A major legal fight waged by environmentalists seeking to bolster regulations protecting Florida’s springs from pollution has resulted in a ruling favoring state authorities.
Filed by a coalition of advocates for some of the state’s best-known springs — including Silver Springs, Blue Spring and Wekiwa Springs ― the challenge played out within the Florida Division of Administrative Hearings, which hosts court-like proceedings for people who challenge state actions.
At issue were state pollution-prevention rules for springs issued in 2018 and called Basin Management Action Plans. Coalition members deemed the action plans as so weak that even if they succeeded as intended, springs would continue to deteriorate, turning black with harmful algae and losing ecosystem richness.
The judge ruled that the state’s “only requirement was to fill in the blanks, regardless of whether or not what they wrote was credible or backed by science,” said Ryan Smart, executive director of the Florida Springs Council., which coordinated efforts of groups from five springs systems.
“We will be filing exceptions to the judge’s ruling and are considering all options going forward,” Smart said “This case is not over.”
The judge’s final order issued Thursday does not address whether the state’s Basin Action Management Plans will succeed, but asserts that the plans “complied with the applicable statutory framework and legislative intent.”
The ruling came after an extraordinarily long delay of more than a year, leading springs advocates to fear mounting and unchecked pollution woes of springs and to distrust the state’s hearing process.
The legal fight started in 2019, with final arguments coming as the year ended, and the case remained under a judge’s review for nearly 13 months.
“A full year is more than long enough for careful consideration,” said Mike Cliburn, secretary of Friends of the Wekiva River, earlier this year. “Every day the ruling is delayed represents another day badly damaged Florida Springs like Wekiwa Springs must wait for the state’s restoration efforts.”
John Jopling, president of the Ichetucknee Alliance, a group protecting the treasured Ichetucknee Springs and River near Gainesville, worried state authorities may have influenced the ruling.
“This lack of transparency is troubling,” Jopling said “What’s going in the back room?”
The hearings division employs what it calls “independent and neutral” judges to hold hearings for someone who contests a state regulation or action. The division “usually” adopts a judge’s findings, according to the agency’s public disclosure, but “may under certain circumstances reject or modify certain legal conclusions” issued by the judge.
The controversy stems from a state law passed in 2016 called the Florida Springs and Aquifer Protection Act, requiring the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, or DEP, to establish specific targets and tactics for removing nitrogen pollution related to sewage and fertilizer from 30 of the state’s most celebrated springs systems.
DEP issued its pollution plan ― the Basin Management Action Plans ― in 2018.
Many springs advocates immediately deemed the plans to be woefully inadequate, not meeting the state’s own requirements and cobbled together with poorly presented science and little ambition for rescuing springs from the influx of nitrogen pollution that has fed harmful invasions of algae in spring waters.
The plans were implemented for many springs but for five of the state’s most famous springs systems, local environmentalists were able to gather resources, including lawyers and environmental experts to fight the plans.
“Over and over again, DEP misinterpreted the law, science and data to make its job easier, with apparently no concern over whether the plans would actually work,” said Florida Springs Council board member Bob Palmer when the challenge was mounted. “The challenged BMAPs fail to meet water quality goals, fail to account for future growth in population, and fail to provide serious recommendations and the required information to make these plans successful.”
State authorities countered that the BMAPs are “aggressive” and adjustable according to changing circumstances.
The five springs systems presented in the legal challenge are: the manatee hot spot of Blue Spring in Volusia County; and Wekiwa and Rock Springs of north Orange County; the Ichetucknee and others flowing to the Sante [sic] Fe River; Manatee, Fanning and other springs flowing into the lower Suwannee River; and the huge Silver and Rainbow springs….