Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board
Florida’s freshwater springs need our help. We’ve abused them in recent decades. Lots of important people talk about supporting the springs, restoring them to their once-pristine condition or something close to it. In 2016, the Legislature even passed a sweeping law that required the state Department of Environmental Protection to create rules to address overpumping of the groundwater that keeps the springs healthy. But six years later, the state still hasn’t established those rules. Six years.
Florida has more than 700 fresh water springs. Some are merely a trickle, while others gush more than 100 cubic feet a second. That’s like filling 17 standard bathtubs to the top every second. When healthy, they are home to loads of wildlife. They also attract tourists and locals looking for a place to cool off. But for decades, the springs have suffered a devastating one-two punch, the Times’ Zachary T. Sampson reported in a recent article. Fertilizer runoff and other pollution have spread contaminants that choke the springs with algae. Pollution has impaired 24 of the 30 state-designated “Outstanding Florida Springs,” according to state records.
At the same time, companies and local governments have diverted huge amounts of water from the aquifer to homes, farms and bottling plants. All that pumping has slowed the flow at some springs. Less water moving through the spring means the pollution isn’t diluted as effectively. The damage, in other words, feeds off of itself.
The 2016 law was a solid attempt to address the problem. People, farms and businesses require water to survive, but legislators agreed that the state should set rules to ensure the springs’ longterm health. The idea was to tighten the permit process for extracting water around any of the state’s designated “Outstanding Florida Springs,” the Times reported. The rules would stop the overpumping and help restore the springs. Not everyone was happy, but that’s often the case when trying to find the right balance with natural resources.
And then six years passed.
In March, state environmental officials unveiled a draft of the rules. Just a draft, mind you, not the end product. That will take more time. The draft, though, was laden with jargon that detracts from the law’s purpose, said David Simmons, a Republican and former second-in-command of the Florida Senate, who helped develop the law. Look, bureaucrats sometimes love jargon. They can’t help themselves. But jargon can also be used to make it hard to enforce rules. No one can tell what the rule actually intends, so it lacks power. Is that what is happening here? State officials say otherwise. They are still seeking feedback on the rules, they said. They also point to the $220 million dedicated to springs restoration over the last three years. Still, why convolute the simple concept of “Do no more harm”? Simmons helped write the law, and he’s not impressed. That’s not a good sign, at least for the springs.
These rules need to be simple and easily understood. They must balance the needs of residents, farmers and businesses, but they cannot be written in a way that does little or nothing to strengthen existing laws. What we are doing now isn’t working. If we keep doing it, the pollution will get worse. As the state moves toward a final draft, the benefit of the doubt needs to go to the springs. They are far too valuable to further degrade by promoting too much pumping. If they make a remarkable comeback, take a look at the rules again. But right now, the springs need saving. Now. Not in another six years.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Conan Gallaty. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.
“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.