Florida’s Water Crisis is Deepening

by Dr. Bob Knight, Director of the Florida Springs Institute

The front page article in the October 2012 Iguana by Joe Courter was titled: “This Election is Pivotal.” Truer words were never spoken.

In 2010 the Florida Republican party cemented their virtual dictatorship over the state government with the razor-thin election of a tea party, big business governor, Rick Scott, and a super majority in both the Florida House and Senate. In the 2012 election, Florida’s outrageous gerrymandering designed by the same Republican operatives strengthened their party’s stranglehold on every aspect of Florida’s state government.

Since Governor Scott’s election in 2010, protection of Florida’s environment has been in free fall. Jobs and corporate profits now trump every other facet of Florida’s governmental responsibilities. The Department of Community Affairs that reined in irresponsible development was replaced by the Department of Economic Opportunity, whose job appears to be facilitating the paving of Florida. All of the state’s water management district staff and budgets were cut by a third by the new governor, and new senior management was inserted in those agencies to facilitate the issuance of water depletion and pollution permits. The result of this tragic loss of local control over water use decisions has been a swarm of new water use permits throughout Florida.

The new leadership appointed by the governor to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection became the proverbial fox guarding the hen house. Enforcement of existing environmental laws and protection of Outstanding Florida Waters reached a new low with the state’s “appearance of regulation” as a smokescreen that attempts to hide the reality of continuing springs water quality impairment.

In the same October 2012 issue of the Iguana I wrote an article titled: “Getting Serious about Florida’s Water Crisis.” I presented extensive evidence that Florida’s unique artesian springs are severely imperiled due to lax enforcement of existing environmental laws and rules. Our region’s 1,000+ artesian springs are being depleted by excessive groundwater pumping and polluted by careless fertilizer and waste disposal practices. The bad news is that these impairments are getting worse. The good news is that the general public has become more aware, more vocal, and more engaged in protecting the environment that their health and economic vitality depend upon.

My recent book entitled Silenced Springs — Moving from Tragedy to Hope (www.floridaspringsinstitute.org) recounts the rich heritage of Florida’s once healthy and glorious springs, now depleted and polluted after decades of decline. To nurture an appreciation for these ecological treasures, Silenced Springs first embarks on an historical journey, beginning with springs that were like a “grand fountain, astonishing, and continual,” as one was described by an 18th-century traveler and author. Until the 1950s, Florida’s springs were like translucent, azure gems buried throughout the Florida wilderness, attracting visitors from far and wide who gazed through glass-bottom boats at a colorful world of fish swimming in the billowing eelgrass, and who were swept along by the strong flow of the cool, clear water.

Since then, severe declines in flows and increases in nitrate-nitrogen pollution have left springs impaired and in a state of continual decline. Through quantitative assessments and easy-to-understand science, Silenced Springs explains the ecology of Florida’s artesian springs, their economic and cultural significance, and the human activities that threaten their health and continued existence.

Most importantly, Silenced Springs documents how the contamination and depletion of the Floridan aquifer, North Florida’s primary drinking water supply, has been accompanied by an inevitable decline in our beloved springs. Depleted spring flows have resulted in the loss of their former high plant productivity, which in turn supported diverse and abundant populations of fish and other wildlife. Added to the loss of the springs’ life blood, nitrate pollution has contaminated the formerly pure groundwater, and when discharged at springs into the daylight, has resulted in the loss of native plants and the proliferation of nuisance algae. Many of the finely tuned springs’ ecosystems of the past have become monocultures of algae, devoid of native plants, fish, and other wildlife.

As goes the Floridan aquifer and springs, so goes North Florida’s economic future and quality of life. Florida’s springs and the Floridan aquifer are like a natural endowment that continuously creates an economic return in the form of thousands of jobs, year-round recreational opportunities, and aesthetic appeal; not to mention the vast ecosystem services that springs provide.

But there is still hope for restoring these former “bowls of liquid light.” Concerted efforts by a new generation of responsible state leaders can turn around these declines and restore and protect healthy springs. Avoiding the water depletion and pollution issues in the first place would be the most cost effective alternative for springs restoration. Charging aquifer protection fees for groundwater pumping and nitrogen fertilizer use would result in increased efficiency of natural resource use in farms and cities. Aquifer protection fees would provide a source of revenue needed to compensate conversion of some damaging agricultural lands to more protective conservation land uses. Strengthening existing environmental laws by adding enforceable goals and time tables for springs restoration would re-establish the public’s trust in the integrity of their public officials.

Silenced Springs is a wake-up call to all citizens that the “new normal” state of the imperiled springs is not acceptable. Silenced Springs uses a combination of science and policy recommendations to suggest a recipe for achievable springs recovery. Restoration of our springs requires a collective commitment from Florida’s citizens. The public and their elected officials need to embrace a new “water ethic,” and education is the first step towards success.

The 2016 Florida election will have great significance for the future of Florida’s springs and natural environments. Our current state leadership is environmentally corrupt and pandering to private enterprises that fund their campaigns and dictate the relaxation of Florida’s environmental laws. A thorough house-cleaning of the Florida legislature in 2016 is in the best interest of Florida’s voters.

“We need springs. And silenced springs need us to speak for them.”
quoted from Silenced Springs – Moving from Tragedy to Hope (2015) by Dr. Robert L. Knight, Director of the Florida Springs Institute, Gainesville, Florida.

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