Springs advocates say state funds aren’t being well-spent
HIGH SPRINGS, Fla. (AP) — “It doesn’t begin to meet the actual needs of springs restoration,” said Ryan Smart, Florida Springs Council executive director. “When you look at some of the other priorities funded by the legislature, springs and North Florida issues — as usual — get short shrift.”
When Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a new state budget last week that includes $100 million for springs restoration, there was no exuberant splashing of water from advocates of the chilly natural pools from which groundwater emerges.
Instead, they said the money will do little good if it continues to be spent as restoration money has for years — focusing on programs that so far have failed to make much of an improvement in water quality — and if stronger measures are not taken.
Among the advocates is Robert Knight, executive director of the Florida Springs Institute based in High Springs.
“The fundamental problem is the money is not being spent very well. They are not really prioritizing ways to fix the springs cost effectively,” Knight said. “Some of the projects have created some benefits, but there is no evidence the projects are helping — we are not seeing a turnaround on any of the major springs. There is increasing nitrate levels, and there are continuing reductions in long term flow in the springs.”
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection oversees the springs and restoration efforts.
DEP Secretary Noah Valentstein, who grew up in Gainesville, last year told legislators that he believes new state-mandated action plans that were developed for spring basins will have positive results.
“Essentially, it’s a science-driven process that then works collaboratively with the communities to come up with a list of projects and processes to reach that goal,” Knight said.
Wednesday (June 26), the Sun requested an interview with a DEP official who works on springs protection, but no one was made available by Friday (June 28).
North Central Florida is home to many springs, most of which are popular recreation spots.
Among them are Poe, Blue and Ginnie near High Springs. Ichetucknee Springs State Park near Fort White in southern Columbia County draws visitors from around the world. Movies were made in Silver Springs in Ocala.
Several springs on the Suwannee River are also state parks, including Manatee and Fanning in Gilchrist and Levy counties. Rainbow Springs State Park in Dunnellon in western Marion County is a favorite swimming spot, while its river is popular with paddlers.
Other springs in the region are popular with cave divers, including Wes Skiles Peacock Springs State Park in Suwannee County and Devil’s Den near Williston.
But the springs’ most important values go beyond recreation.
The water flowing bubbling up in springs is from the aquifer, the primary source for drinking water in Florida. Poor water quality in the springs could be an indication of a drop in the quality of drinking water.
Springs are also vital to ecosystems of plants and animals. Many flow into rivers and eventually into the Gulf of Mexico, affecting the balance of fresh to salt water in estuaries on which fish and shellfish depend.
Springs are imperiled, however.
An explosion of algae from too many nutrients — farm fertilizer is the primary culprit in the Suwannee and Santa Fe basins while septic tanks are a bigger concern in Marion County — is growing on rocks, aquatic grass and spring beds.
Algal blooms can reduce oxygen needed by fish and other life. Bacteria can convert nitrogen into nitrates, which can affect human health.
The $100 million budgeted this year for springs restoration includes $50 million that was allocated last year but not spent. The Suwannee River Water Management District has a set of projects that it would like to fund.
Among the projects is a $1.85 million partnership with the city of Lake City to increase the size of a wastewater spray-field wetland to filter water before it flows underground and into Ichetucknee Springs.
Another $4 million would help pay for farming technology to reduce fertilizer use and water consumption, said district spokeswoman Katelyn Potter.
“The district has a suite of technologies — things like variable rate irrigation to set timers for certain parts of fields, which improves efficiency. Drone imagery helps with that,” Potter said. “Farmers don’t get it for free, they have to have skin in the game. They have to provide a certain percentage of match (to get district money.)”
Also proposed is spending about $2.4 million as incentives to boost tree farming and rural land conservation to reduce groundwater pumping and nitrogen loading.
Potter said monitoring is underway to learn the effectiveness of measures taken so far at reducing nutrients and increasing flow. It is difficult to determine because farms that are using the technology may be spread out geographically, Potter added.
The St. Johns River Water Management District has proposed several projects to improve the quality of water flowing into Silver Springs, including improvements to wastewater treatment plants.
Despite action taken already, advocates say the condition of springs continues to decline.
The Florida Springs Council, a consortium of state advocacy groups, has filed an administrative challenge to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection over the “Basin Management Action Plans” — commonly referred to as BMAPs — it was required to develop by the legislature for 30 springs deemed “outstanding.”
Basins include springs along the Suwannee and Santa Fe rivers, and Silver Springs, the upper Silver River and the Rainbow Springs group in Marion County. The plans can be found on the department’s website by searching for “BMAPs.”
Council Executive Director Ryan Smart said the plans fall short of measures needed to restore the springs, contending that greater limits are needed on agricultural practices, septic tanks and other pollution sources.
Smart added that the budgeted money for projects is not enough. Buying more land to keep it from being farmed or developed is needed, particularly since only a trickle of money from the 2014 passage by voters of the Amendment 1 land acquisition measure has been spent.
“It doesn’t begin to meet the actual needs of springs restoration. When you look at some of the other priorities funded by the legislature, springs and North Florida issues — as usual — get short shrift,” Smart said. “All of the plans don’t take into account that there is going to be an increase in pollution by not conserving land around springsheds — it is going to go into agriculture and exacerbate the problem.”
Information from: The Gainesville (Fla.) Sun, http://www.gainesvillesun.com