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Senators Propose Bill To Protect Florida Springs

A family looks over Guaranto Spring in Dixie County. In Florida, 73 percent of network springs exceed the state standard for nitrogen, which some say can affect the ecology of a spring.
A family looks over Guaranto Spring in Dixie County. In Florida, 73 percent of network springs exceed the state standard for nitrogen, which some say can affect the ecology of a spring.” credit=”Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute

Florida senators are drafting a bill that will restrict the use of water resources in order to preserve the quality and quantity.

The Florida Springs and Aquifer Protection Act will create funding and a definitive guide for local governments on how to manage fresh water and discharge wastewater. The act aims to restore water in springs, many of which have been affected by high nutrient concentrations and low water levels.

Senators David Simmons, Bill Montford, Alan Hays, Wilton Simpson and Charles Dean are leading the bill, which will be proposed the first week of March.

“A key to this legislation is that we will not burden local governments or individual homeowners with the expenses in our bill,” Montford said.

The legislation mandates that 36.9 percent of the revenue, more than $370 million for 2015, from the Documentary Stamp Tax, goes to the Ecosystem Management and Restoration Trust Fund, according to a summary by the Florida Conservation Coalition.

The fund intends to protect and reduce nutrient pollution in Outstanding Florida Springs. These are first magnitude springs, the largest springs in the state.

This is an area of focus for researcher Robert Knight of the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute, who studies aquatic ecology. He said nitrate is the nutrient causing the most contamination.

“Springs with elevated nitrate are losing their native plant communities,” Knight said. “In doing so, they lose a lot of productivity that helps feed the wildlife, so you have fewer fish and lower diversity of fish.”

Nitrate occurs naturally in low concentrations in groundwater, but when nitrogen from organic and inorganic sources leaks into groundwater, it ends up as nitrate in springs.

In a 2010 report by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, researchers found that about 73 percent of network springs exceeded the standard .35 mg/L of nitrate used to determine spring impairment.

Erich Marzolf, division director of the Suwannee River Water Management District, said some of the highest levels of nitrate concentration include about 10.4 mg/L at Convict Springs and about 12 mg/L at Ravine Spring.

Nitrate elevation may produce overgrown algae, Marzolf said. These block sunlight and prevent large plants from growing at the bottom of the spring.

Losing these organisms sheltered by plants can have a large impact on the spring’s food web and chemistry, he said.

Inorganic fertilizer is the main source of nitrate affecting water quality, according to the DEP study.

The bill asks local governments to require that fertilizers include at least 50 percent slow-release nitrogen. This makes more nitrogen available to plants and less of it dissolves over a longer period of time in the springs.

“We cannot solve our problems thinking nutrients will be diluted in the Aquifer. There are too many people and too much polluted water,” Simmons said.

Casey Fitzgerald, the intiative director of the St. Johns River Water Management District’s Strategic Deliverables and Continuous Improvement Program, said farms should ideally apply the exact amount of fertilizer that plants need. However, since plant growth varies, there is no perfect calculation for the fertilizer needed.

Farmers can implement Best Management Practices — standards set to help reduce the amount of nutrients waste and other pollutants that enter water resources — according to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Mace Bauer, agronomy and commercial horticulture agent for UF/IFAS in Columbia County, said practices include using appropriate fertilizer application methods, proper timing application during crop season and managing irrigation.

Sometimes efforts from Best Management Practices show direct effects on spring ecology, Bauer said.

Knight said nitrogen can also come from septic tanks.

“The people that recognize the problem don’t have the money to go fight the state to get them to do the right thing,” Knight said.

Estus Whitfield, Florida Conservation Coalition coordinator, said this bill will instead provide funding to remove septic tanks and upgrade wastewater treatment facilities.

The legislation wants to lower the total nitrogen standard from 10 mg/L to 3 mg/L in water discharged from wastewater treatment facilities. It’s especially concerned about the facilities located near springs that are at risk of high nitrogen or low flow.

Montford said that by not creating the proper legislation to protect water resources in the past, the Florida government has played a role in the conditions these resources are in today.

The bill also changes the minimum flows and levels for Outstanding Florida Springs to where withdrawing water would be harmful to the resource, as opposed to when the spring would be significantly harmed.

“Water is the life of the spring. Everything is diminished when you reduce the flow,” Knight said.

He went on to say all major rivers in North Florida depend on the flow of springs. To maintain a proper balance, the flow can only be reduced to a maximum of 5 to 10 percent, but current flow reductions are at about 32 percent.

Water levels are greatly affected by over-pumping groundwater, Knight said.

Water rises into springs from the Floridan aquifer, an underground water source that extends to Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina. Engineers have installed pipes in the Floridan aquifer to extract fresh water, which has caused the aquifer’s pressure levels and springs’ flow levels to decline, Knight said.

“It’s the springs in the middle of the state that are suffering most because they are at a higher elevation,” Knight said.

Megan Wetherington, a hydrologist at the Suwannee River Water Management District, said flow levels have been reduced for almost 20 years at White Sulphur Springs in Hamilton County.

At times, water doesn’t rise from the aquifer in White Sulphur Springs and levels get too low. Water from the Suwannee River starts flowing into the springs. Although this helps recharge the aquifer, the frequency at which it happens is not what geologists want to see, Wetherington said.

Helen Miller, mayor of the town of White Springs, said if pumping were reduced, the spring could naturally flow again.

It’s difficult to determine how much pumping affects spring flow because rain fall is what primarily affects the flow, said Tony Cunningham, GRU engineering director.

Gainesville Regional Utilities has a permit for 30 million gallons of water a day, which supplies local businesses and about 190,000 people. GRU wants to service an additional 43 to 50 thousand customers with a 20-year permit for the same 30 million gallons a day, Cunningham said.

Currently the company typically uses 23 to 25 million gallons and returns about 70 percent of the water it takes from the Floridan aquifer.

Simmons believes it’s important to consider different opinions on what affects the springs. Legislators are not going to make the law one-size-fits-all.

The current laws that protect Florida springs haven’t been implemented effectively, and the bill is long overdue, Whitfield said. He said people won’t be happy when the state starts regulating how much water they can pump and discharge.

Montford said it’s important to move quickly to fix the harm done in the springs because the longer they take, the harder it will be to fix.

“We’re not at a catastrophe level, but we can see it in the horizon,” he said. “The only option we don’t have is to do nothing.”

About Elly Ayres

Elly is a reporter for WUFT News and can be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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