Lawmakers Join Forces For Protection Of Florida Springs

Mar 7, 2014

Wakulla Springs, about half an hour from Tallahassee, is one of the state's first magnitude springs. It offers public swimming and glass-bottom boat rides. When the water is clear, riders can see 120 feet to the bottom.

Attorney David Guest is not on the fence about the protection of springs.

“They’re acting as if this renewable resource is something you can simply mine and when it’s gone, it’s gone,” said Guest, head of the Florida office of Earthjustice. “It’s been there for thousands of years, and only recently have we had this attitude that you just take it and the future generations just don’t get anything anymore.”

Florida’s natural springs have seen contamination from fertilizer and sewage, all while great quantities of water are being withdrawn every day by bottling companies and agricultural interests.

The health of the springs has the attention of a powerful group of lawmakers. Five Senate committee chairmen have come up with proposed legislation to help protect them. It requires the state and counties to work together. 

“What we’re really looking at is those that are impaired springs, the ones that we know we’ve got to do something about now,” said Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs. Simmons helped draft the bill, which would affect about 35 springs.

Florida has one of the largest concentrations of natural springs on earth - more than 700 of them.

The bill mainly targets first-magnitude springs, the ones with the most water flowing from the ground. 

“There’s something magical about clear springs that everybody remembers from their childhood, everybody experiences when they see them,” Guest said. “To see the flow disappear and have them turn to green slime is simply heartbreaking.” 

Funding of about $378 million a year for protection and clean-up would come from documentary stamp revenue in real estate transactions.  Gov. Rick Scott is recommending another $55 million in his proposed state budget.

Guest is happy about the proposals, but notes that Scott previously cut funding to the regional water management districts -- which he calls the front line of protection against water pollution and excessive groundwater withdrawals.

“There has been a philosophy from the governor that regulation of business is morally wrong,” Guest said. He said an environment without regulations “licenses big corporations, big agricultural enterprises, to contaminate waters and not take personal responsibility for what they do.”

Water management districts would have to establish minimum flow levels under the legislation, which sets limits on how much water can be withdrawn.

“Bottling companies have purchased the land around springs and are withdrawing massive quantities of water that are slowing the spring flow,” Guest said. “But to be clear, the big withdrawals from the aquifer that are causing our problems are from agriculture and, to a lesser extent, from cities.” 

Local governments would have to make springs protection part of their comprehensive plan.

The Florida League of Cities was among the groups initially worried about municipalities having to pay for water projects if state funding eventually goes away. But the bill says they won’t have to take on clean-up projects if they don’t have funding.

David Childs with the Florida Chamber of Commerce doesn’t like that the bill provides a package of protections for all springs -- regardless of whether they need it. He addressed lawmakers at a workshop before the legislation was filed.

“In some springs that may make a difference and may be the right thing to do, and in others it may not be,” said Childs. “The objective is to identify and fund good projects that are going to make a difference, and we do have some differences of opinion about how you get there.”

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, said other business opposition to the bill has been vague.

“It’s like they’ve got this feeling they don’t like it, but they’re not real sure what they don’t like,” Latvala said. “I was just trying to draw that out a little bit on the record as to what they don’t like.”

Opponents say protection and clean-up can be handled through existing law if the state will just provide the funding. Sen. Simmons says that’s not true.

“There are two things missing,” Simmons said. “One is a dedicated funding source, and then secondly a plan to work together – a methodology to work together – so that these programs can all be looked at by a master entity that is able to decide which needs to be done first.”

The proposal lays out a five-year timetable to develop management plans for the damaged springs and implement them.