By Dr. Robert Knight. Published in The Florida Specifier June/July 2022 edition.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) is the state’s lead agency for environmental management and stewardship and is tasked to protect the state’s air, water, and land. Reading from FDEP’s website, its vision is “… to create strong community partnerships, safeguard Florida’s natural resources, and enhance its ecosystems.” (www.floridadep.gov)
Headquartered in Tallahassee, but with staff state-wide, FDEP has about 3,000 employees and an annual budget of about $1.5 billion. Composed of 13 divisions, including the Division of Parks and Recreation, FDEP oversees all aspects of Florida’s 175 state parks. Those parks, preserves, and recreational areas encompass more than 800,000 acres and have won top honors nationwide four of the past 20 years. Annual visitation to Florida’s state parks exceeds 30 million visitors.
Twenty-seven of Florida’s award-winning state parks encompass springs, including most of the largest artesian springs in Florida and the United States. Many of these springs’ parks were Florida’s earliest tourist attractions — Silver, Wakulla, Rainbow, Weeki Wachee, Homosassa, Volusia Blue, and more than a dozen other popular natural destinations. There is no doubt that FDEP managers and staff are fully cognizant of the wealth of natural resources that are under their supervision and care.
I recently read a copy of FDEP’s glossy, two-sided springs’ brochure titled Springs – Purely and Uniquely Florida. This brochure provides the following helpful information for springs’ visitors: What Makes Florida’s Springs Unique? with details on What is a spring?, Did you know your neighborhood could affect a spring?, and Why is it important to protect springs?
The last page of this brochure caught my attention with Together we can protect and restore Florida’s springs and You can help — individual actions make a difference. The current springs’ problems summarized in the brochure could not be more clearly stated:
• “Over time, the water quality and flow of Florida’s springs have been impacted by both human and natural factors.
• Nutrient pollution from sources such as fertilizer, human and animal waste can be greatly reduced with better practices and management of wastewater.
• Water conservation efforts can restore spring flows to levels that support healthy ecosystems.”
And the final honest statement in this pamphlet is: Florida’s laws require springs protection.
The rest of the text is disappointing. After repeating the truth that Florida’s springs, even in state parks, no longer support healthy ecosystems and are impacted by human activities, including excessive groundwater diversions and nutrient loads, the brochure includes blatant untruths, including FDEP is restoring springs by setting limits on nutrient pollution and Florida’s water management districts protect springs by regulating water use. These statements beg the question that the public has been asking for decades: If FDEP and the water management districts are protecting Florida’s springs, why are nearly all our springs unhealthy and continuing to decline?
As I have stated in previous op-eds and a dozen springs-restoration plans, the answer to this question is simple — because Florida’s springs-preservation efforts are not sufficient to achieve the goal of springs restoration and protection. FDEP’s springs Basin Management Action Plans intended to reduce nutrient pollution are ineffective. And, under FDEP’s supervision, the water management district governing boards tasked with protection of springs and environmental flows have not reduced or put a cap on
excessive groundwater extractions. I would like to suggest two mid-year’s resolutions for the public servants at FDEP who are entrusted with “… safeguarding Florida’s natural resources and enhancing its ecosystems”:
As you can see in the box, if strictly followed, these two mid-year resolutions will restore much of the original beauty and ecological functionality of Florida’s priceless springs natural resources. Fulfilling these promises will allow Florida’s springs state parks to truly shine again. Continuing to publish platitudes about the public’s role in solving these problems is not helpful. The responsibility for springs protection rests squarely on the shoulders of our elected leaders and the agencies they direct.