Editorial: No time to waste in springs' restoration

Published April 1, 2013

The legislative session is nearly half-finished and still there is no serious movement toward repairing Florida's springs. With $4 billion in new revenue from a rebounding economy, there is enough money for lawmakers to make a serious down payment on restoration that is critical to the environment, public health and the economy.

Florida's gin-clear springs once attracted presidents, movie stars and hordes of visitors, helping put the Sunshine State on the map and fashioning the state's modern tourist economy. But many springs are dry shadows of their former selves, choked with nutrient pollution, salt and other byproducts of reckless growth and overpumping. Runoff from leaky septic tanks, cattle pastures and farms and lawns has caused many of the state's 1,000 springs to become smothered in toxic algae blooms. Compounding the damage, the water in many springs no longer boils up like a fountain, as it had for centuries. The decrease in water flow and quality damages business and property, threatens the drinking water supply and puts Florida at greater risk of sinkhole activity.

A state-sponsored effort to save the springs, launched 12 years ago by then-Gov. Jeb Bush, ended in 2011 under Gov. Rick Scott. The Bush program spent $25 million on springs-related work, more than double what Scott has spent over the past two years. Scott's budget contains $6 million for springs restoration over the next year. That is far short of the $122 million price tag that the state's five water management districts put on an initial work plan for springs recovery. The state may not be able to catch up on springs restoration overnight, but it can make a meaningful down payment.

Identical legislation in the House and Senate (HB 789/SB 978) offers a good starting point. The measures call on the water management districts to develop a five-year plan for restoring the springs' water quality and flow levels by July 2014. The bills give the districts the ability to tailor the restoration work to the needs of their individual water sheds, and they require monitoring on a regular basis so the public can ensure the cleanup effort stays on course.

Reviving the springs to a shadow of their former glory requires work across a broader front, from replacing millions of older septic tanks to walling off land surrounding the springs to new development. Lawmakers, though, should not use the size of the job as an excuse to not take the first step. Scott should make the springs a priority, and the Legislature should give the water management districts the money to jump-start the restoration.