Floridians to come.

Bob Graham, far left, chairman of the Florida Conservation Coalition, was governor from 1979 to 1987 and represented the state as a U.S. senator from 1987 to 2005. Nathaniel Pryor Reed, the coalition's vice chairman, served as assistant secretary of the interior under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, and is chairman emeritus of 1000 Friends of Florida.