Lawmakers left no doubt how they felt when they passed one of the first bills of the 2016 session.
Florida was failing to take care of its most valuable springs.
Part of the sweeping new law directed the Department of Environmental Protection to create rules to prevent local governments and large corporations from pumping too much fresh water from the Florida Aquifer, depriving 30″ exceptional springs of Florida” of their blood.
“There is an urgent need to act,” the bill says.
Six years later, the state has done little on this point.
Environmental officials have not established rules. According to one of the chief architects of the bill, in March they unveiled an early draft that defense lawmakers wanted to do for sources.
“As we continue to talk and not do, the damage continues,” said David Simmons, the former second in command of the Florida Senate who helped craft the law.
It is “disheartening … that we are now at the start of 2022 and (the Department of Environmental Protection) has failed” to fulfill its mission, the Seminole County Republican wrote in an April letter. to the head of the environmental agency.
The ministry said the draft is not final and officials will listen to feedback as they refine the rules.
“All feedback will be considered as we move forward,” state spokeswoman Alexandra Kuchta said.
Critics say the episode is another example of Florida doing little to protect some of its most valuable natural resources.
“(It’s) the only thing they were told to do for six years to protect sources, (and) they balked,” said Ryan Smart, executive director of the Florida Springs Council, an advocacy group.
He later added, “It’s such a dereliction of duty.”
Save a fading gem
Springs in central and northern Florida are vibrant pockets for wildlife and dazzling swimming holes for people. Water bubbles through swollen limestone in shimmering turquoise pools.
The Legislature has designated 30 of the largest and most historic as “Outstanding Florida Springs,” worthy of additional protection.
But for decades, the springs suffered from overpumping and pollution.
Businesses and local governments damage springs by extracting large amounts of water from the aquifer and diverting it to household taps, farms and bottling plants. People spread fertilizers and other pollutants, spreading contaminants such as nitrogen, which feed algae that contaminate the water.
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Some springs are now sluggish and stained with viscous mud. Twenty-four of the 30 spring groups are considered impaired due to nitrogen pollution, including Weeki Wachee in Hernando County and Homosassa, Chassahowitzka, and Kings Bay in Citrus County.
Water quality and water quantity are inextricably linked, say environmentalists. Reduced flows to springs, they say, exacerbate pollution because there isn’t enough fresh water to dilute or wash away contaminants.
The new rules are meant to help reverse some of that damage by tightening the permit process for drawing water from areas around Outstanding Florida Springs.
That policy should translate into stricter oversight of large water users, Simmons said, to stop excessive pumping that completely diminishes freshwater supplies from springs.
Instead, the draft rules are mired in bureaucratic jargon, he said, casting doubt on whether the environment is actually being protected.
The draft directs regulators not to allow water withdrawals that cause problems such as saltwater intrusion or “hydrological alterations that are harmful to natural systems, including wetlands or other surface waters.” . He suggests officials should look at factors including whether plants and animals are harmed by the pumping or whether a “plume of contamination” is advancing towards a source.
“It just doesn’t take all those words that end up hurting (the purpose of the law),” Simmons said. “The standard is simple. … ‘It won’t do any harm.’ ”
Copy and paste?
Jargon aside, critics note that some language in the draft rules is nearly identical to policies that were already in effect when lawmakers determined Florida was not doing enough to protect sources.
After the Environmental Protection Department released the proposal earlier this year, Smart accused the agency of “cutting and pasting rulemaking.”
The head of the Florida Springs Council wrote a letter to officials saying, “It is illogical to conclude, as the Department apparently did, that in 2016 the legislature intended to protect new rules (“Outstanding Florida Springs”) to be the same as the rules already in effect” in much of the state.
Despite similar wording, the draft does not duplicate existing policies, said Kuchta, spokesperson for the Department of Environmental Protection. It offers a new definition of the term “harmful to water resources”, she said. This definition sets out specific types of damage.
The agency is reaching out to some reviewers directly to discuss their comments, Kuchta said, including the Florida Springs Council.
State environmental regulators have also helped sources in other ways, such as spending more than $220 million on restoration over the past three years, another spokeswoman, Erin McDade, said.
These projects, which represent a small fraction of the state’s annual environmental budget, include improving water treatment and sewage systems near springs.
“These are the right projects that address water quality and quantity issues, and they will bring demonstrable benefit to our sources,” McDade said.
It shouldn’t be difficult for the state to fix its plan, Simmons said. His letter suggests an alternative approach. A few slight wording changes, he said, would make a significant improvement.
Simmons questions whether turnover in the Department of Environmental Protection left “a lack of institutional knowledge” about the 2016 law.
“I know what we wanted,” he said. “I know what we wrote.”
He was one of five senators who fought for Springs’ reform. The only member of this bipartisan group still in power is outgoing Senate Speaker Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, who is running for agriculture commissioner.
A spokesperson for Simpson said earlier this year that it was following the rulemaking process but would not comment on the draft rules.
The Florida Springs Council has recommended its own policy to the state. This version would not allow permits to pump water around troubled springs unless applicants reduce their use or purchase other permits to reduce the amount of water drawn from the aquifer as a whole. , said Smart.
“It’s the only way to handle this problem,” he said. “To use less water.”
As the state wastes years delaying the rulemaking process, he said, water authorities are approving or reapproving permits that should be subject to stricter scrutiny.
Florida leaders have long talked about saving sources without taking serious action, said Simmons, the former lawmaker. He remembers seeing Wekiwa Springs near his home losing some of its pristine shine.
“What do you do? You dig a hole and you know you’re six feet under. You stop digging,” he said. “Right now, you can treat these springs like they’re six feet underground.”