Florida's plan to save ailing springs including Wekiwa, Blue, Ichetucknee will fail, environment

Florida’s chief strategy for rescuing beloved but ailing springs will fail because it is underfunded, poorly designed and powerless, according to a legal challenge from a coalition of seven environmental groups.

Participants have filed a petition for a state judicial hearing, targeting a pending springs-cleanup initiative of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Such challenges have been widely viewed as desperate and costly long shots under rules stacked in the state’s favor.

The seven groups include Save the Manatee Club on behalf of Blue Spring in Volusia County; Sierra Club for an array of springs along the Suwannee River; the Ichetucknee Alliance on behalf of Ichetucknee Springs near Gainesville; and Friends of the Wekiva River, a longstanding champion of Orange County’s Wekiwa Springs.

Central to the dispute is the state’s planned implementation of a Basin Management Action Plan, or BMAP, a program that aims to reduce spring pollution from sewage, runoff and fertilizers.

Those pollutants have triggered invasions of unwanted algae smothering aquatic grasses, displacing fish and wildlife, and leaving dull slimes on once-shimmering, sandy bottoms.

“If we let these BMAPs go, it will be the demise of these fantastic springs,” said John Thomas, a veteran environmental lawyer from the Tampa Bay area who will lead the legal challenge. “We can’t take a passive approach. We have to be very active, and the BMAP, in a nutshell, is an inventory and not a corrective tool.”

Florida’s pollution and algae struggles are widespread in freshwater and marine environments.

South of Orlando, Florida’s Atlantic and Gulf coasts have been decimated by algae — toxic to people and deadly to marine life — referred to informally as green slime and red tide.

The Indian River, a world-class estuary hugging the Atlantic from Central Florida to the Treasure Coast, has been convulsed by several types of algae invasions.

Inland, starting in the Orlando area and to the north, springs have taken a beating from pollution-fueled algae. There are approximately 1,000 springs in Central and North Florida and very few are not polluted, according to findings of the state and researchers.

BMAPs for major springs have been in the works since the Legislature’s passage of the 2016 Springs and Aquifer Protection Act.

The Department of Environmental Protection will not comment now about springs BMAPs and the coalition’s legal challenge, known as a petition for an administrative hearing.

The agency provided comments from when springs BMAPs were assembled and presented last year. “These plans require actions to address every pollution source throughout Florida’s springsheds, from wastewater to agriculture to septic systems,” the Department of Environmental Protection stated. “These aggressive plans are designed to achieve reduction goals in 15 years, ahead of the 20-year requirement of the law.”

The legal challenge, filed under the umbrella group of the Florida Springs Council, addresses five springs systems: Wekiwa Springs and the Wekiva River; Blue Spring; springs feeding the Santa Fe River; springs of the Suwannee River; and Silver and Rainbow springs.

Thomas noted that the Wekiwa and Blue are plagued mostly by pollution from urban and suburban development, including from residential septic-tank systems. The others are contending with pollution from agricultural sources, he said.

The BMAPs address both classes of pollution but without pursuing any difficult actions, Thomas said.

“Although they list these projects and the projects add up to a good amount of money, those are just good projects that are way overdue,” Thomas said. “The fact that they are overdue is part of the reason why the springs are dying.”

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