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Saving Florida's springs isn't possible unless agriculture changes its ways

Photo, Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel

Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel

Too often, the debate over water quality problems and solutions in Florida is fueled by emotions and not facts.

Sometimes clean-water advocates are accused of demonizing industries and exaggerating the severity of the water pollution problem while advocates for development and agriculture are sometimes labeled as destroyers of the environment. I hope to temper that debate with facts about the state-designated Outstanding Florida Springs.

In June 2018, the state Department of Environmental Protection completed 13 water quality restoration plans, known as Basin Management Action Plans (BMAPs), covering 24 impaired Outstanding Florida Springs.

Although many of these plans fail to meet the intent of meeting water-quality goals by reducing nutrients, the plans provide many important facts about the sources of water pollution and the effectiveness of existing projects and strategies for reducing pollution in each springshed.

From the BMAPs, we learn that nutrient pollution from agricultural operations — primarily farm fertilizer and livestock waste — is by far the largest source of nitrogen in springs, accounting for more than twice as much nitrogen pollution as wastewater treatment plants, septic tanks, urban fertilizer and sports grass fertilizer combined.

For instance, agricultural pollution accounts for 85% of the nitrogen loading in the Suwannee River basin and 54% of the loading in the Rainbow Springs basin.

We also learn the fact that enormous reductions in nitrogen pollution are necessary to achieve water quality goals for many Florida springs.

For example, achieving water quality goals requires a 71% reduction in nitrogen pollution in the Suwannee River basin and an 81% reduction in the Rainbow Springs basin.

A distressing fact from the BMAPs is that, for many springs polluted because of agriculture, we currently have no means of achieving the required pollution reductions using existing water quality projects and strategies.

According to the state, even if every single nutrient reduction project they’ve come up with met its pollution reduction goals, including fully implementing existing best management practices for water quality across all agricultural operations, the majority of the springs still wouldn’t have the kind of water quality they need.

The Suwannee BMAP would achieve only 48% of the necessary reduction, while the Rainbow Springs BMAP would only achieve 23% of the necessary reduction.

The BMAPs also tell us the facts about why it is not possible to achieve the water quality goals in these basins. Full implementation of the current agricultural “best management practices” required in these springsheds only reduce nitrogen by 10% to 15%.

It is not just a fact, but also simple math, that we cannot achieve water quality goals in the Suwannee basin if we only reduce 85% of the pollution loading by 10% to 15%.

Fortunately, the BMAPs tell us the facts about what our state government needs to do to get closer to meeting water quality goals for springs: develop, adopt, and implement advanced agricultural best management practices. This is the state’s one and only answer for each and every spring where water quality goals can’t be met because of agricultural pollution.

Fortunately, state law already authorizes the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to develop, adopt and require these advanced practices. However, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, like her predecessor, has thus far failed to act.

It is a fact that, for many of Florida’s most important and loved springs, it is not possible to have widespread conventional agricultural operations and clean water at the same time. We need advanced best management practices to achieve water quality goals. If the agriculture commission refuses to act, our Legislature and governor must pass and sign legislation requiring the implementation of these advanced practices.

Already this year, a provision requiring advanced best management practices was included in state Sen. Debbie Mayfield’s “Clean Waterways Act,” but it was removed at the behest of lobbyists for large landowners (yes, that’s a fact).

It is not too late to restore language in SB 1758 requiring advanced best management practices and save our springs. Our leaders just need the political will to do it, which is also a fact.

Burt Eno is president of Rainbow River Conservation Inc. and a board member of the Florida Springs Council.

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