By Ryan Smart, Florida Springs Council
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis held a “ceremony” last week at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park to celebrate an “unprecedented two-year investment of $150 million in Florida springs.”
DeSantis said, “One of our top priorities in our administration has been to improve water quality in Florida and there’s no way you can do that effectively, without devoting resources to springs restoration.”
While that’s true, it isn’t happening.
First off, DeSantis is taking credit for $50 million that was appropriated in 2018 under Gov. Rick Scott, but never spent. In 2019 there was $50 million in new funding for springs restoration, just as there was $50 million in new funding in 2020. In total, there was $150 million in funding over three years.
In fact, springs have received $50 million each year since 2016 when a law passed, also under Scott, requiring a minimum of $50 million a year for springs. It literally is the precedent, and despite the governor’s claim, nothing has improved under his administration and nothing he did is responsible for the recurring $50 million.
But, more importantly, is $50 million a year enough?
$50 million sounds like a lot. If I split up $50 million among all the people on your block, it could be life-changing. But if I split it up among all 20 million Floridians, it won’t even buy lunch.
Same with Florida’s springs.
Water quality plans developed by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) for Florida’s most important springs require replacing hundreds of thousands of septic tanks within the next 20 years.
They estimate it will cost between $1.5 billion and $3 billion just to replace existing septic tanks at Silver Springs, Rainbow Springs, Wekiwa Springs and Volusia Blue Springs.
At current funding levels, it will take between 30 and 60 years to complete these projects. Even if state funding were matched dollar for dollar, it would take decades.
But that doesn’t begin to reflect the magnitude of the problem.
Septic tanks are responsible for only 15% of nitrogen pollution across Florida’s most important springs. (The largest pollution source, by far, is agriculture.) And there are 10 additional water quality plans for springs that the state designates as Outstanding Florida Springs that need funding besides those listed above.
In total, 80% of Outstanding Florida Springs are classified as impaired by excessive pollution. Flow in these springs is down 30 percent in the last 20 years alone.
$50 million a year may not be enough to restore even one major spring within 20 years, much less all of them, and it guarantees that Florida will fail to meet springs water quality goals in the future.
If the governor wants to do something to help Florida’s springs, there are lots of options.
He could finally uphold Florida law and fill 18 vacant seats on the governing boards of water management districts that make decisions over water use in Florida springs.
He could instruct Department of Environmental Protection secretary Noah Valenstein to drop the state’s defense of five inadequate, ineffective and legally deficient water quality plans that have been challenged by springs protection groups.
He could ask Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services commissioner Nikki Fried to acknowledge that the current requirements for reducing agricultural pollution have never been verified to work and are completely ineffective. And he could demand that DEP and DACS do something about it.
He could make DEP develop and adopt rules to prevent water withdrawals that harm Florida springs as required by law since 2016.
Gov. DeSantis has done none of those things.
Instead, he poses for photo-ops with an oversized check, while Outstanding Florida Waters like the Rainbow River are blanketed in algae with no pathway to recovery.
Don’t be fooled by the public relations campaign and big talk. Florida’s springs are not better off under Ron DeSantis’ leadership.
Ryan Smart is the executive director of the Florida Springs Council, a statewide nonprofit advocacy group dedicated solely to the protection and conservation of Florida’s springs and rivers.
“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.