A half-dozen of the new state action plans approved last year for improving water quality in Florida springs will remain on hold a while longer, including the one for Blue Spring in Orange City.
Seven environmental groups met an early January deadline to protest the action plans from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, saying they fall short of protecting the springs. That includes Save the Manatee Club, which filed the challenge over Blue Spring, a winter warm water refuge for manatees in the St. Johns River.
With no new challenges filed for Gemini Springs or DeLeon Springs, the action plans for those springs are now considered official. State and county officials were conducting conference calls to discuss implementation of those plans.
One of the first steps to protect those springs will be a new requirement that any home additions or new homes built on lots less than one acre in size inside the priority focus areas for the two springs must include additional nitrogen-reducing equipment to septic tanks, said Laura Kramer, who oversees septic tanks for the Florida Department of Health in Volusia County. Other planned steps by local governments include storm water improvements and public education to get people to reduce fertilizer use on lawns and ball parks. Both Volusia County and Stetson University have previously expressed concerns the plans wouldn’t do enough to reduce nitrogen in the water in the springs.
Other springs where the action plans are now considered final because no new challenges were filed include Wakulla Spring and the Upper Wakulla River, Weeki Wachee Springs, and springs along the Wacissa River.
Late last week, Ryan Smart, executive director of the Florida Springs Council, lauded the groups that stepped forward to file the latest challenges to the basin management action plans — also known as BMAPS — for Blue Spring and five other springs.
“All we’re really asking for is better plans. At this point, we’re planning for failure,” said Smart. “We think there’s no reason why DEP won’t just craft BMAPS that restore the water quality. It seems like a reasonable ask.”
Thirteen action plans for springs and springs systems were finalized in a flurry of activity last year as the department rushed to meet a July 1 deadline set two years earlier by Florida legislators, which required such plans for any of the springs designated as “Outstanding Florida Springs.” DEP officials have previously stated the plans are “blueprints” for restoring the springs and can be amended over time if the department determines the actions being taken aren’t enough to meet the goals for removing nitrogen from the spring water. Nitrogen is a focus in the springs because it promotes the growth of algae, which can choke out plant life and cloud the water.
The plans were “designed to protect these defining water resources while mapping out a sustainable future for each region,” department officials stated last summer, adding that the plans were developed in “close coordination with local governments and stakeholders, including more than 90 public meetings.”
Other groups filing the latest challenges included the Silver Springs Alliance, Ichetucknee Alliance, Friends of the Wekiva River, Rainbow River Conservation, Our Santa Fe River Inc., and Sierra Club. The list of springs covered by the new petitions includes Rock and Wekiwa springs in Orange and Seminole counties, Silver Springs, Rainbow Springs and springs along the Suwannee and Santa Fe rivers. If the DEP’s general counsel deems the petitions “sufficient,” they’ll be forwarded to the Division of Administrative Hearings where a judge would be assigned and a hearing date set, said Dee Ann Miller, a department spokeswoman.
The groups aren’t entirely opposed to the springs action plans, said Katie Tripp, director of conservation and science for Save the Manatee. They just want the plans to include more specifics that will help reach the goal of reducing nitrogen and other nutrients in the spring water, she said. A number of groups worked with the state and local governments first to set a minimum flow standard for Blue Spring and then a pollution reduction goal, said Tripp. All during that process they kept thinking the action plan would be where the “rubber meets the road.”
“This is where we’re going to finally hunker down on these different projects and get where we need to be,” Tripp said. “But it just fell short of where we need to be.
“It’s not that it doesn’t move us in the right direction. We just don’t have the luxury of time to be OK with a plan that isn’t going to help us meet (the goal) in 15 years,” she said.
Springs advocates last week were still reviewing a sweeping executive order signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis. “While we are very optimistic about the Governor’s new environmental initiative, we’re a little concerned that it did not address the state of our springs,” said Clay Henderson, executive director of the Institute for Water and Environmental Resilience at Stetson University. “Our springs suffer from the same problems of the Everglades, Indian River Lagoon, and Lake Okeechobee. We hope that the Governor’s new Harmful Algae Bloom task force can address the issues of our springs as well and we hope the Governor’s budget will continue the $50 million per year in springs restoration funding. “Maybe the Governor’s lack of mention of springs was an oversight and he could still direct the DEP Secretary to settle these BMAP challenges in favor of stronger springs restoration,” Henderson added.
Tripp also hopes the governor will get the agencies to follow through and take meaningful action on springs.“We need to make sure he doesn’t forget about our springs and our North Florida waters also,” she said.
Two individuals also filed new petitions with the department, hoping to get their day in court. One of those is Thomas Greenhalgh, a geologist who works for the department, who updated a petition he filed last year challenging the action plan for springs along the Suwannee River.
The other challenger is Paul Still, who filed a petition addressing the action plan for springs on the Santa Fe River. Both men filed challenges last summer that were dismissed.
Greenhalgh, a long-time springs geologist, alleges a host of problems related to the best management practices for agriculture and whether they’ll help reduce nitrogen levels in the springs. Greenhalgh and his family own and operate a 12-acre timber farm in Branford, with a spring and a half-mile of frontage on the Suwannee River. Greenhalgh grew up swimming in springs along the Suwannee with his four siblings, and his father, who was an avid diver. His petition states he “experienced the springs as the boiling natural wonders they once were, drinking the clear cool water as he swam.”
Today, he wrote, those “same waters are now barely flowing, algae-ridden holes.”
He contends the best management practices in the springs action plans haven’t been verified effective for reducing nitrogen loading to groundwater. “Further, projected population growth in the BMAP area over the next 20 years will lead to more wastewater, more septics, and more lawn fertilizer,” he wrote.
His petition states the department’s action plan could delay by 20 years the efforts to protect the integrity of the Suwannee River and its springs.
The inadequate goals would give “regulators, elected officials and the public a false impression that the springs will be cleaned up by the minimal efforts proposed in the BMAP.” As a result, he said, it would negate his own attempts to “work with regulators, elected officials and the general public to implement more comprehensive and thorough nitrogen control efforts needed” to meet the nutrient reduction goals.
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