Here are some answers to the dilemma we face with our poorly managed springs:
Stop the groundwater depletion and pollution at the source. Charge fees for groundwater and fertilizer use to discourage wasteful practices. Buy out the most polluting farms and stop the proliferation of new septic systems.
In today’s Gainesville Sun, Aug. 14, 2016, Dr. Robert Knight outlines ways to spend more wisely our dollars for springs restoration.
Read the original article here in the Gainesville Sun:
Comments by OSFR historian Jim Tatum.
-A river is like a life: once taken, it cannot be brought back-
Florida’s artesian springs are calling out for help. Unable to protect themselves from human exploitation, they silently endure the depletion and pollution of their life’s blood. Their suffering is deafening to those among us who remember their crystalline clarity and colorful tapestry of aquatic life. Now, more often than not, their cloudy waters and unhealthy algae document the reality of their sad fate and a troubling future for all of us.
If money could buy happiness, then the springs and their supporters should be filled with joy. From a meager cash outlay of about $2 million per year for springs protection from 2000 through 2011, Florida’s state government has literally showered our springs with riches, to the tune of $140 million in the four years since 2013. Funds from local governments and the water management districts have nearly doubled that total.
Springs advocates should be celebrating the state’s intention to solve the problems that are killing our springs. But this funding is ill-conceived, devoid of an overall restoration strategy and unlikely to turn around declining springs health.
The Florida Springs Council, a coalition of 36 environmental groups calling for springs restoration and protection, concluded that the goal of springs funding is springs restoration. Public dollars should fund only those projects that produce the greatest amount of springs improvement for the money spent. Springs projects should be compared with other policy options that are likely to be far more cost effective in the long run in restoring springs. More cost effective options that target spring stressors (excessive water and fertilizer use) at the source, include dialing back groundwater pumping permits, charging moderate fees for water and fertilizer use, and strict land use controls in areas of highest aquifer and spring vulnerability.
The recent fountain of springs funding has focused the state’s efforts on connecting septic tanks to central sewer systems ($33 million), building new and upgrading existing wastewater treatment plants ($27 million), paying farmers to reduce their water and fertilizer inputs ($9 million), groundwater recharge projects ($9 million), purchase of sensitive lands ($7 million), and a variety of stormwater and restoration projects ($5 million).
However, the state’s review and selection of these projects was done without public input and transparency. Recipients of the springs largess are often unnamed. No consistent methodology for ranking and selection of the most impactful and cost-effective springs projects is apparent. New pollution and pumping sources quickly offset and negate the benefits accrued from these well-intentioned expenditures. To date there has been no follow-up to verify that the grants have been spent as intended and no attempt to quantify the actual benefits for springs.
A review of one facet of this year’s springs funding is insightful. Connecting septic tanks to sewers was the top funding category in 2016, with $33 million allocated from state and local sources to connect a total of about 1,100 septic tanks. At an average of $30,000 for each connection, this is a pricey bill for taxpayers to foot. Also, considering that septic system owners typically save about $500 per year compared to customers connected to public sewer systems, many individuals have not been supportive of voluntarily making this switch.
Septic systems at high densities located in Florida’s springs region are a major nitrogen pollution source to the groundwater. The Florida Department of Health estimates that there are currently 2.6 million Florida homes served by septic tanks. The median lot size for these properties is less than 0.5 acre. Septic tanks at this density increase groundwater and spring nitrate concentrations by 10 times in karst areas, and pollute private drinking water wells.
Eliminating septic tanks in springs country is a worthy goal. However, lax regulation results in an average of 9,000 new septic systems each year. This is nearly nine times more than the number of septic systems that taxpayers bailed out in 2016.
The best way to fill a figurative hole in the health of our springs is to stop digging it deeper. If the Florida Department of Environmental Protection was earnest about restoring springs health, it would convince the state’s politicians to pass a truly protective springs bill that laid out a sound strategy and schedule for restoration. Stop the groundwater depletion and pollution at the source. Charge fees for groundwater and fertilizer use to discourage wasteful practices. Buy out the most polluting farms and stop the proliferation of new septic systems.
In the meantime, the DEP inspector general should carefully follow and examine the trail of springs money so haphazardly thrown to the wind. Those are real dollars. Let’s demand real solutions.
— Robert Knight is director of the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute in High Springs and author of the book “Silenced Springs — Moving from Tragedy to Hope.