Three years ago state environmental regulators implemented plans to save Silver and Rainbow springs from continued degradation, largely from nitrate pollution. They held meetings and followed protocol in writing what is known as a Basin Management Plan (BMAP). It was supposed to set up guidelines for curbing nitrate pollution. Observers, however — some Florida Department of Environmental Protection officials among them — were skeptical from the get-go about the plans.
The DEP set nitrate reduction goals for Silver and Rainbow springs of 82 percent and 38 percent, respectively — within five years. Moreover, the admittedly ambitious goals were set without any hard-and-fast rules for reducing source-point pollution such as farms, fertilized lawns and septic tanks. Agriculture efforts were limited to a series of self-policed “best practices” and upgrading public wastewater systems.
Last month, we checked on the progress of Silver Springs, whose BMAP was the first of the 13 written by DEP. DEP’s deputy secretary for ecosystem restoration, Drew Bartlett, told us that after three years there has been no measurable reduction in the nitrate levels in Silver Springs. None.
The BMAP is not working.
Now, a dozen individuals and groups from around the state are legally challenging the 13 BMAPs as fruitless and flawed.
The dozen challengers — which include two individuals, eight environmental groups and the Florida Home Builders Association — are seeking administrative hearings to shelve each of the BMAPs, which under legislative mandate were all supposed to be enacted July 1.
While the homebuilders say they cannot instantly adapt to the BMAPs’ mandate for replacing traditional septic systems with more costly advanced nitrogen-reducing septic systems — which reported cost $12,000-$18,000 more than standard septic systems — the environmentalists argue the plans simply do not go far enough and therefore have no chance of working.
“We have 13 of these (action plans) and we’ve asked the same question on every one: Will the plan, if it’s actually implemented, clean up the spring in 20 years?” said Bob Palmer of Gainesville, chairman of the Florida Springs Council’s Legislative Committee. “It’s very hard to argue that any of these plans would do that ... (We) would like to see plans that are believable enough that we feel confident enough that they would get the job done.”
For now, DEP has put the BMAPs on hold, pending review to see if administrative hearings are warranted and to give homebuilders time to adapt to the new rules. But it will take more than a little tweaking, as some DEP officials have suggested.
If DEP is serious about saving our springs from nitrate pollution, it must be given money and authority to institute meaningful, enforceable rules regarding agriculture runoff, septic tanks and yard fertilizer. It also needs a way to help offset the cost of advanced septic systems until cheaper technology comes along. A good funding source would be a permanent tax on bottled water.
As for household fertilizer use, Florida needs a ban on phosphate-based fertilizers immediately. As for farms, “best practices” sound nice but there is no enforcement by DEP.
The BMAPs already in place are just not working. Thankfully, they are being challenged.
Until the state of Florida is serious about reducing point source pollution from farms, septic tanks and homeowner fertilizing, our springs will continue to be imperiled and tainted. This is a serious problem that requires serious action, and what we have seen so far in the BMAPs is not close to serious.