Agency puzzled over windfall for springs

05/10/2013 3:00 PM

05/10/2013 3:01 PM

In the waning days of the legislative session, Florida lawmakers approved putting an extra $10 million in the $74.5 billion state budget for “the restoration, protection, and preservation of Florida’s springs.”

There’s only one problem: The agency that’s supposed to spend the money, the state Department of Environmental Protection, doesn’t know what to do with it.

The legislative budget language doesn’t mention any specific projects. It just says the money should enable DEP “to initiate direct actions that will reduce pollutants and promote the proper flow volume of underground and above ground springs that provides a balance between the agricultural industry and water quality.”

The Legislature approved adding that money into the budget without any open debate in a committee or on the floor of one of the chambers. Instead, the money was added during a conference committee that was working out the differences between the House and Senate versions of the budget.

As a result, the DEP is awaiting further information from state lawmakers about what they want done with the $10 million, explained DEP press secretary Patrick Gillespie.

“Since this item was added during conference, there will likely be additional information provided by the Legislature to the governor’s office as part of the bill review,” he said in an e-mail.

The news that DEP doesn’t know how to spend the money left High Springs Mayor Sue Weller flabbergasted.

“I don’t understand why they would say that,” said Weller, part of a coalition of North Florida officials and activists who have been lobbying the state to do more to protect the springs. “You would think they would have already been developing plans by now.”

Weller said her coalition, Florida Leaders Organized for Water, has a long list of suggestions —- although many of them depend less on money than on actual legislative action, such as declaring a moratorium on new pumping permits while the springs recover.

But lawmakers had no interest in passing any springs legislation this year. A pair of legislators filed bills calling for the five water management districts to create action plans for specific springs and then file regular progress reports with the Legislature, but those bills failed to make it out of committee.

Instead, legislative leaders credited Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness, for persuading them to include $10 million for springs. Dean said he would be meeting with DEP Secretary Herschel Vinyard Jr. to talk to him about how best to spend the money.

Dean said he wants the DEP “to take the science that’s already been developed” and apply that to reviving the springs “that would recover the fastest.” Although he acknowledged that some springs are what he called “dead,” he expressed confidence in the state’s ability to bring them back to life.

“I believe they will come back,” he said. “We need to pull together on something this important.”

Florida’s springs are in trouble. Most have lost flow. Some have stopped flowing at all or reversed themselves. Many of them are suffering from rampant pollution that has spurred the growth of toxic algae. There are signs that saltwater is intruding.

An effort launched by then-Gov. Jeb Bush in 2000 to explore what was wrong with the springs and fix it was disbanded by Gov. Rick Scott. While the Bush springs initiative existed, it spent a total of $25 million.

Bush appointed a springs task force that produced a report full of recommendations. All were ignored by the Legislature, except for one: a bill that finally passed in 2010 requiring inspections of septic tanks to check for leaks. There are about 2.6 million septic tanks in the state, half of them more than 30 years old.

But when septic tank owners objected to the $150 inspection price, legislators repealed the law last year.

Prior to this year’s legislative session, the DEP asked the state’s five water management districts for a list of possible projects that would help the springs. The agencies sent back a list of projects that, if they were all approved, would cost $122 million -- just to start.

One of the key components: $10 million to replace septic tanks and small sewage plants near some of the state’s key springs in hopes of reducing their leaking of pollution into the aquifer.

The list included a host of other ideas aimed at boosting both water quality and quantity in the springs. There were proposals for removing built-up sediment that’s blocking spring vents to building canoe launching sites to installing new reclaimed water pipelines that will help cut back on groundwater pumping.

One proposal calls for spending $14.5 million on building a water treatment plant to take 4 million gallons a day out of the St. Johns River and use it for drinking water instead of pumping water out of the ground.

The 450-page budget, including the $10 million for springs, hit Gov. Rick Scott’s desk Thursday. He has until May 24 to decide what to veto and what to approve. A spokeswoman for Scott said he is currently reviewing the springs funding but has made no decision about it yet.

Craig Pittman can be reached at craig@tampabay.com

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