Springs bill in Senate disappoints some environmentalists

Last year a comprehensive water bill that passed the Senate included a major focus on Florida’s springs and reducing threats from groundwater pollution and over-pumping.

Florida’s springs during the past 30 years have turned green with algae because of nitrogen in groundwater from various sources including septic tanks, fertilizer and sewage treatment plants. Fixing the problems cost lots of money, and preventing further pollution requires regulations that are unpopular with rural landowners.

The 2014 Senate bill, SB 1576, established springs protection zones with prohibited uses, provided more than $300 million for wastewater treatment, and increased the standard in state law to protect groundwater flowing to springs against over-pumping.

This year, Senate legislation, SB 918, started with the prohibited uses and tougher standard against over-pumping. But those have been weakened or rewritten in the face of opposition from agriculture and industry groups.

Some environmentalists are saying that springs protection they hoped for this year won’t happen unless strong protective language is restored in the Senate bill, which now appears unlikely.

“I don’t think the bill is going to do any harm,” said Ryan Smart, president of 1000 Friends of Florida. “It is not as strong as what was there in the past and we would like to see.”

Environmental groups have opposed the House version, HB 7003, but comments at House committee meetings have focused on eliminating a pollution permitting program for Lake Okeechobee.

Environmentalists had been hoping for a stronger bill from the Senate to show the House that strong springs protection is needed.

The Florida Springs Council said SB 918 needed strengthening but instead was weakened as it went through the committee process. The springs council said the bill relies too much on existing regulatory tools, which have been shown not to work as communities watched their springs become choked with weeds and algae.

“In theory these tools should work; in practice, they generally don’t,” Robert Palmer, a member of the Florida Springs Council executive committee, said Friday. “Effective utilization of these tools has been hamstrung by weak groundwater models, by agency unwillingness to confront various interest groups, by political interference and by the high bar facing any legal challenge.”

Still, SB 918 requires sewage treatment plant solids from being applied on land near springs, requires the state to identify septic tanks that could be contribution to pollution, establishes a process for reviewing projects that receive springs funding, and requires re-evaluation of agricultural best-management practices.

“I believe SB 918 remains a crucial step in the right direction,” said Sen. Charlie Dean, a Republican from Inverness and bill sponsor. “This bill focuses on new deadlines and transparent funding while providing accountability on programs across the state.”

Smart said the bill that will advance springs protection, including setting deadlines for setting minimum springs flows to prevent over-pumping — a requirement that’s been in state law since 1972.

But he also said he’s unhappy with the regulatory status quo.

“To me it’s all about implementation,” Smart said. “So I don’t think the regulatory framework is terrible. I think it has not been properly implemented.”

Rep. Matt Caldwell, a Republican from North Fort Myers, disagreed with the suggestion that a focus on springs protection has been lost this session.

“I don’t know how it could be (perceived as) any different,” he said. “It has been a major part of the discussion, a major part of the animating spirit behind all of this.”

A proposed rewrite of SB 918 is expected to be considered Tuesday by the Senate Committee on Appropriations, the final committee stop for the bill.

Bruce Ritchie (@bruceritchie) covers environment, energy and growth management in Tallahassee. 

Bruce Ritchie


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