“DEP’s presentation was a bracing dose of reality not typically seen or heard from our state environmental agencies.”
Rarely do we get a statement like the one above, but we will happily take it. Understand however, our skepticism, as we have seen far too many instances of Dr. Palmer’s options two and three, found below.
Here we see the state actually advocating spring restoration, yet their water managers continue to reduce the flows, as done recently for Silver Springs, Rainbow Springs, and the proposed MFL reduction next week for Crystal River/Kings Bay.
You can’t have it both ways; you can’t restore a spring by reducing its flow.
This opinion piece will likely appear in the Gainesville Sun on Sunday, April 23, 2017.
Comments by OSFR historian Jim Tatum.
-A river is like a life: once taken, it cannot be brought back-
Bob Palmer: Can agriculture and healthy springs coexist?
Posted Apr 21, 2017 at 2:00 PM
By Bob Palmer / Special to The Sun
The pattern has become familiar. One of our state agencies charged with protecting the environment issues a rule or a permit or a report which infuriates environmental advocates. What follows is also familiar: recriminations, dueling op-eds, and — increasingly — legal challenges.
Earlier this month, the familiar pattern was broken.
The subject was the Basin Management Action Plan (BMAP) for the Lower and Middle Suwannee River Basin, a 2,000-square-mile area including parts of Dixie, Madison, Hamilton, Lafayette, Levy, Gilchrist and Suwannee counties. The BMAP area contains 62 first- and second-magnitude springs, including seven of the 30-odd Outstanding Florida Springs designated for special protection by Florida law. All of these springs, and the Suwannee River itself, are severely degraded by nitrogen pollution, leading to excessive amounts of noxious algae and crippled aquatic life. The BMAP process is designed to identify the sources of this pollution and to lay out a 20-year plan for reducing nitrogen inputs and restoring the springs to health.
On April 13, at a public meeting in Live Oak, Department of Environmental Protection staff described in detail the various activities which contribute nitrogen to the aquifer, the river and the springs. DEP’s presentation was a bracing dose of reality not typically seen or heard from our state environmental agencies.
The major sources of nitrate in the BMAP area are agricultural — farm fertilizer, dairies, cattle operations and poultry waste. Agriculture intensity in the area has been increasing of late, mainly due to an influx of large agri-businesses from South Florida and the West Coast.
DEP calculated the enormous reductions in nitrate reaching the groundwater that would be necessary to restore the springs and the river to health. For the Withlacoochee portion of the BMAP, nitrogen would have to be reduced by 83 percent; for the Middle Suwannee, 84 percent; and for the Lower Suwannee, 93 percent. The total amount of needed reduction is a staggering 6 million pounds of nitrogen per year. Imagine over 1 million bags of fertilizer being dumped in the aquifer every year.
Florida law says that the BMAP must show a credible path for restoring Outstanding Florida Springs within 20 years; in the Live Oak meeting, DEP said that it intended to meet that goal within 15 years.
DEP’s analysis raises obvious questions: Is the clean-up of the Suwannee springs possible, technically and politically? Can agriculture survive in the Suwannee Basin?
It is obvious that agriculture as currently practiced in the basin is inconsistent with recovery of the springs. Unfortunately, no Suwannee Basin farmer would concede that he or she could farm those depauperate soils and survive financially if fertilizer applications had to be cut by over 80 percent.
I see three very different ways in which this impasse could play out as DEP moves from analysis into an actual action plan for the basin.
First, the state could help Suwannee Basin farmers adopt practices that release far less nitrogen to the groundwater. Best management practices could be implemented and enforced. In areas where nutrients are easily leached into the groundwater, which unfortunately is most of the BMAP area, the state could underwrite a shift toward crops (e.g. pine trees) that are not dependent upon heavy inputs of fertilizer. This is clearly the preferred option, one that has been advocated over the past year by the Florida Springs Council and the Sierra Club in their discussions with the state.
Alternatively, one can imagine a second path where the state kicks the can down the road. Targets would be set for the required five-year, 10-year and 15-year clean-up milestones mandated by Florida law. Then after five years, the milestones would conveniently not be met, and new milestones would be set. This process could go on indefinitely, with no measurable progress.
The third path is the easiest to imagine — the Florida Legislature would simply change the law to remove the requirements for cleaning up our springs. The 2016 springs protection legislation? Never mind, we didn’t really mean it.
A political fight is inevitable. Under the Scott administration, state employees who have tried to tell the truth about Florida’s environmental challenges have been fired without explanation. One can only hope that the dedicated DEP employees working on the Suwannee BMAP will be congratulated for their integrity and honesty rather than being shown the door by political hacks in Tallahassee. And since this BMAP is the first of many BMAPs in the works for Florida’s degraded springs, I would also hope that the state develops a credible recovery plan for the Suwannee, one that is not hijacked by special interests.
— Bob Palmer serves on the executive committee of the Florida Springs Council