New leadership at the highest levels is needed before significant improvement in Florida’s water problems will happen.
Comments by OSFR historian Jim Tatum.
-A river is like a life: once taken, it cannot be brought back-
Robert Knight: Florida’s water laws have not been enforced
Instead of “Land of Flowers,” Florida could just as easily have been named “Tierra del Agua” by the European invaders of the early 16th century. Originally blessed with more than 1,200 miles of coastal shorelines, 20 million acres of freshwater wetlands, 7,700 lakes, 11,000 miles of streams, and at least 1,100 artesian springs and their spring runs, the geography of Florida is about water.
Since the first Earth Day in 1970, Florida’s government has taken efforts to protect the state’s waters from harm caused by draining, dredging, filling and polluting. The Florida Water Resources Protection Act of 1972 established a body of law and rules envied nationwide to protect the quantity and quality of those waters.
Unlike many other states, in Florida natural waters are held in a public trust and cannot be bought, sold or owned by any private entity. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) and five regional water management districts were given the authority and resources to enforce water laws.
But now in 2018 it is painfully evident that Florida’s water laws have not been enforced. FDEP reports that nearly 27,000 water body segments are not meeting standards. Red tide is killing fish and manatees off both coasts; guacamole-thick algal blooms are wrecking South Florida’s natural resources economy; the Everglades, Florida Bay and the Florida Keys continue to be polluted by nutrient runoff; and thousands of Florida lakes, rivers and springs are officially impaired by excessive nutrient concentrations.
While water pollution results in great ecological and economic harm affecting everyone, the Florida Legislature, with the power to stop the downhill slide, is more responsive to the voices of agricultural and urban development than to concerned citizens. Fish and wildlife suffer the most, with declining populations due to loss of habitat.
People’s livelihoods are suffering too. Fishing and nature guides cannot take clients to obviously polluted waters, homeowners’ property values plummet due to falling lake levels and algae-filled shorelines, and visitors to Florida’s award-winning state parks are increasingly confronted with algae-filled springs, rivers, lakes and estuaries.
In the next month you will likely hear Florida’s governor and other politicians crowing about what they are doing to turn these water-related problems around. This is election-year rhetoric, so don’t be fooled.
As one example, the current head of FDEP will be officially adopting Basin Management Action Plans (BMAPs) for 24 of our largest springs. Those plans include a promise to finally fix the pollution problems that have progressively worsened over the past 40 years. The Florida Springs Council reviewed those plans and concluded, “It is unrealistic to believe that the 20-year Outstanding Florida Springs water quality restoration goal will be achieved by voluntary measures and with minimal public expenditure.”
As a case history, the Santa Fe and Suwannee springs were listed as impaired by FDEP in 2008. The resulting Santa Fe Springs BMAP was finalized in 2012 to reduce nitrate nitrogen concentrations and achieve the numeric standard.
Since intensive agricultural production was identified as the major source of groundwater and spring nitrate contamination, the primary method for reducing nitrogen loading was implementation of agricultural best management practices. FDEP’s 2016 Santa Fe Springs BMAP progress report concluded that even though most agricultural producers had enrolled in the required best management practices program, “no significant decreases in nitrate-N concentration were observed over the four-year period in the sampled springs or Santa Fe River sites.”
Despite this negative finding from the Santa Fe BMAP effort, the new and updated Outstanding Florida Springs BMAPs continue to rely on existing best management practices to reduce intensive agriculture’s nutrient pollution problem. However, solving this problem requires two large changes.
First, the Florida Springs Council has concluded that advanced best management practices must curtail fertilizer use in the most vulnerable karst areas by 80 to 90 percent. Second, a hefty fee should be placed on sales of all nitrogen-containing fertilizer (more than 1 billion pounds per year in Florida’s springs region alone) to reduce demand for fertilizing non-essential “crops” such as urban turf.
The continuing availability of pure and abundant water will have a determining effect on the future quality of life in Florida. It is short-sighted and ignorant to think that “economic progress” should include continuing the history of polluting nearly every water body in Florida. If we make this tragic mistake, one day we may need to rename Florida as “Tierra del Agua Contaminada.”
Bob Knight serves on the executive committee of the Florida Springs Council, a coalition of 45 member organizations representing more than 350,000 members.