The Florida legislature had ample warning that their 2016 Florida Springs and Aquifer Protection Act was inadequate to fix the nitrate pollution nightmare in Florida’s springs. The Florida Springs Council warned the legislature that this law as written did not have the teeth needed to solve a problem 50 years in the making.
As required by the Act, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) determined that 24 of 30 Outstanding Florida Springs are currently impaired by excessive nitrate pollution. FDEP also estimated that nitrate load discharging from these 24 impaired Outstanding Florida Springs needs to be reduced by 68% to meet water quality targets.
This nitrate reduction goal will require the elimination of approximately 63 million pounds of nitrogen loading to the land surface in the associated springsheds. The Act directed FDEP to develop Basin Management Action Plans (BMAPs) to achieve this goal, resulting in 13 BMAPs that were adopted by FDEP in 2018 to provide a 20-year roadmap to restore these springs.
Prior to 2016 FDEP scientists had already documented that reliance on BMAPs to reduce groundwater and springs nitrate pollution was unsuccessful. After implementation of upgraded agricultural best management practices to achieve the 2012 Santa Fe BMAP, nitrate concentrations are still increasing in the Santa Fe basin groundwater and springs. Einstein is famously quoted as saying “the definition of insanity is doing something over and over and expecting a different result”. Unfortunately, Florida’s top legislators trusted lobbyists to write the 2016 Springs and Aquifer Protection Act rather than accepting evidence provided by their own springs technical experts that current springs BMAPs are not effective.
The Suwannee River and its 250+ artesian springs were designated Outstanding Florida Waters in 1979. This legally binding status allows “no degradation of water quality”. Since that time, nitrate discharging from those springs has increased by 50%. The sources of this nitrate pollution are an estimated 36 million pounds of nitrogen per year, primarily from farm fertilizer and livestock operations. The 2018 BMAP for the springs along the Suwannee does not have any requirement for reduced nitrogen fertilizer application or reduction in livestock density. It is a 20-year plan that is destined to fail.
This example of inadequate springs restoration actions applies to all 24 of the impaired Outstanding Florida Springs. None of these BMAPs have a reasonable chance of success because they do not confront and curtail the major sources of nitrate pollution. Two thirds of this pollution is from agriculture and the remaining third is from urban fertilizer and human wastewaters.
Fortunately, the Florida Springs Council and eight additional petitioners decided to challenge FDEP on a representative group of these inadequate springs BMAPs that includes Silver, Rainbow, Santa Fe, Suwannee, Wekiva, and Volusia Blue. At the November administrative hearing in Tallahassee, FDEP argued that their BMAPs do everything allowed by law but may not achieve success. FDEP invested thousands of hours of staff time and many hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to prepare and defend these inadequate BMAPs.
The Florida Springs Council’s rule challenge was supported by volunteered services and private donations from individuals with no economic interest in the outcome. The petitioner’s challenges to these flawed springs BMAPs were brought with the sole purpose of proving to the administrative law judge that the BMAPs must be significantly improved or Florida’s springs are doomed.
On a personal note, this is my fifth springs-related administrative challenge. The first two were battles over groundwater extraction permits issued to Frank Stronach’s Sleepy Creek (a.k.a. Adena Springs) Ranch. Thousands of private citizens opposed his for-profit water grab.
The next hearing focused on the emergency and final minimum flows for Silver Springs, allowing additional flow reductions in one of our state’s most imperiled water bodies. The St. Johns River Water Management District lawyers and staff used substantial public resources and personal intimidation to defeat the concerned public’s attempt to save Silver Springs from additional flow depletion. These three unsuccessful administrative challenges convinced me that some government leaders will stop at nothing to serve special interests.
When the goal is restoration and protection of Florida’s priceless springs, one must learn from one’s failures and try again. This year I have had the opportunity to testify and present the best available science during two additional administrative hearings, the Rainbow Springs minimum flows challenge and the Outstanding Florida Springs BMAP challenge. Neither case has been decided, but I am confident that in both hearings the facts speak for themselves and the administrative law judges have the evidence they need to improve these flawed agency actions.
Dr. Bob Knight is Executive Director of the non-profit Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute and is a member of the executive committee of the Florida Springs Council.