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Advocates say so far, Florida’s new plans to heal polluted springs still fall short

Most of the nitrogen loads in Florida’s springs and rivers come from just 3 of the state’s 13 impaired basins/springsheds, including the one for Silver & Rainbow Springs, according to the Florida Springs Council.
Ozone
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Credit St. Johns River Water Management District
Most of the nitrogen loads in Florida’s springs and rivers come from just 3 of the state’s 13 impaired basins/springsheds, including the one for Silver & Rainbow Springs, according to the Florida Springs Council.

Last year an appeals court struck down Florida’s plans to restore polluted springs, siding with the advocacy group that said those plans were ineffective. Now, as the state works on revisions, advocates fear the pending changes will still fail Florida springs.

As the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) works on required revisions to its Basin Management Action Plans, or BMAPs, some environmental advocates worry the pending changes still won't do enough to restore polluted Florida waters to good health.

BMAPs are supposed to reduce nitrate pollution levels in Florida’s freshwater springs and aquifer/groundwater, per Florida’s Springs and Aquifer Protection Act. That 2016 law identified 30 Outstanding Florida Springs, mandating FDEP to create 20-year water quality improvement plans for any of the 30 OFS determined to be impaired, or polluted.

But BMAPs adopted by FDEP in 2018 don't comply with the law, according to an appellate court's ruling issued last year in a case brought by Florida Springs Council. The nonprofit advocacy group had argued Florida's BMAPs were “legally and scientifically inadequate”; after losing in court initially, FSC filed an appeal.

Ruling in favor of FSC, the appellate court directed FDEP to produce new BMAPs: ones that would actually work. The new BMAPs must specify and enforce targeted reduction amounts for each category of polluter contributing pollution to a given springshed.

For example, since the biggest source of pollution for the Rainbow Springs BMAP is agriculture (36%), followed by septic systems (30%), the pollution reduction requirements for agricultural producers and septic system users should be on par with those amounts.

The biggest source of pollution for the Rainbow Springs BMAP is agriculture (36%), followed by septic systems (30%), according to data in this recent FDEP presentation. The agriculture total is calculated by combining pollution amounts from farm fertilizer, livestock waste, cattle & horse farms.
Screengrab of FDEP presentation
The biggest source of pollution for the Rainbow Springs BMAP is agriculture (36%), followed by septic systems (30%), according to data in this recent FDEP presentation. The agriculture total is calculated by combining pollution amounts from farm fertilizer, livestock waste, cattle & horse farms.

After recently wrapping up a series of public meetings on the BMAP updates, FDEP appears on track to finish drafting new BMAPs by the end of this year. July 1, 2025 is the deadline for the agency to produce the new, finalized BMAPs.

But so far, FDEP’s plans still don't appear very promising to FSC and some environmental advocates.

In a virtual informational session Thursday night, FSC Executive Director Ryan Smart shared FDEP data indicating that for several BMAP areas, including Rainbow and Gemini Springs, groundwater pollution is worse now than in 2018. That means FDEP has an even farther way to go — and less time — to achieve pollution reduction goals.

In a virtual webinar June 20, 2024, Ryan Smart and Bob Palmer of Florida Springs Council shared information about how much pollution Florida’s springsheds still need to lose today, compared to 2018.
Screengrab via YouTube
In a virtual webinar June 20, 2024, Ryan Smart and Bob Palmer of Florida Springs Council shared information about how much pollution Florida’s springsheds still need to lose today, compared to 2018.

“We're now at a point where DEP's 2028 goal is just to get us back where we started when they proposed these plans in 2018,” Smart said.

Lamenting the slow pace of progress and FDEP’s “moving milestones” for Florida's precious, yet seriously polluted springsheds, Smart urged Thursday’s listeners to stay the course. Despite the currently cloudy outlook for many of Florida’s freshwater springs, he and other FSC members still remain hopeful for a healthier future. The way Smart puts it, they don't feel they have any other choice.

“If these BMAPs fail, I will not see clean springs [here] in my lifetime,” Smart said. “And I do this job because I want to see that. I want to see it for my daughter, I want to see it for my friends. And I'm not going to accept any other answer.”

Although the group’s not exactly looking for more lawsuits, Smart promised listeners Thursday: FSC will be ready, should Florida’s springs need someone to fight for them again.

Copyright 2024 Central Florida Public Media

Molly Duerig