How to save Silver Springs? State, environmentalists differ

Associated Press
How to save Silver Springs? State, environmentalists differ

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection plan that outlines how to repair the polluted Silver Springs presented the local environmental community with an interesting quandary: Was it better to continue participating in the state exercise, even though it seems ineffective, or to walk away from the table in disgust and give up its role in the formal process?

Environmentalists chose the latter and say they have no regrets.

The rift, long brewing, boiled over in November. The Silver Springs Alliance had been a local stakeholder and participant in the two-year, FDEP-led process that yielded a report and cleanup recommendations. The alliance said the report ignored its recommendations and was, essentially, a sham.

The alliance asked that its name be taken off the report. In December the Florida Springs Council, an umbrella organization for more than 30 environmental groups, upped the ante by asking the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to intercede, saying FDEP's plan falls miserably short of what's needed to repair the popular spring and river.

FDEP, for its part, says that while its plan is not perfect, it's a start and will help to clean out dangerous nitrogen from the waterways.

But the FDEP and environmentalists differ strongly on how to achieve that benchmark.

"We all want the best for Silver Springs ... and the BMAP (Basin Management Action Plan) is the best way to go," said Drew Bartlett, FDEP's deputy secretary for water policy and ecosystem restoration.

"This is nothing but political cover," counters Robert Knight, director of the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute (FSI) in Gainesville and president of the Silver Springs Alliance.

There are several such plans for Florida water bodies. BMAPs, as they are known for short, guide Florida agencies on how to repair damaged springs and rivers. The plans are referenced when grants are allotted for environmental projects.

In its December letter to the EPA, the Florida Springs Council asked the federal agency to "exercise your full authority to require the State of Florida to follow the letter of the law with regards to this BMAP."

The environmental group has not yet received a response from EPA.

Bartlett says the BMAP is a good place to start, and that changes can be phased in for the future — contrary to the pessimistic picture that environmentalists paint.

Bartlett's problem, and one that environmentalists pin part of their argument to, is that he can't say whether nitrogen would in fact be reduced 79 percent, even if all of the BMAP's programs — present and future — get implemented.

But the depth of that dent doesn't even come close to satisfying Knight. He contends that at FDEP's current projection levels, nitrogen will be reduced only a measly 6 percent.

This is how Bartlett lays out his argument to support the BMAP as the best available route to cleaning up Silver Springs, which for decades has seen nothing but an increase in its nitrogen levels.

First, the BMAP takes stock of the areas that are contributing to the spring's nitrogen levels. The BMAP estimates that 38 percent of the nitrogen that makes its way into the springs comes from septic tanks. There are more than 50,000 septic tanks in Marion County. Cattle farms contribute about 17 percent, followed by agricultural fertilization (11 percent,) atmospheric deposition (10 percent,) horse farms (9 percent,) and urban fertilization (8 percent.) The remainder comes from wastewater treatment plants and drainage wells.

Bartlett said that if all the agricultural industries follow best management practices, their contribution would diminish by 30 percent in five years.

As for septic tanks: The state needs public buy-in. Bartlett said FDEP is pushing hard to get local governments to partner with the state in funding programs that help property owners make the switch.

One such project partners the city of Ocala with FDEP and the St. Johns River Water Management District. The latter two agencies contributed $2.5 million each to take as many as 850 septic tanks off line and get homes connected to municipal sewer. Ocala's utilities contributed $5 million to the project.

Bartlett wouldn't say how many septic tanks would need to be removed or how much nitrogen would be reduced by their removal. There are 24,000 septic tanks in the primary spring recharge zone.

But Bartlett said he thinks local governments will get onboard with plans to get as many septic tanks as possible closed.

But the state has to start somewhere, he said, and getting a written plan in place is the first step.

"It's good to have a process codified," he said.

Knight and fellow skeptical environmentalists say the BMAP is too much wishful thinking.

"Not a single degraded first magnitude spring is on track to be restored to health with a BMAP or an MFL (minimum flows and levels)," the Florida Springs Council's Bob Palmer said in prepared remarks.

The FDEP has allowed Silver Springs to be polluted for the past 40 years, and the government mentality that allowed such degradation hasn't changed, Knight said. If the agency were serious about reducing nitrogen, it should have each pollution source reduce its contribution by 79 percent and be done with it, he said.

Knight said FDEP scientists, such as Bartlett, mean well. But they work for a Florida government not willing to go against political pressure and mandate significant pollution reductions. Knight said rather than implement a BMAP that at least is a start, FDEP and its scientists should be honest and tell the public this is the best they could get — politically speaking.

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Information from: Ocala (Fla.) Star-Banner, http://www.starbanner.com/

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