Saving Florida’s springs isn’t possible unless agriculture changes its ways


enos oped pic In: Saving Florida's springs isn't possible unless agriculture changes its ways | Our Santa Fe River, Inc. (OSFR) | Protecting the Santa Fe River in North Florida*

The following opinion piece by Burt Eno appeared in the Orlando Sentinel on April 15, 2019, and can be seen at this link.

Comments by OSFR historian Jim Tatum.
-A river is like a life: once taken, it cannot be brought back-

Saving Florida’s springs isn’t possible unless agriculture changes its ways

Too often, the debate over water quality problems and solutions in Florida is fueled by emotions and not facts.

Sometimes clean-water advocates are accused of demonizing industries and exaggerating the severity of the water pollution problem while advocates for development and agriculture are sometimes labeled as destroyers of the environment.

I hope to temper that debate with facts about the state-designated Outstanding Florida Springs.

In June 2018, the state Department of Environmental Protection completed 13 water quality restoration plans, known as Basin Management Action Plans (BMAPs), covering 24 impaired Outstanding Florida Springs.

From the BMAPs, we learn that nutrient pollution from agricultural operations — primarily farm fertilizer and livestock waste — is by far the largest source of nitrogen in springs, accounting for more than twice as much nitrogen pollution as wastewater treatment plants, septic tanks, urban fertilizer and sports grass fertilizer combined.

For instance, agricultural pollution accounts for 85% of the nitrogen loading in the Suwannee River basin and 54% of the loading in the Rainbow Springs basin.

We also learn the fact that enormous reductions in nitrogen pollution are necessary to achieve water quality goals for many Florida springs.

For example, achieving water quality goals requires a 71% reduction in nitrogen pollution in the Suwannee River basin and an 81% reduction in the Rainbow Springs basin.

A distressing fact from the BMAPs is that, for many springs polluted because of agriculture, we currently have no means of achieving the required pollution reductions using existing water quality projects and strategies.

According to the state, even if every single nutrient reduction project they’ve come up with met its pollution reduction goals, including fully implementing existing best management practices for water quality across all agricultural operations, the majority of the springs still wouldn’t have the kind of water quality they need.

The Suwannee BMAP would achieve only 48% of the necessary reduction, while the Rainbow Springs BMAP would only achieve 23% of the necessary reduction.

The BMAPs also tell us the facts about why it is not possible to achieve the water quality goals in these basins. Full implementation of the current agricultural “best management practices” required in these springsheds only reduce nitrogen by 10% to 15%.

It is not just a fact, but also simple math, that we cannot achieve water quality goals in the Suwannee basin if we only reduce 85% of the pollution loading by 10% to 15%.

Fortunately, the BMAPs tell us the facts about what our state government needs to do to get closer to meeting water quality goals for springs: develop, adopt, and implement advanced agricultural best management practices. This is the state’s one and only answer for each and every spring where water quality goals can’t be met because of agricultural pollution.

Fortunately, state law already authorizes the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to develop, adopt and require these advanced practices. However, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, like her predecessor, has thus far failed to act.

It is a fact that, for many of Florida’s most important and loved springs, it is not possible to have widespread conventional agricultural operations and clean water at the same time. We need advanced best management practices to achieve water quality goals. If the agriculture commission refuses to act, our Legislature and governor must pass and sign legislation requiring the implementation of these advanced practices.

Already this year, a provision requiring advanced best management practices was included in state Sen. Debbie Mayfield’s “Clean Waterways Act,” but it was removed at the behest of lobbyists for large landowners (yes, that’s a fact).

It is not too late to restore language in SB 1758 requiring advanced best management practices and save our springs. Our leaders just need the political will to do it, which is also a fact.

Burt Eno is president of Rainbow River Conservation Inc. and a board member of the Florida Springs Council.

*Photo: A swimmer at Wekiwa Springs. (Joe Burbank / Orlando Sentinel)


  1. Just like any industry there are bad actors that tarnish the industry as a whole. That being said, certain types of agriculture have been given a pass with regard to disposing of known pollutants for too long. Consider that all other industries must obtain a permit to dispose of waste. Consider also, current BMP’s (best management practices) are voluntary, and not enforced. What other industry has this advantage?
    Currently, Florida’s sandy soil leads to over fertilization and over irrigation even though rainfall is abundant. Heavy rainfall washes harmful farming byproducts into rivers and streams that people swim in and fish out of. In areas where the aquifer is unconfined by clay,
    the soil cannot tolerate repeated heavy use of fertilizer without contaminating groundwater which is connected to the water most, if not all Floridian’s depend on. Besides pesticide and fertilizer run-off, in the area of Florida’s springs, rainfall events also overwhelm holding ponds
    of concentrated livestock operations such as dairy farms and point source contamination can occur to both the groundwater and nearby springs through manmade and natural ponds and limestone (Karst) openings.

    Although agriculture is not to blame for straightening rivers and draining wetlands, they have shown us that current practices are environmentally unsustainable. While taxpayers have spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to undo environmental damage that has benefited agriculture, agricultural interests spend millions of dollars to influence lawmakers to maintain this status quo which is clearly unacceptable to the citizens of Florida. Because a common natural event such as a heavy tropical rainstorm can cause nutrient loading, algae blooms, destruction of marine habitat, massive fish and animal deaths, it is time to apply new hydrology science to farming operations. As I understand it, that is what the advanced best management practices was supposed to address. If the agricultural industry would have just admitted that farming in Florida results in some level of pollution, Floridians’ would
    have rallied for the farmer, the food they produce and maintained respect for farming.

    We are here not just because of the damage caused by agriculture, but because of agriculture’s finger-pointing, greed, and denial of proven science. The original language of SB 1758 should be embraced by agriculture if for no other reason than to maintain credibility with the consumers they serve.

  2. This is a garbage piece of journalism. Agriculture has and continues to improve practices that not only improve the environment on and around the farm AND provide local food for YOU to eat.

    This sensationalism does nothing but drive wedges and create friction that consumes resources we all could be putting to better use.

  3. “Agriculture” is not the environmental enemy as claimed–it is just convenient
    for a diversion strategy. Urban waste-water treatment facilities process toxic and nutrient pollutants which are subsequently discharged into the aquifer by
    injection of fluids, spreading of solids, or release into flowing streams. Politics
    (“green” or otherwise) obfuscates the “big picture” by hyping only the facts
    that are favorable to a particular cause. Over-blowing the issue of nutrient
    pollution by agriculture (“farmers”) is not a viable environmental strategy!

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