Don't let state wait on springs measure

Published: Sunday, March 16, 2014 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, March 14, 2014 at 4:25 p.m.

If The Sun’s Fragile Springs forum showed anything, it’s that area residents care deeply about protecting our springs.

Now we all need to use that energy to push lawmakers and regulators to take the issue just as seriously.

The forum, held Monday night at Santa Fe College, attracted a standing-room-only crowd of around 200 people. Several members of environmental groups who have long worked on water issues were there, but afterward I also met a number of regular folks seeking to get involved.

To be sure, there were differences of opinion about what needs to happen to stem the damage being done to our springs and aquifer. Yet whether it was changing farming practices or curbing household water use, everyone seemed to agree that much more must be done.

Contrast the event with Thursday’s meeting of the Florida Senate Environmental Protection and Conservation Committee. I watched online hoping to see action on a nearly $379 million measure aimed at restoring and protecting springs.

Instead, committee chairman and bill co-sponsor Sen. Charlie Dean postponed the proposal from having its first hearing of the session.

The bill isn’t perfect. The Florida Current reported that the latest version includes a provision restricting local governments from adopting stricter fertilizer regulations than the state. But it would also ban new dairy farms, stockyards and slaughterhouse near major springs.

That provision has led agricultural interests to join business groups in raising objections to the bill. House Speaker Will Weatherford has suggested that any major changes to water policy could wait until 2015.

And it looks like the state also will punt on regulations meant to protect springs and other water resources, known as minimum flows and levels. A final draft of the regulations delays stricter standards until a water study is complete, with a deadline of Dec. 31, 2019.

Keep in mind, these are the same regulations that already have been delayed for more than three decades since being passed into law.

For his part, Gov. Rick Scott proposed spending $55 million for springs projects in his budget. The plan lacks protection measures and is far less than the need, but you wouldn’t know it from his State of the State speech.

“We have invested record funding in protecting our environment,” Scott said.

PolitiFact, the fact-checking service of the Tampa Bay Times, rated the claim as a big, fat “false” on its Truth-O-Meter. An accompanying piece outlined how Scott has systematically cut staff, funding and enforcement actions of state environmental regulators.

Each of our water forum panelists had compelling things to say, but my favorite comment came from photographer and springs advocate John Moran. He urged the governor to lead the way in water conservation, starting by setting the example of tearing out the grass from the governor’s mansion.

“Rick Scott, rip out your lawn,” Moran said.

It would be a nice start, but we also must pressure the governor and Legislature to spend the money and put the protections in place needed to save our fragile springs.

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