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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Plundering Florida's precious springs

In the same meeting where it imposed tighter water restrictions on Tampa Bay residents due to drought, the Southwest Florida Water Management District board voted to allow developers to further plunder a critical water source. The paradoxical votes are reflective of a state water policy that caters to developers to the ongoing detriment of the environment. Groundwater is a precious public resource, critical to every Floridian's quality of life, and protecting it should be a shared responsibility.

Less than 5 inches of rain fell on Tampa Bay between October and April, the driest stretch in more than a century. The parched conditions, combined with the coming summer heat, have ignited wildfires across the region. So it was entirely reasonable that Swiftmud, as the agency is commonly known, voted to restrict lawn watering to once a week in the 16 counties it covers, beginning in June. Car washing will also be limited, and homeowners' associations will be prohibited from enforcing deed restrictions that require residents to keep their lawns green if that means more watering. Those collective sacrifices are called for when meteorologists are saying that the ground is so dry, a heavy downpour would just run off instead of filtering down into the aquifer, the source of groundwater and drinking water. "We are just doing this to prevent any possible water shortage issues down the road," a Swiftmud spokeswoman explained.

But prevention apparently wasn't called for when Swiftmud's board considered a proposal to make way for more groundwater pumping in Citrus County. The governing board voted 9-1 Tuesday to allow the flow of Crystal River and the 70 springs that feed Kings Bay to be cut by up to 11 percent, a level the agency claims will provide for more groundwater pumping without causing "significant damage" to the environment. Even if that were plausible, it doesn't account for the damage already done to Florida's long-treasured springs. Glass-bottomed boats used to ferry tourists around the state's world famous springs — that's how clear the water was. Now, saltwater intrusion, algae blooms and pollution have literally muddied the waters. Spring flows, including at Kings Bay, are already down, and Swiftmud just voted to make that worse.

Since Gov. Rick Scott has been in office, the mission of the state's water management districts has fundamentally changed. Where they used to be charged with protecting Florida's water resources, the agencies have now become a pipeline for more and more pumping permits. Swiftmud board members on Tuesday claimed they were following science-based recommendations presented by the staff. Here's another scientific fact: Withdrawals from the aquifer increased more than 50 percent between 1970 and 1995, Times staff writer Craig Pittman reported. So it stands to reason that more pumping will only do more damage.

Drought conditions call for conserving water. That's what Swiftmud's board signaled by enacting once-a-week lawn watering restrictions throughout 16 Central Florida counties, including Tampa Bay. Then it turned around and, in defiance of common sense, approved increased groundwater pumping that will damage two Citrus County resources — a longer-lasting and potentially more damaging step. There's no straight-faced explanation for how that's good for the aquifer, the springs, or the future of Florida's water supply.