DEP’s language for protecting Florida springs copies what doesn’t work

After repeated delays, agency fails to follow what the law requires

March 24, 2022 7:00 am

Cannon Springs, usually hidden beneath the waters of the reservoir created by the Rodman Dam, was revealed during the drawdown of 2019. Credit: Joe Cruz

The other day I had reason to call a plumber. I figured he would make me wait all day for him to show up, take forever to fix the problem, and then overcharge me.

Folks, I was wrong. He showed up right at 9 a.m., snaked out the clog in our sewer line in record time, then charged me less than I expected. He even kept his pants pulled up!

I couldn’t have been more surprised if my bank suddenly notified me it had been calculating my interest wrong and I was now a millionaire. (I checked. They didn’t and I’m not.)

Something along those lines happened last week with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection — not once, but twice. Sort of.

As with the plumber, I generally have low expectations for the agency that some people have dubbed “Don’t Expect Protection.” But the DEP did something good. Astounding, right?

Then, given a second opportunity to upend my presumptions, the DEP surprised me again — but in a bad way. The agency screwed up, and not a little bit but a lot.

Let’s talk about the success first: Last week, the DEP rejected a request from the aptly named BS Ranch in Polk County to renew its permit to operate an organic waste facility.

I wrote about the BS Ranch in January 2021 because the owners had gotten county and state permission to recycle benign waste, then brought in toxic sludge that drove their downwind neighbors bonkers.

What was really interesting was what DEP did about it — or rather, didn’t do.

When the DEP caught the BS Ranch violating its permit, the agency could have shut the operation down. Instead, DEP officials — laboring under the dictates of then-Gov. Rick “Jobs Are All That Matter!” Scott — gave them new permits for “a pilot project,” something the agency had never done before.

These permits allowed the polluters to keep doing what they were already doing. Now they have expired, though, and the DEP is in effect telling the company to stop with the stinky stuff.

“The state agency found BS Ranch ‘did not provide reasonable assurances’ it can operate in compliance with state laws governing treatment and disposal of solid waste. It cited concerns with odors and groundwater contamination — two nuisances Lakeland residents have complained about for years,” the Lakeland Ledger reported.

Isn’t that great? The DEP is now going to shut down a polluter that the agency should have shut down in 2014. No idea who’s going to clean up the odiferous mess the BS Ranch will leave behind, but hey, that’s a problem for tomorrow, right?

Meanwhile, let’s celebrate: Yippee! Huzzah! Fire the confetti cannons!

Now let’s talk about the screwup.

This involves more than just one patch of land in Polk County. It concerns water consumption permits that are being issued around springs throughout the state.

Florida’s springs have long been one of our state’s finest features. Marjorie Stoneman Douglas dubbed them “bowls of liquid light,” which is a lovely and accurate description. But since at least the 1980s, conditions in Florida’s springs have been going downhill.

They have been harmed by the same nutrient pollution that’s been fueling algae blooms in the estuaries. And their flow has been curtailed by all the people and businesses sucking water out of the aquifer to irrigate lawns and golf courses, dilute phosphate mining waste, and so forth.

Wild lands around Ginnie Springs. Credit: Florida Springs Council

In 2016, after a great deal of clamor by the springs-loving public, the Legislature passed a new law called the Florida Springs and Aquifer Protection Act. It designated 30 of the state’s springs as “Outstanding Florida Springs.”

“Outstanding” means they’re so important that they need extra protection to ensure that they’ll be around for the enjoyment of your kids and grandkids and so on. Maybe they’ll even last until some future era where everyone has flying sports cars fueled by garbage.

One of the requirements written into this law directed the DEP to adopt new water permitting rules. These rules would prevent people or companies from pulling so much water out of the aquifer that it would cause “harm” to those springs. The Legislature gave the DEP until 2017 to come up with these rules.

When I wrote about this last year, the DEP still had not gotten around to complying with the very clear language of the law.

Instead, like some sleepy college student repeatedly hitting the snooze button on the alarm clock, the DEP kept granting itself another year to come up with these rules: 2017! BZZZ — smack! 2018! BZZZ — smack! 2019! BZZZZ! — smack! And so on.

Each time, the DEP’s justification for the delay was that “the department needs additional time to further develop and solicit public comments on the rules associated with this rulemaking effort.” But it never solicited anything, and to all appearances wasn’t developing anything but a case of pillowface worse than Rip Van Winkle’s.

In the meantime, people and companies were still applying for, and receiving, lots more water use permits. As of last year, the Suwannee River Water Management District had handed out 22 water use permits since the passage of the law.

Then, last week, the DEP finally stopped hitting the snooze, sat up in bed, and stretched. Six years after the law had passed, and five years after it was supposed to produce the new rules, the agency finally announced that it had drafted the new regulations, and weren’t they great?

There’s just one little problem. The language in DEP’s new rules was about the same as the old rules that the state was using when issuing permits in 2016.

This is not a case of recycling gone wrong, folks.

As Ryan Smart of the Florida Springs Council said when I talked to him: “After six years of doing nothing, DEP is proposing the same rule that existed when the Legislature told them to make a new rule.”

A flow that’s progressively worse

Let’s talk about flow — and no, I don’t mean that weirdo in white from the Progressive commercials.

Do you take showers? I like a nice, long, hot shower after a weekend of camping.

But if I’m in the shower upstairs when some other member of my family flushes the toilet downstairs, you’ll hear me bellowing in the next block. The flush of water downstairs has interrupted the flow of the shower upstairs, leading to me whooping and hollering.

Now consider this: There are around 1,000 springs in Florida, more than anywhere else, and the health of each one depends on the force of the millions of gallons of liquid spurting upward from the aquifer and keeping everything clear.

Robert Knight. Credit: Florida Springs Institute

But we humans have stuck some 9,000 wells down into the aquifer to compete with that flow, according to Bob Knight of the Florida Springs Institute. Each one is pulling thousands, if not millions, of gallons of water out of the aquifer every day.

“That means that much less flow into the springs,” Knight told me.

All told, those wells — for everything from farms to mines to cities and counties — have reduced the flow in the springs by an estimated 30 percent, he said.

I asked Knight how losing 30 percent of their flow affects the springs, and he said, “It’s just like losing that much of the blood from your body.” (Suddenly I pictured all the water users with sharp teeth like Dracula. It was even creepier than those ads where the actress who plays Flo plays all the members of her family.)

You can see why adding even more water users pulling even more of the H2O out of the ground hurts the springs even more. It’s far, far worse than the downstairs flush.

Eventually, Knight said, the progressively smaller flow turns the spring into nothing but a stagnant pool, full of algae and bereft of life. Or worse, it reverses itself and starts sucking water into the ground. If the spring is the source of a river — many in Florida are — then the river suffers, as well.

The four water management districts in charge of protecting our springs had language in their rules in 2014 that called for taking reasonable measures to prevent substantive harm to the state’s water resources. Those rules allowed an awful lot of bad permits to get through.

That’s why the 2016 law specifically says, 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.”

When a springs advocate warned legislators that the bill seemed too weak, its sponsor, Sen. David Simmons, disagreed.

“It is something that is a major, major step forward in the protection, preservation, and clean-up of our springs,” Simmons said. “What we are doing is, we are putting together a new standard here, not something that has previously been done, but a new standard that defines what is going to control the issuance of the permits and it says we shall prevent groundwater withdrawals which are harmful.”

“Not something that has previously been done,” eh?

I contacted the Republican ex-senator at his Orlando law office to ask what he thought of the DEP’s handiwork. He said his bill was intended to mark a dramatic turnaround in how the state protects its springs, changing the standard from not doing substantial harm to not doing any harm at all. The bill could not have been clearer, he said.

Simmons said he felt “a little disappointed.” By not updating those regulations, the DEP’s rulemaking language is “deficient,” he said.

Time to snake the line

I sought some response from the DEP. An agency spokeswoman denied that the language of the new rules was “nearly identical” to the old rules from the four water districts, but then said the draft language “may be similar.” Make of that what you will.

At a workshop on Monday, Smart told me, DEP officials acknowledged that the rule language was in fact the same as what had been used before — not just “similar,” but copied like a cheating schoolboy in a pop quiz peering over the class valedictorian’s shoulder.

Those old rules have been a failure when it comes to the springs, Smart said.

About two dozen of the state’s 30 “outstanding” springs have already been “harmed” using the old language, he said. Instead, his organization has proposed rules that would require that any new or renewed water use permit applicants would have to offset the quantity being pulled from the aquifer.

In other words, if you want a permit, you need to find an old one held by someone else and eliminate it. Or if you want to renew one that’s already been approved, then you have to reduce the amount.

He said they got their proposed wording from the language being used on permits in the Southwest Florida “Southern Water Use Caution Area,” where constant water shortages have led to a far greater focus on conservation.

“We didn’t re-invent the wheel,” said Smart. “We’re not that smart.” (Yes, I pointed out that his name says otherwise.)

Personally, I don’t blame the DEP for all this. I think the agency is just suffering from the same thing my plumbing was: A massive clog.

That’s why DEP took from 2014 to 2022 to do something about the BP Ranch. And that’s why the agency failed to come up with new water permitting language for six years, then failed to meet the “new” part of the criteria. That stuff just got gummed up in the pipeline!

I suggest we, the taxpayers (and owners of a lot of these springs), call in a plumber to snake out the line at DEP.

Some governors (hello, Rick Scott!) pushed the agency to crank out pollution permits in a handful of days, no questions asked. We don’t want that.

Instead, we want the plumber to get rid of whatever’s clogging up the agency’s ability to do its job properly, so it will protect the springs and shut down polluters without dragging things out the way it has.

Who knows? Maybe the plumber will show up quickly, get the job done, and keep his pants pulled up. And maybe I’m secretly a millionaire.

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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.