Comments by OSFR historian Jim Tatum.
– A river is like a life: once taken,
it cannot be brought back © Jim Tatum
Next DEP Secretary Must Put Protecting Florida’s Environment First
By Ryan Smart
Executive Director | Florida Springs Council
Governor Ron DeSantis and the members of the Florida Cabinet will soon take on the important responsibility of selecting a new Secretary to lead the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).
Following the demise of the Department of Community Affairs and undercutting of our regional water management districts, the DEP Secretary is the most important position in Florida with respect to the health of Florida’s waters. It is no surprise that Florida’s waters have deteriorated over the past decade, from increasing non-point pollution and environmental catastrophes like the Mosaic sinkhole and Piney Point spill, while DEP has been run by Secretaries that are more concerned with protecting regulated industries than protecting our environment.
It will be up to the next DEP Secretary to solve Florida’s water crisis which has led to record manatee mortalities, red tide, and decreased flows and algae covering many Florida’s springs and rivers. Governor DeSantis and the Florida Cabinet should appoint a Secretary who is dedicated, first and foremost, to protecting all of Florida’s natural treasures and empower him or her with the ability to take on Florida’s largest polluters and advocate for policies, rules, and laws necessary to do so.
Once appointed, their first priority should be faithfully executing existing laws which have been ignored or misapplied:
Draft and adopt new Outstanding Florida Springs Basin Management Action Plans (BMAPs) that achieve water quality goals within 20 years. DEP’s current BMAPs (water quality restoration plans) for Outstanding Florida Springs fail to meet the minimum standards under Florida law and, most importantly, are incapable of restoring water quality in Florida’s springs and rivers. Florida Springs Council member groups have been in litigation with DEP for more than two years advocating for effective BMAPs that achieve water quality goals, allocate pollution sources, account for future growth, and address agricultural pollution.
Adopt uniform rules for preventing groundwater withdrawals that are harmful to Outstanding Florida Springs. Since 2016, DEP has been required by law to develop special water use permitting rules to protect Outstanding Florida Springs. After more than five years, DEP has still not even begun this legally mandated rulemaking allowing the continued over-pumping of Florida springs.
Conduct groundwater monitoring to verify the effectiveness of adopted agricultural best management practices (BMPs) at representative sites. For years, Florida law has required DEP to verify the effectiveness of agricultural BMPs at representative sites. Verifying the effectiveness of BMPs is essential because implementing these practices provides a presumption of compliance with water quality standards for agricultural producers who are responsible for more than 70% of the local nitrogen pollution entering Outstanding Florida Springs. DEP has blatantly ignored the law and failed to verify any of the major agricultural activities impacting Florida’s springs. Measuring the (in)effectiveness of existing best management practices is critical to the development of new BMPs that reduce agricultural pollution to Florida’s aquifer and springs.
Take immediate enforcement actions against polluters who are violating state laws and rules, including agricultural producers who have not fully implemented best management practices. Florida’s environmental laws and rules are meaningless if they are not enforced. For too long, DEP has focused on helping polluters evade environmental regulations, instead of enforcing them. DEP should end the practice of “administratively continued permits” and take aggressive action against polluters who are violating state laws.
Following and enforcing existing law is a good first step, but not enough. The next DEP Secretary must also be an advocate for Florida’s environment.
Adopt rules to place a moratorium on the land disposal of sewage sludge. Tons of sewage sludge (otherwise known as biosolids) are being shipped from South Florida to Central and North Florida and spread in our spring and river basins, exacerbating current pollution problems and offsetting the benefit of water quality restoration efforts.
Support restoration of the Ocklawaha River. The time has come to restore the Ocklawaha River by breaching the Rodman Dam. Restoring the Great Florida Riverway will bring 20 springs back to life, provide habitat access to manatees and other marine wildlife, and provide improved recreational and economic opportunities for the local communities.
Lobby for legislation implementing the recommendations of the Blue-Green Algae Task Force. Most of the recommendations put forward by the Blue-Green Algae Task Force in 2019 have still not been approved by Florida Legislature. This year, DEP refused to support or lobby in favor of proposed legislation to enact the Blue-Green Algae Task Force, which eventually died in the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Advocate for increased funding for springs and rivers. Protecting Central and North Florida’s water resources has not been a priority for DEP or the Governor. Funding for projects to restore springs and rivers is only a small fraction of that dedicated annually to South Florida. DEP should be a champion for all of Florida’s waters.
The condition of Florida’s waters won’t improve overnight, but DEP’s response to our water crisis can. With so many opportunities for progress available, it won’t take long for Floridians to know if our next DEP Secretary is up to the job.
Ryan Smart is the Executive Director of the Florida Springs Council, a non-profit focused on advocacy and legal action for Florida’s world-class springs and rivers.