Spending on Ineffective Projects, Won’t Save Our Springs

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WE MUST PROTECT OUR SPRINGS

OSFR advisor Dr. Robert Knight has written an editorial in the March 27, 20216 Gainesville Sun.Scroll

Robert Knight: Spending on ineffective projects won’t save springs

By Robert Knight
Special to The Sun

Published: Friday, March 25, 2016 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, March 24, 2016 at 1:27 p.m.

Over the past 50 years, Florida policies have fueled private investments based on the myth that cheap, clean groundwater is infinite.

Developers built cities from coast-to-coast with excessive reliance on the Floridan Aquifer, while water managers blissfully ignored the fact that green lawns and septic tanks pollute springs, lakes and rivers. Farmers have expanded their agricultural operations throughout the springs heartland with the promise of ample groundwater for irrigation, while their excessive fertilizer applications pollute the underlying aquifer.

The public has been duped by state government into thinking that Florida’s underground aquifers are so vast that the day of reckoning can be put off forever. But the reality is that we are well past that day of judgment.

As early as 2000 the state’s best scientists and engineers, working as the Florida Springs Task Force, developed a viable plan to move the state towards a sustainable groundwater future by reversing the unmistakable decline in springs’ water quantity and quality. Their plan was gaining momentum in 2007 before it was quietly tossed into the state’s waste basket.

But good ideas don’t die easily. By 2011, well-informed citizens were lobbying all levels of state and local governments to put the brakes on the permitted activities that were killing springs by the proverbial “death by a thousand cuts.” Educated by private non-profits and a press corps who publicized these environmental atrocities, concerned citizens joined in the demand that Florida’s government end this groundwater crisis. By 2013 the message from the caring public was clear: “Government, do your job and enforce Florida’s laws that were intended to protect our aquifer and springs.”

In response to this public outcry, the 2014 Florida Legislature authorized $25 million for springs protection that was ultimately amplified to $69 million for springs projects. In 2015 the ante was raised by a legislative authorization of $45 million that was subsequently multiplied to over $100 million in cost-share springs projects. And this year the spending continues. Last week, Gov. Rick Scott signed the 2016 state budget that includes a 20-year “Legacy Florida” funding stream of a minimum of $50 million per year for “spring restoration, protection, and management projects.”

While the allocation of public money for springs conservation grows each year, the springs continue to lose flows and are choking on more algae. Springs cost-share projects funded over the past three years have had no visible, lasting successes. Either the public expenditures are being poorly spent and not accomplishing their stated goals, or the status quo of issuing new groundwater pumping permits that in turn facilitate the use of more nitrogen fertilizer, are increasing the springs’ problems faster than the public’s money can be spent.

Regardless of which explanation is correct, it is clear that a more effective process is needed to prioritize and select springs restoration and protection efforts. Springs funding decisions and successes need to be publicly vetted and not conducted in bureaucratic secrecy.

If public leaders decide to act in society’s best interests, namely to follow a path to groundwater sustainability, then the monetary costs of springs restoration could be relatively minor. There is minimal public cost for legally mandating across-the-board reductions in groundwater consumption and reduced fertilizer uses. In fact, collecting aquifer protection fees based on groundwater and fertilizer use would provide a flexible funding tool for controlling excessive springs impairments without the need to pick financial winners and losers.

Saving Florida’s artesian springs from ruin will require more than throwing vast sums of taxpayers’ money at ineffective projects. Enforcing and strengthening existing laws that protect groundwater quantity and quality has the potential to save our springs at minimal cost to the public.

Springs restoration, if achieved, will be based on collective social enlightenment. A revolution in public thinking is necessary that prioritizes the long-term benefits of healthy springs and clean drinking water for all citizens, over short-term profits for a few. Florida is at a crossroads where either the long view prevails or we continue to slide down the slippery slope of dying springs.

— Robert Knight is director of the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute and an environmental scientist with 40 years of professional experience in Florida

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