Dr. Bob Palmer has published an opinion piece on line in the Gainesville Sun, Sept. 13, 2016, and it appeared today, Sept. 18, 2016 in the hard copy.
Comments by OSFR historian Jim Tatum.
-A river is like a life: once taken, it cannot be brought back-
Bob Palmer: Document abuse of Florida’s springs
Posted Sep 13, 2016 at 2:00 AM Updated at 9:24 AM
By Bob Palmer
Special to The Sun
Imagine this scenario at the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea. The Olympic Committee decides that the premier ski races — the men’s and women’s downhill events — won’t be timed. Instead, any skier who signs up for the race will win a gold medal, regardless of whether he or she finishes in two minutes or two hours.
No examination of replays will be allowed. Of course, the committee’s decision not to measure race results — to avoid the use of realistic data — pretty much strips the events of any meaning.
A ridiculous example, perhaps, but it’s a good analogy for what’s happening with the state’s management of Florida’s springs. The 2016 water bill requires the state to restore Florida’s springs, but because of legislative restrictions and lack of political will, it will have to do so without the benefit of the critical data needed to do the job.
Over recent decades, flows in Florida’s springs have declined and pollutant levels, particularly nitrates, have spiked. The information needed to analyze and correct this situation would be obvious to any citizen possessing a whit of common sense: We should be measuring how much water is being sucked out of the ground and we should be measuring how much fertilizer is being spread on top of the ground.
Granted, some sophisticated science is required to translate these basic data into anticipated conditions at the spring vents. But it is hard to imagine how a good strategy for springs restoration could be developed without collecting basic information on pumping and fertilization rates.
Yet that is exactly the situation in the springs country of North Florida, where water managers have very poor access to these basic data.
Large-scale agriculture is expanding in Florida’s springs country, and many of these operations have permits to pump hundreds of thousands, even millions, of gallons of groundwater every day. Metering this pumping is essential for several reasons: to ensure that permit-holders are actually complying with their permits; to verify that they actually need what they claim; and, most importantly, to provide essential data regarding the cumulative impact of water withdrawals on the underlying aquifer. Amazingly, metering is not required for many of these permits, as it is routinely across the border in Georgia.
Earlier this year, the Florida House and Senate both considered amendments to require that all withdrawals larger than 100,000 gallons per day be metered. This is obviously a huge amount of water, enough to meet the needs of well over 1,000 urban customers — whose usage is meticulously metered. However, both the House and Senate rejected this simple amendment, and with very little debate.
The state’s access to fertilizer data is even worse. Florida water law requires that best management practices (BMPs) be utilized by all agricultural operations in degraded springsheds. This means nearly all of springs country. But section 403.067(7) of state law is filled with loopholes that render this requirement almost meaningless.
The Department of Agriculture is allowed to ask farmers for their records of fertilizer application, but may not copy the records, which are also shielded from the state’s public records law. But these fertilizer records are not routinely examined during department visits anyway, in part because record-keeping is very spotty. The result is that the public can’t obtain agricultural records used to develop or verify BMPs, nor records developed if and when weak BMPs are re-evaluated and re-issued.
There are many conscientious employees at the Department of Environmental Protection and the water management districts, but they have been cowed by the undeserved firings and budget cuts perpetrated by the Scott administration. Even if these employees were to speak up and point out the folly of managing water without data, and even if they managed to keep their jobs after doing so, nothing would change because the Legislature is not interested in fixing the problem.
Despite their lip service to the concept of “sound science,” it is hard to escape the conclusion that the governor and the Legislature simply don’t want Florida’s citizens to know the sources of the abuse being heaped on Florida’s springs.
The good news is that this “Death Valley of Data” is fixable. When the Legislature convenes next year, it should amend Florida law to ensure that critical data on groundwater pumping and fertilizer applications are promptly available, both to our state’s water managers and to the public.
— Bob Palmer lives in Gainesville and is a board member of the Florida Springs Institute.