Clean up Florida’s dirty springs



To anyone who has spent much time in Florida, the decline of our fresh water springs is heartbreaking.

Clear pools are now choked with algae. The algae gets so thick it shuts down glass-bottom boat rides because the water’s no longer clear enough to see anything. Swimming beaches at the springs are suddenly roped off with Health Department signs, warning people of the health threats from polluted water.

When faced with something this sad and overwhelming, there’s a tendency to shrug our shoulders and say it is the inevitable result of progress. After all, New York City once had bubbling streams and oyster beds. But, in our case, that is the wrong way to think.

The truth is that springs pollution is both preventable and reversible. We can change this.

What we need is political will — a scarce Florida resource but one that each of us can cultivate. It is already starting to happen. People have been rallying throughout the state to protest the decline of our water resources.

In January, people turned out in force to demand clean water at public events in Boynton Beach, Bradenton, Ft. Myers, Ft. Pierce, Gainesville, Interlachen, Jacksonville, Key West, Palm Bay, Naples, Ocala, Stuart, Tallahassee, Tampa, Vero Beach and Orlando.

They unveiled a new Floridians’ Clean Water Declaration, which lists six rights that should be guaranteed to the people of Florida and four responsibilities of our state government, water managers and natural resource users. The campaign’s goal is to get as many individuals, organizations, businesses, and elected and appointed officials as possible to sign the Clean Water Declaration and commit to work together to achieve its principles.

And politicians are responding.

Four Florida Senate committee chairmen last month agreed to support filing springs legislation. A draft bill would direct an estimated $378 million a year from documentary stamp tax revenue toward springs protection. It is encouraging, too, to see that Gov. Rick Scott earmarked $55 million in his proposed state budget this year for springs protection.

Using public money to protect our shared public resource — water — makes sense. We’re way overdue on fixing our outdated public infrastructure.

But let’s not lose sight of the main thing we need to do: Demand that our leaders hold polluters accountable. Every day, factory farms send fertilizer and manure into our public waters, when they could be controlling this pollution on-site. These corporations must be required to meet specific pollution limits, and they should face consequences if they exceed those limits and pollute our water.

Instead, we are giving them a free pass and then the public pays for their mess. Gov. Scott and the Legislature have been selling out to polluters like never before. Polluter lobbyists drafted the state’s rules on sewage, manure and fertilizer pollution, Scott’s administration adopted the weak language, then the Legislature approved it.

Scott’s administration also fired staffers who dared to enforce environmental laws, replacing them with people who come from polluting industries. Environmental enforcement cases have plummeted. State regulators now get bonuses if they pump out permits faster.

Certain categories of major polluters are allowed to operate on the honor system. A big polluter like an industrial plant would be fined if it spilled toxics into a river. But that’s not true for Florida agricultural operations. Florida allows them to use voluntary goals called “best management practices.”

All the corporation has to do it say it is implementing a plan to control pollution, and it is exempt from monitoring. It’s as if you were allowed to speed on the freeway so long as you gave the Highway Patrol a “speed-limit compliance plan.”

It’s great for politicians to tell us they want to protect the environment. But we should all make it clear that we want them to set real, enforceable pollution limits. That’s the only way we’ll reverse this mess and heal our springs.

David Guest, of Tallahassee, is managing attorney for the Florida office of Earthjustice, a national public-interest law firm.

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