The article below, by OSFR advisor Dr. Robert Knight, was published in the Gainesville Sun.
Comments by OSFR historian Jim Tatum.
-A river is like a life: once taken, it cannot be brought back-
Robert Knight: Springs spending spree doesn’t fix problem
In August, Gov. Rick Scott lauded his list of 40 springs restoration projects for 2017-18. The Legislature earmarked $50 million in Legacy Florida funding for these efforts. Combined with almost $16 million contributed from the budgets of the water management districts and a promised $29 million from local governments, this year’s total of $94 million could really have a beneficial impact on our “land of a thousand springs.” The bad news is that although state and local governments have already funded $300 million for springs restoration since 2013, the ecological health of Florida’s springs is continuing to decline.
In the finest tradition of throwing money at a problem, Florida’s government is on a spending spree to provide the appearance of environmental concern. The selection of 112 “springs restoration projects” over the past four years has been conducted without transparency and with minimal prioritization based on costs versus benefits.
The Florida Springs Institute has repeatedly requested, without success, an opportunity to assist the Department of Environmental Protection in assessing and ranking springs restoration projects. Governors Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist’s administrations relied on the Florida Springs Task Force, a group of 28 governmental and non-governmental experts, to prioritize and allocate about $2.5 million for springs research and protection each year for 10 years. One would expect our current fiscally concerned governor to be even more careful with allocating and spending far more public money.
A full evaluation of the scope, requested budget, payees, status, completion or measured benefits of these springs restoration projects is impossible. When this essential information was requested from the responsible DEP staff, all they provided was a table listing the projects, their proposed cost and, in some cases, their estimated benefits in terms of water quality and quantity improvements. The opportunity for criminal malfeasance and embezzlement of these public funds is a scary possibility.
In 2014, acquisition of public lands to protect Florida’s water and wildlife was mandated by the citizen-led initiative, the Florida Water and Land Conservation Amendment. A super-majority of Florida’s voters supported the use of about one third of real estate doc stamp revenue, roughly $500 million each year for 20 years, to purchase and preserve environmentally sensitive lands and waters. Over the past four years only $40 million of the state’s springs funding has been designated for land acquisition and springs habitat restoration.
In stark contrast to the voters’ wishes, more than 50 percent of the springs restoration funding to date has been allocated to public and private utilities to upgrade wastewater treatment plants and connect onsite treatment and disposal systems (single-family septic tank/drainfield systems) to central wastewater treatment. One must wonder why our elected officials continue to allow installation of about 7,000 new septic systems per year in Florida with the knowledge that their removal is costing the public an average of $20,000 each.
It is generally wiser to attack the root of a problem rather than the symptoms. The human activities impairing the health of Florida’s springs are well known to the public and their elected and appointed officials. Too much nitrogen fertilizer, too many new septic systems, and too much groundwater pumping are polluting and depleting the Floridan Aquifer. These root problems are exacerbated by too much private money influencing political decisions.
The appropriate long-term goal in ecology and sociology is maintenance of a steady and sustainable level of prosperity, not a series of boom-and-bust growth spurts that ultimately lead to economic and social disaster. With such a goal in mind, the logical approach to springs protection and sustainability is a significant reduction in the amount of nitrogen fertilizer we put on the ground in Florida’s springs region enforced through nitrogen fees or stiff penalties, and an aquifer protection fee that dials back our dependence on groundwater and shifts it to a greater reliance on rain and surface waters instead.
Robert Knight is director of the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute in High Springs and author of “Silenced Springs: Moving from Tragedy to Hope.”