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North Florida’s springs are underfunded and ignored by legislators

Published in the Florida Times Union May 17, 2020.

If, like me, you call North Florida home, you know what natural Florida is.

It’s the Matanzas and St. Johns Rivers; Juniper, Ginnie and Silver Springs; the Osceola and Ocala National Forests and everything in between.

Whether you fish, dive, hunt, hike, bike, kayak, paddleboard or just sit by a campfire, nature is one of the reasons you enjoy living here. It’s what makes North Florida special.

But if you look at the actions of our elected leaders in Tallahassee, you might think that Florida’s environment stopped somewhere south of Orlando in the Everglades or along South Florida’s coasts. For years, North Florida’s environmental needs have been underfunded and ignored.

At the beginning of the 2019 Legislative Session, I was optimistic. For the first time in recent memory, North Florida would be represented in the governor’s office and in positions of power in the Florida Legislature.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, from St. Johns County, had just been elected. Sen. Rob Bradley, Senate Appropriations chairman, and Rep. Travis Cummings, House Appropriations chairman, both hail from Clay County. Democratic Leader Sen. Audrey Gibson is from Jacksonville.

Yet, somehow, things have only gotten worse.

The clearest difference, and the one that is hardest to understand, is environmental funding. Senate Bill 1878, supported by DeSantis and sponsored by Bradley, lays out their vision of Florida’s environmental budget not just for this year, but for several years. Budgets show what our leaders find important, and what they do not.

Here’s what it says:

Everglades restoration and the South Florida Water Management District get a minimum of $350 million each year. All of Florida’s springs, along with the entire watersheds of the St. Johns River, Suwannee River and Apalachicola River — more than 10 million acres in total — receive only $75 million total each year.

The other major funding need for North Florida, conserving lands for nature and recreation, is relegated to the “if there is any money left over” category.

Next, DeSantis is responsible for appointing the powerful Governing Boards for Florida’s water management districts. In January 2019, DeSantis was praised when he demanded the resignations of every South Florida Governing Board Member and replaced them with new appointees.

A year later, he has not called for any resignations from the other four districts and hasn’t even filled the vacancies that naturally occurred. More than one-third of Governing Board seats outside of South Florida remain vacant. These districts have barely enough members to function, yet are responsible for making decisions that will impact Florida’s waters for generations.

Last, recently approved water quality legislation gives the major sources of pollution to North Florida’s waters a free pass to pollute indefinitely. Although it is tough on wastewater, Senate Bill 712 fails to prevent pollution from agriculture or biosolids — the major threats to North Florida.

The Florida Springs Council wrote Bradley and Cummings about these concerns before the 2020 Legislative Session. Mr. Cummings responded via email, “I shouldn’t even reply to such ignorance,” and, “this is the most ridiculous email I’ve gotten in my nearly eight years in the Fla Legislature. Have a good day.”

I respectfully disagree.

Everglades restoration is not five times more important than protecting Florida’s springs and rivers. North Florida deserves strong water management districts just as much as South Florida does. And “comprehensive water quality legislation” should help all Florida waters.

Ryan Smart

Our current representatives have failed us. Fortunately, we get to elect new ones.

Everyone who cares about North Florida, whatever our differences, must demand that our next leaders stand up for North Florida’s environment.

Ryan Smart of Jacksonville Beach is executive director of the Florida Springs Council.

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