Restore our springs
Give Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet credit for approving the purchase of 599 acres around major North Florida springs. But the state needs to do far more to protect Florida’s remarkable springs, which suffer from widespread pollution and dwindling flow. What’s needed is a comprehensive effort to save the state’s 700 springs, which attract tourists and sustain the state’s drinking water supply. Scott and the Cabinet last month voted to spend $2.2 million to buy land on the Suwannee River near Anderson Spring. It is an admirable move, but by itself will have small impact.As Florida Springs Institute Director Bob Knight points out, about 2,000 tons of nitrate-nitrogen flow down the Suwannee River each year, primarily from agricultural operations. Unless the state gets serious about curtailing pollution from fertilizers, septic tanks and other sources in the springs’ watershed, as well as curbing the overpumping of groundwater, Florida springs will continue to deteriorate. Many springs already have been lost. Longtime Tampa residents remember Sulphur Springs along the Hillsborough River as a popular swimming hole. Its once clear, clean and cool waters now are unsafe for swimming. Many of the state’s renowned springs are in jeopardy. Silver Springs, famed as the tourist attraction with the glass-bottom boats, has had a 20-fold increase in nitrates, and algae grows on its once white sandy bottom. Its water flow is ebbing, as is the flow of the Weeki Wachee, another popular tourist attraction. Saltwater is pushing higher up the Homosassa and Chassahowitzka rivers, as flow from their springs decline. Yet the state has failed to take forceful action. Former Gov. Jeb Bush, to his credit, started an initiative to save Florida springs that developed recovery plans for the most threatened. But Scott killed it last year, along with any hope of implementing those plans. Bills that would revive efforts to develop recovery plans are making little progress in the Legislature. If nothing is done, many of our springs will be lost. Water regulators are allowing too much water to be withdrawn and are approving new projects in areas where springs already are in distress. A recent New Yorker magazine called attention to the state’s failure to protect its springs and groundwater and detailed how even the fabled Wakulla Springs is now fouled by algae. Scott, it seems, is coming to appreciate the value of Florida’s springs. The recent land acquisition was a wise move, and his budget this year included $75 million for the Florida Forever land-buying fund, much of which would be aimed at protecting watersheds around springs. In early March, Scott and the Cabinet approved a $1.5 million Florida Forever purchase of land near Wakulla Springs. When celebrating the purchase of Anderson Springs, the governor said, “This investment signifies our commitment to acquiring critical lands for water quality improvements. A healthy environment is part of Florida’s economic engine, and we depend on its health.” It is encouraging to see the governor, who initially seemed hostile to any environment safeguard, show more enlightenment. But saving Florida springs will require more than saying the right thing. It will require a commitment of resources and a willingness to enforce tough water-quality protections.