Why Florida’s DEP stands for Delayed Environmental Protection

August 27, 2020 7:00 am

North Florida’s Wakulla Springs. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Do you ever break the law? I do, all the time. I constantly drive faster than the speed limit. Partly it’s because I am always running late, and partly it’s because that’s how my dad taught me to drive. A lead foot was in my DNA.

Imagine, though, if every time the cops pulled me over for speeding, I could just tell them to take their ticket book and get lost, explaining, “I’m not breaking the law. I’ve granted myself more time to comply with it.” Oh, what a wonderful gift that would be!

That’s exactly what the state Department of Environmental Protection has been doing for four years.

In 2016, after a tremendous amount of pressure from the public, the Florida Legislature passed a law called The Springs and Aquifer Protection Act. One of its provisions designated 30 of the state’s springs as “Outstanding Florida Springs,” which means they are such Florida treasures that they need extra protection to ensure that they will be around for the enjoyment of future generations.

Some of the 30 are owned by the taxpayers as part of the state park system — Silver Springs and Wakulla Springs, for instance.

Another part of the new law required DEP to adopt new water permitting rules by 2017 that would prevent people or companies from pulling so much water out of the aquifer that it would cause “harm” to those springs.

Here’s the specific language in the law, which you can look up yourself in Section 373.219(3), F.S: “For Outstanding Florida Springs, the department shall adopt uniform rules for issuing permits which prevent groundwater withdrawals that are harmful to the water resources and adopt by rule a uniform definition of the term ‘harmful to the water resources’ to provide water management districts with minimum standards necessary to be consistent with the overall water policy of the state.”

Seems pretty clear, right?

Central Florida’s Wekiwa Springs. Credit:

Yet the DEP did not exactly leap to comply with the new law. Instead, in 2017, the agency granted itself more time to come up with the definition and new rules that would prevent harm from coming to places like Wekiwa Springs, Ichetucknee Springs, and Madison Blue Springs.

And then the DEP did it again in 2018.

And in 2019.

And then last week the DEP did it again, giving itself one more year. That’s four times that the DEP has said it needs another year to comply with the law.

Anyone want to bet on what will happen in 2021?

Thousands of gallons a day

Each time DEP granted itself an extension, this was the explanation it posted on its website: “The department needs additional time to further develop and solicit public comment on the rules associated with this rulemaking effort.” But so far, the DEP has neither produced any draft rules nor solicited any public comment on them.

“It’s been well over four years and DEP has done nothing to implement this rule,” Bob Palmer of the Florida Springs Council, a statewide springs advocacy group, told me. And while the DEP has been dilly-dallying, he said, “water permits are still handed out like candy on Halloween.”

It’s hard to say how many water consumption permits have been issued around those 30 springs in the past four years but it’s fair to say “a lot.”

Suwannee River Water Management District. Credit: District website.

I checked with one of the state water agencies with a lot of springs in its jurisdiction, the Suwannee River Water Management District. In just one year, it’s issued 22 new permits to suck water out of the underground aquifer and renewed another 16.

That’s thousands of gallons a day pulled out of the aquifer to sprinkle golf courses, water crops, and so forth. Now multiply that by four years, and then by the three other water districts with Outstanding Florida Springs, too, and you’re thinking, “Okay, that’s definitely a lot of water.”

It’s not just that Florida has more large springs than anywhere else on earth, or that they were our very first tourist attraction, drawing presidents and millionaires and Northerners galore who thought the spring water had healing properties, or that they’re a fun place to go swimming and paddling.

No, what makes this a big deal is what the springs are connected to. Here’s how the DEP’s own website explains it: “Springs are the window into the health of our groundwater, which is the source of 90 percent of drinking water for Floridians. Some springs support entire ecosystems with unique plants and animals. They also flow into rivers dependent on the spring’s clean, fresh water.”

Under siege

As you can see, the DEP understands why springs are important. And its website notes, too, that Florida’s springs are under siege.

Too many people are sucking too much water out of the aquifer, messing up the flow to the springs. Too many people are dumping pollutants that wind up in the springs. Too often the combination of lost flow and added pollution has led to persistent toxic algae blooms that harm swimmers and ruin the spring’s native plant and animal life.

All these problems have been obvious, and growing, since the 1990s. In 2000, then-Gov. Jeb Bush set up a Florida Springs Initiative to investigate what needed to be done and make recommendations (an initiative then-Gov. Rick Scott would dissolve).

But the Legislature exhibited little appetite for taking the tough steps required to fix the springs. When they finally passed the 2016 bill to help the springs, the legislators in effect ordered DEP to take action.

During a November 2015 hearing on the bill, Palmer warned legislators that it was too weak. One of the sponsors strongly disagreed.

“What we’re doing is putting together a new standard here,” then-Sen. David Simmons, R-Longwood, told him. “Not something that has previously been done but a new standard that defines what is going to control the issuance of permits and it says, ‘We shall prevent groundwater withdrawals that are harmful.’”

Then Simmons added, “I don’t know how much better the Legislature can do in putting something together than this.”

Palmer says state legislators have never investigated why the DEP has so far failed to comply with the law they passed.

I was going to ask Simmons about that, but the agency postponed its required actions so long that his term as senator ran out.

Noah Valenstein, Secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Credit: DEP

Nine months ago, the Florida Springs Council sent a letter to DEP Secretary Noah Valenstein demanding he explain what was going on.

“DEP appears to be more interested in protecting large water extractors than in recovering degraded springs,” the letter said. “DEP should call for an immediate moratorium on approval or renewal of all consumptive use permit applications which have the possibility of affecting Outstanding Florida Springs.”

The response from Valenstein, council executive director Ryan Smart told me, has been silence. But hey, that doesn’t mean he’s ignoring their complaint. He probably just granted himself more time to reply.

So I emailed the DEP myself to ask what was up.

Press secretary Weesam Khoury first said that “existing Florida rules and statutes are written to ensure that consumptive uses of water will not cause harm to the water resources of the area.” Which sounds good until you consider the fact that it’s not working, given the evidence of damage to the springs.

Then Khoury said that the agency has been working with the water management districts to make sure they “have consistent conditions relating to the harm of water resourced for issuance of consumptive use permits” and “as all of these pieces come together, the department will have the ability to ensure these … rulemaking efforts are consistent.”

Fine, I said, but why is it taking you more than four years to do this? I didn’t get an answer to that. Maybe the DEP needs more time to come up with a justification for needing so much more time.

Anyway, the next time you’re splashing around in one of Florida’s springs, keep your ear tuned for what’s going on outside the gate. If you hear a big slurping sound as if the Mormon Tabernacle Choir was sucking a whole bunch of sodas through straws, well, now you know why. But don’t worry, we’ll get around to doing something about that one of these days.

In the meantime, I guess the one piece of good news here is that we can all rest easy knowing the DEP will never ever ever get a ticket for speeding.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Craig Pittman
Craig Pittman

Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of six books. In 2020 the Florida Heritage Book Festival named him a Florida Literary Legend. Craig is co-host of the "Welcome to Florida" podcast. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.