The Florida Springsfest, which took place last weekend at Silver Springs State Park, is one of the Florida Parks System’s most popular events. In 2019, the event drew a record 7,000 visitors to celebrate and learn about Florida’s Springs, according to the Department of Environmental Protection’s “Real Florida Connections” newsletter.
The newsletter and festival are emblematic of the way the state approaches the management and stewardship of its springs: tout the beauty of these natural treasures on the one hand, misdirect public attention, while behind their back they erect new laws facilitating pollution, groundwater withdrawals, and ever more development and sprawl.
The Florida Legislature is working to pass a law misleadingly titled the “Clean Waterways Act,” which will weaken pollution controls and make it easier for bottling companies to capture and export Florida’s spring water. But the impact of even this sham legislation is rivaled or exceeded by the damage that will be done by last year’s approval of the Roads to Ruin, or M-CORES toll roads project.
The proposed Suncoast and Northern Turnpike Connector toll roads will cut gashes through some of the most sensitive springsheds in the state. These areas are predominantly rural and agricultural, land use patterns which serve as buffers to protect the hundreds of springs in the area, including several Outstanding Florida Springs, and designated critical manatee habitat in Crystal River and Kings Bay.
Right now, one of the dominant economic drivers in Citrus County is ecotourism from visitors drawn to visit the region’s resident winter manatee population. The Roads to Ruin threaten not only the character of the communities that support the ecotourism industry, but jeopardize the resource on which it relies.
Manatees require clear, abundant, warm freshwater, such as that provided by Florida’s springs. The toll roads threaten the springs at every turn. The funding for the M-CORES will divert resources that are desperately needed to restore already ailing springs. The construction process will result in months or years of runoff that will cloud springs, killing off eelgrass that is just barely making a carefully nurtured comeback in some areas. Decreased visibility also makes it harder to see manatees, undermining tourism and posing increased risks to the animals from watercraft strikes.
Springs will continue to suffer once construction is complete. The accompanying development will increase impervious surface runoff of pollution into springsheds. Consumptive uses will keep pace with demand, depleting spring flows.
Plastic bags and litter will proliferate. Septic systems or municipal sewer discharges will degrade water quality. More people means more waste. Crystal River and Kings Bay, Manatee, Fanning, Gilchrist Blue, Rainbow, Ichetucknee, and Silver springs, already impaired to varying degrees, may never recover. While the exact degree of impact will depend on the final route, there is no doubt that pushing through development of these roads means ruin for the springs.
These springs and their manatee denizens are icons of natural Florida, or “the REAL Florida,” as the Department of Environmental Protection state park system proclaims. But they are disappearing at the hands of the Florida Legislature.
Anne Harvey is an environmental lawyer who serves as the acting director of Conservation and Advocacy for Save the Manatee Club.
“The Invading Sea” is the opinion arm of the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a collaborative of news organizations across the state focusing on the threats posed by the warming climate.