Standing less than 2 miles from an algae-plagued Wekiwa Springs, Gov. Rick Scott and Florida's top environmental officials gushed praise Wednesday for $37 million in public money set aside to jump-start restoration work at some of the state's best-known springs.
"We care about the quality of water; we care about the flow of water," said Scott, who was also accompanied by top state lawmakers promising to make springs-friendly legislation a priority during next year's session of the Legislature.
"None of that money is going to necessarily improve the springs with the urgency that is needed," said Pat Siemen, director of the Center for Earth Jurisprudence at Barry University's law school near Orlando.
Scott said the statewide program includes $11 million from the state's Florida Families First and Department of Environmental Protection budgets, plus about $26 from local governments and state-run water-management districts.
The big winner among the projects highlighted by the governor: Silver Springs, perhaps Florida's most famous springs, which suffers from shriveling water flows and pollution tied to fertilizer and sewage.
More than half the program's $37 million will be spent on Silver Springs alone, upgrading a city of Ocala wastewater plant ($12 million) and rerouting Marion County's effluent discharge ($8 million) from a spot near the springs to a golf course for use as irrigation.
Also atop the spending list: Ichetucknee Springs, one of the state's biggest and most-popular springs. The program announced by Scott includes $4.6 million to upgrade a Lake City sewage-treatment plant that discharges its effluent in an area near both the springs and the Ichetucknee River.
Wekiwa Springs does not benefit nearly as much from the spending plan, at least not in terms of dollars. About $3.5 million in state and local money will be used to help pay for a pipeline so the city of Apopka can use treated sewage and storm water for irrigation instead of dumping it in the Little Wekiva River.
"It's a good first step," said Deede Sharpe, president of the Friends of the Wekiva River.
The plight of Florida's signature springs, nearly all of which are in Central and North Florida, has not gotten the kind of attention paid for many years to restoration of the Everglades in South Florida.
But the governor's announcement Wednesday was backed by coordinated and emphatic statements from lawmakers and officials who said that lack of attention is changing.
"Nothing else could be more important than what we are doing today," said state Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness, and chairman of the Legislature's Environmental Preservation and Conservation Committee. Dean described the governor's announcement as a "kickoff" for springs protection.
Rep. Elizabeth Porter, R-Lake City and a member of the House's Natural Resources Committee, said the springs will now get the same attention as "we are giving the Everglades." Rep. Bryan Nelson, R-Apopka, added: "We look forward to all the good things the next Legislature will do with springs legislation."
Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon Florida, said the $37 million will be well-spent — but must be accompanied by added legal protections for the springs.
"We urge Governor Scott and the Legislature to continue funding springs projects while tightening rules on fertilizer use and water conservation," Draper said.
Siemens and another lawyer from the Center for Earth Jurisprudence, Robert Williams, delivered a letter to the governor urging him to require that existing environmental laws be enforced to protect a part of the state's "priceless heritage."
"Wekiwa Springs does not need another public relations effort," they wrote.
Environmental-advocacy lawyer John Thomas said the governor and legislators can spend money on springs restoration, "but if they don't stop allowing too much water use and too much nutrient pollution, it won't make much difference."
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