DEP drags its feet on halting pollution of Florida’s precious springs

Court ruling says agency has failed to do its job for the past four years

March 2, 2023 7:00 am

Silver Springs glass bottom boat via Florida State Parks

Florida, as I am fond of pointing out, is like no other place on earth. We get more lightning strikes here than the rest of the country. More sinkholes than the rest of the U.S., too. More shark bites than anywhere else in the world.

If you get the impression that Florida’s trying to kill us, all I can say is: You’re not wrong.

On the plus side, though, we’ve also got more first-magnitude springs than anywhere else on the planet, “first-magnitude” referring to how much water gushes out from underground.

Early accounts of our springs are credited with inspiring Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous poem about Kubla Khan, which talks of a sacred river running through “caverns measureless to man.” Another writer, Marjorie Stoneman Douglas dubbed the springs “bowls of liquid light,” which is a lovely image indeed.

Ginnie Springs, 2017. Credit: John Moran

Our springs were our earliest tourist attraction, with thousands of Northern visitors drawn here by medical hucksters pushing a sit-and-soak as the ultimate cure-all. (“Florida: Ripping Off the Gullible Since the 1870s!”)

A lot of the springs are public property now as part of our award-winning state park system. One example: Weeki Wachee Springs, the only state park in the nation where the roster of government employees includes mermaids.

Most importantly, the springs give us windows into our drinking water supply because each one is connected to our aquifer. If the springs are healthy, so is our drinking water. If they have problems, so do we water-guzzlers.

Given all that, you’d think we’d take better care of these precious jewels than we do. Instead, the state agency in charge of protecting them, the badly misnamed Department of Environmental “Protection,” has treated these “bowls of liquid light” more like toilet bowls that never get flushed.

But a court ruling issued in mid-February may turn things around — at least, that’s the hope.

“The real shame,” said Ryan Smart, executive director of the Florida Springs Council, “is that none of this had to happen.”

Dimming the light

The dimming of Florida’s “bowls of liquid light” has been going on for decades, but it became noticeable in the 1990s.

Incessant increases in pumping from the aquifer — for attractive golf courses, robust crops and lush suburban lawns — lowered the pressure pushing the ancient fountains out. Meanwhile excess fertilizer and leaky sewage pipes and septic tanks were dumping nitrogen into the mix, spurring the growth of toxic algae in these once-pristine waters.

Scariest of all, the Florida Geological Survey detected an increase in the amount of salt in the springs. That means we’ve sucked so much freshwater out of the ground that the brackish layer it floats on appears to be moving up. I know Jimmy Buffet’s Parrotheads like a little salt on the rim of their margaritas, but trust me, we do NOT want it in our water.

A state biologist and cave diver named Jim Stevenson got worried enough that he convened some experts to talk about what was going on. He determined to do something about it.

Through some careful finagling, Stevenson wound up guiding a new governor named Jeb “Please Clap?” Bush on a canoe trip down the Ichetucknee River. Thanks to that access, Stevenson convinced him the springs needed a rescue plan.

Bush appointed him to lead a Florida springs initiative, setting up committees for each major spring to study and make recommendations for saving them. The Bush springs initiative made some good headway on preserving land around springs and had larger plans in the works.

But the Legislature balked at doing anything substantive and even repealed the one major step it took. Then a new governor, Rick “I’m Rich in Dollars But Not in Sense” Scott, came along and killed off all the springs cleanup work. Hey, it’s not like we need clean water to live or anything, right?

Fortunately, that wasn’t the end of it.

The Beyhive of Florida springs

Florida’s springs have plenty of fans, and they’re almost as passionate as Beyonce’s Beyhive. (God help Gov. Ron “Bootsy” DeSantis and his presidential ambitions if he utters a single bad word about Queen Bey.)

In 2016, these persistent springs supporters persuaded the Legislature to pass a law called “The Florida Springs and Aquifer Protection Act.” For once the title of a bill accurately conveyed its purpose. The law also included a word you seldom see in any state law: “urgently,” as in: “The Legislature recognizes that action is urgently needed.”

The law designated 30 of the state’s springs as “Outstanding Florida Springs,” which means they are such Florida treasures that they deserve extra protection. That way, they’ll be around for future generations of Floridians to splash around in and enjoy. The list runs from Alexander Spring in Lake County to Wekiwa Spring in Orange County, and includes quite a few big names, such as Crystal River and Silver Springs.

The law spelled out that if any of those 30 springs were found to be impaired by pollution, then the DEP had to get them cleaned up within 20 years. As it turned out, 24 of the 30 made the polluted list in need of cleaning.

As with many bureaucracies, DEP’s approach to water pollution cleanup involves trotting out enough acronyms to stock an entire grocery aisle with alphabet soup. The soupy mix includes OFS for Outstanding Florida Springs, TMDL for total maximum daily load, BMPs for best management practices, and, last but not least, BMAP for basin management action plan.

BMAP, which sounds like (but is not) the junior varsity version of the A-MAP, is the one we’re talking about right now. The BMAP is where DEP dropped the ball on saving the springs — and then booted it out of bounds and refused to go pick it up.

Each BMAP is a plan to address the pollution in a specific water body, reducing it until it’s no longer a problem. When the Florida Springs Council studied the springs BMAPs that the DEP had produced, it found that they would reduce, at best, only a tiny bit of pollution.

The plans also failed to include any consideration for Florida’s growing population, which you may have noticed jumps by around 1,000 new suc – er, I mean “residents” a day. Instead, the springs BMAPs acted as if the population had frozen forever at the 2017 level, an utterly ludicrous assumption.

The biggest problem, though, was that these state-sponsored “rules” as toothless as a rink full of hockey veterans.

The DEP was supposed to use the BMAPs to spell out exactly how much nitrogen pollution should be reduced from which sources. Without those allocations it’s impossible to hold polluters accountable.

Robert Knight via Florida Springs Institute

But the DEP chose to not include any such specific cutbacks or penalties for missing a goal. The agency inserted a pie-chart of pollution sources that didn’t name any names.

“Basically, it’s all voluntary,” said John Thomas, who represented the Florida Springs Council, Save the Manatee Club, Sierra Club, and several other environmental groups that challenged these “rules” in court.

These loosey-goosey BMAPs don’t work anywhere in the state, as a investigation found last year. And they definitely don’t work for “urgently” cleaning up those outstanding springs.

“The problem clearly was that DEP could not write or enforce effective BMAPs due to political pressure from the highest levels in Florida’s government,” explained Bob Knight, director of the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute. “Science was not the roadblock — politics was and still is.”

Ewok dance party

When the environmental groups filed their initial legal challenge to the BMAPs for 13 of the outstanding springs, they lost. An administrative law judge ruled for the DEP. (At this point in the story you are allowed to boo.)

But remember, springs fans are persistent. They appealed that ruling to a higher court, where the case went the other way.

On Feb. 15, a three-judge panel from the First District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee ruled that the DEP was — and I am translating from the complex legalese phrasing here — a bunch of goobers who failed to do their jobs.

“This is the biggest legal win for Florida’s environment in recent memory,” Smart told WTSP-TV.

The environmental groups sent out a press release pronouncing themselves the victors. Then, I am guessing, they had a big dance party like the Ewoks celebrating the defeat of the Empire at the end of “Return of the Jedi.”

Sen. Danny Burgess at Senate committee meeting. Nov. 15, 2021. Credit: Danielle J. Brown

A week later, though, when I talked to them, the euphoria had faded, replaced by anger at the taxpayer-funded entity that wasted four years when it could have been cleaning up pollution. During the time it was fighting off the legal challenge, the state’s own water quality data show that the pollution in the springs has gotten worse, Knight told me.

I wondered if the DEP could now delay things even further by appealing this ruling to the Florida Supreme Court. Thomas told me no. This is not the kind of case that the Supremes will take up.

That means the agency has only two choices: 1) Ask the appeals court to reconsider. 2) Do the job the Legislature assigned it to do. (There’s a third option, but “abandon their building in Tallahassee, change their names, and go into hiding for 20 years” doesn’t seem practical.)

I asked a DEP spokeswoman what they’d do next. Press secretary Alexandra Kuchta replied that the agency is “currently reviewing the opinion and evaluating options moving forward.”

She noted that the state “has made an unprecedented financial commitment to springs restoration, allocating more than $250 million over the last four years.” That sounds nice, but it’s a waste of our tax money if the state’s allowing the people who dirtied the springs in the first place to continue as if they were doing nothing wrong.

I am hopeful that the DEP will at last do the right thing this time and try to make up for all the lost years and excess pollution it’s allowed. But I am not optimistic about it.

Bear in mind that the person in charge of making sure the DEP gets on the stick is the same guy who’s been overseeing it for the past four years of foot-dragging, namely a con man named DeSantis.

You know, that guy who’s been claiming to care about the environment when he clearly does not.

“We promised to usher in a new era of stewardship for Florida’s natural resources by promoting water quality and Everglades restoration efforts — and we delivered,” he said during his inauguration speech in January.

I hope someone called the fire department after he made that statement, because the governor’s pants appear to be fully involved.

State Rep. Randy Maggard. Credit: Florida House

Meanwhile, the Legislature has failed to follow up on that springs law it passed. In fact, one legislator, Sen. Danny Burgess, R-Dirty Water, has filed a bill for this year’s session, SB 1240, to forbid any local governments from “adopting laws, regulations, rules, or policies relating to water quality or quantity, pollution control, pollutant discharge prevention or removal, and wetlands.”

There’s a companion bill in the House, HB 1197, sponsored by Rep. Randy Maggard, R-Let Them Drink Gatorade. If either bill passes, only the state can regulate polluters, even though it has demonstrated no interest in doing so.

Given the shabby way our state’s “leaders” have been treating our springs — which are popular and economically important — is it any wonder that Florida’s trying to kill us?

If you’re walking past the Capitol when the Legislature convenes next week, keep your eyes peeled for a massive sharknado followed by several lightning strikes as it’s all being swallowed by a ginormous sinkhole. Maybe any legislators who get sucked underground will resurface in a spring. That could be the only way they’ll learn to appreciate them.

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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.