Sad Story of the Flagship Spring the State Seems Bound & Determined to Destroy

A diver swims by algae-covered eel grass at Silver Springs State Park in this January 2015 file photo.

Today, Jan. 10, 2016, Fred Hiers has written  more on the sad story of Silver Springs, flagship spring of Florida that the state seems bound and determined to destroy, all the while making noises denying this. Continue reading this story which appeared in the Gainesville Sun:Scroll


How to save Silver Springs? State, environmentalists differ

Alan Youngblood/Star-Banner

By Fred Hiers
Staff writer

Published: Saturday, January 9, 2016 at 4:00 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 5, 2016 at 9:58 a.m.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection plan that outlines how to repair the polluted Silver Springs presented the local environmental community with an interesting quandary: Was it better to continue participating in the state exercise, even though it seems ineffective, or to walk away from the table in disgust and give up its role in the formal process?



Silver Springs and the Silver River are jewels in Marion County. Restoring and protecting them is an important goal for state and local government, not to mention environmentalists. There always has been tension between government and the environmental community on this topic, but now the battle over methods and motivations has devolved drastically.

Environmentalists chose the latter and say they have no regrets. They don’t want to be associated with what they consider to be a flawed plan, and they don’t think Florida’s political climate will allow for any meaningful changes in the future, despite what the FDEP promises.

The rift, long brewing, boiled over in November. The Silver Springs Alliance had been a local stakeholder and participant in the two-year, FDEP-led process that yielded a report and cleanup recommendations. The alliance said the report ignored its recommendations and was, essentially, a sham.

The alliance asked that its name be taken off the report. In December the Florida Springs Council, an umbrella organization for more than 30 environmental groups, upped the ante by asking the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to intercede, saying FDEP’s plan falls miserably short of what’s needed to repair the popular spring and river.

FDEP, for its part, says that while its plan is not perfect, it’s a start and will help to clean out dangerous nitrogen from the waterways.

The only thing the two factions agree on is the number 79: That’s the percent reduction of nitrogen that must be achieved to reduce nitrogen levels mandated by FDEP at 0.35 milligrams per liter of water (mg/l.)

But the FDEP and environmentalists differ strongly on how to achieve that benchmark.

“We all want the best for Silver Springs…and the BMAP (Basin Management Action Plan) is the best way to go,” said Drew Bartlett, FDEP’s deputy secretary for water policy and ecosystem restoration. His agency is launching a public communications campaign to garner BMAP support and offset environmentalists’ warning that the plan will do no good.

“This is nothing but political cover. It’s a fig leaf. It’s not doing anything substantial. One person called it the appearance of doing something,” counters Robert Knight, director of the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute (FSI) in Gainesville and president of the Silver Springs Alliance.

There are several such plans for Florida water bodies. BMAPs, as they are known for short, guide Florida agencies on how to repair damaged springs and rivers. The plans are referenced when grants are allotted for environmental projects.

In its December letter to the EPA, the Florida Springs Council asked the federal agency to “exercise your full authority to require the State of Florida to follow the letter of the law with regards to this BMAP.”

The letter went on to say: “Creating a BMAP that mandates a negligible reduction in nitrogen loading to the impaired water body has the effect of drawing out the restoration process to the point that no real changes to the health of the water body will occur, given the additional unregulated nitrogen loadings that are expected to occur in the future.”

The environmental group has not yet received a response from EPA.

Bartlett says the BMAP is a good place to start, and that changes can be phased in for the future — contrary to the pessimistic picture that environmentalists paint.

“There’s a huge public education component” that is necessary for the plan to be effective, he said.

Bartlett’s problem, and one that environmentalists pin part of their argument to, is that he can’t say whether nitrogen would in fact be reduced 79 percent, even if all of the BMAP’s programs — present and future — get implemented.

“I’m going to try,” Bartlett said when a reporter asked whether the BMAP would sufficiently reduce nitrogen. “It’s ambitious, but I’m going to try.”

He says he does know one thing: Waiting and dickering back and forth in an effort to create a perfect BMAP will take too long and not help the springs now.

“Getting a BMAP is the right decision,” he said, noting that it can be modified in the future to get more sectors to participate and reach reduction goals. “We have to make a dent.”

But the depth of that dent doesn’t even come close to satisfying Knight. He contends that at FDEP’s current projection levels, nitrogen will be reduced only a measly 6 percent.

He said that hoping that FDEP will later change the BMAP isn’t wise. The focus should be on the current version of the BMAP, and that version isn’t nearly strong enough.

This is how Bartlett lays out his argument to support the BMAP as the best available route to cleaning up Silver Springs, which for decades has seen nothing but an increase in its nitrogen levels.

First, the BMAP takes stock of the areas that are contributing to the spring’s nitrogen levels. The BMAP estimates that 38 percent of the nitrogen that makes its way into the springs comes from septic tanks. There are more than 50,000 septic tanks in Marion County. Cattle farms contribute about 17 percent, followed by agricultural fertilization (11 percent,) atmospheric deposition (10 percent,) horse farms (9 percent,) and urban fertilization (8 percent.) The remainder comes from wastewater treatment plants and drainage wells.

Bartlett said that if all the agricultural industries follow best management practices, their contribution would diminish by 30 percent in five years. He said most ag businesses comply with FDEP requests to follow best management practices; in fact, the state agency has never had to fine a violator to force compliance.

As for septic tanks: The state needs public buy-in. Bartlett said FDEP is pushing hard to get local governments to partner with the state in funding programs that help property owners make the switch.

One such project partners the city of Ocala with FDEP and the St. Johns River Water Management District. The latter two agencies contributed $2.5 million each to take as many as 850 septic tanks off line and get homes connected to municipal sewer. Ocala’s utilities contributed $5 million to the project.

Bartlett said his plan is to have, in 20 years, septic tanks closest to the springs “addressed” and thus make a significant dent in that sector’s nitrogen contribution.

Bartlett wouldn’t say how many septic tanks would need to be removed or how much nitrogen would be reduced by their removal. There are 24,000 septic tanks in the primary spring recharge zone.

But Bartlett said he thinks local governments will get onboard with plans to get as many septic tanks as possible closed, calling the measure the “biggest bang for the buck” because septic tanks are such a large contributor to the problem.

He said the BMAP will not remain a stagnant document. Implementation will come in phases; compliance will be achieved over time; and reviews and modifications will be made. But the state has to start somewhere, he said, and getting a written plan in place is the first step.

“It’s good to have a process codified,” he said.

Knight and fellow skeptical environmentalists say the BMAP is too much wishful thinking.

“Not a single degraded first magnitude spring is on track to be restored to health with a BMAP or an MFL (minimum flows and levels),” the Florida Springs Council’s Bob Palmer said in prepared remarks.

The plan doesn’t spell out annual milestones to implement agricultural best management practices and measure their effectiveness, Knight said. Besides, best management practices have never been shown to reduce nitrogen levels to the extent necessary to reach the 0.35 mg/l goal.

The BMAP also fails to identify specific sources for funding its pollution-reduction strategies, Knight said, and lacks strict requirements and timetables for polluters to reduce their nitrogen contributions.

The FDEP has allowed Silver Springs to be polluted for the past 40 years, and the government mentality that allowed such degradation hasn’t changed, Knight said. If the agency were serious about reducing nitrogen, it should have each pollution source reduce its contribution by 79 percent and be done with it, he said.

The BMAP, by contrast, is nothing more than a bunch of suggestions that will not reduce nitrogen levels more than 6 percent — and even that will take years.

Knight said FDEP scientists, such as Bartlett, mean well. But they work for a Florida government not willing to go against political pressure and mandate significant pollution reductions. Knight said rather than implement a BMAP that at least is a start, FDEP and its scientists should be honest and tell the public this is the best they could get — politically speaking.

“If you can only get 6 percent, then they should sure as hell say it. I’m very disgusted with the dishonesty in state government,” he said. “This is not a recovery plan for Silver Springs.”

Instead, pollution contributors continue to contribute to the problem, and development is leaving more trees cut down and fertilizer dumped into the aquifer, he said.

And in five years, when people expect to see the BMAP starting to reduce nitrogen levels, “(nitrogen levels are) probably going to be higher.”

“And they (FDEP) won’t even be embarrassed, if it’s the same government. It’ll be just another (bad) milestone. They (FDEP officials) will have moved on,” Knight said.

Reach Fred Hiers at and 352-867-4157.

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