Plan in the works to clean up Florida's polluted springs

Some say more still needs to be done

Blue Spring State Park is filled with people ready to swim in the crisp 72-degree spring waters.

"I come here all the time. It's just beautiful and a way to get away from the city," visitor Zach Becher said.

But the truth about several Florida springs is daunting.

"If we don't make sure that we stop this right now, we're going to find that we're going to be drinking out of our own toilet," said State Sen. David Simmons.

Simmons represents Southwest Volusia County and co-authored the Florida Springs and Aquifer Protection Act, which was introduced in 2016.

"Because of testing and measurement, we know that we need to reduce the amount of nitrates that are in these springs, and of course in the aquifer that feeds the springs," Simmons said.

Simmons said several springs around Central Florida are in trouble, including Blue Springs, DeLeon Springs and Gemini Springs. For example, he said about 61,653 pounds of nitrogen are being dumped into Blue Springs per year, fueling algae growth, thanks to septic tanks, fertilizer and wastewater treatment facilities.

"We have 21, almost 22 million people in this state and what worked 50 years ago doesn't work today," he said.

[READ: Here's how you can help improve the condition of Florida's waters]

The Department of Environmental Protection has a Basin Management Action Plan, that over the next 20 years, will reduce the amount of nitrates.

The plan includes remediating waste water treatment plants, septic tanks and creating an ordinance on the use of fertilizer. 

"There is funding that we have that is available from the state of Florida but it's not enough. It's going to be that we're going to work with local governments and we are going to put together a plan that will make it inexpensive as possible, for everyone involved," Simmons said.

However, not everyone believes the plan will work.

"Do I think it will help? Yes. The question is, how much will it help?" said Dan Hilliard, president of the Florida Springs Council, Inc.

Hilliard said there are concerns about the quantity and quality of data collected. Some organizations, including Save the Manatee Club, challenged the plan and are pushing for an extension.

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"It's a first tentative step in the right direction. Will it be successful? I'm not optimistic about that. There's an appearance that policy, departmental policy doesn't necessarily reflect the spirit of legislation and imposed requirements for these BMAPS," he said.

But, Simmons believes this plan will prove itself and said officials will check on the progress every five years.

"These are going to take time and effort and money in order to accomplish these but at least we have a plan," he said.

The DEP released the statement below about the BMAPs, which were signed on June 29. They remain pending until certain administrative actions are resolved:

"The Florida Department of Environmental Protection is committed to protecting the state’s water and natural resources, as well as fulfilling the requirements of the Springs and Aquifer Protection Act. As required by the Act, the Department adopted 13 Basin Management Action Plans (BMAPs) that will protect 24 identified Outstanding Florida Springs.

“These restoration plans were developed in close coordination with local governments and stakeholders, including more than 90 public meetings held within these spring areas. They will continue the Department’s strong partnerships with springs communities and are designed to protect these defining water resources while mapping out a sustainable future for each region.

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“As required by the Florida Legislature, these plans require actions to address every pollution source throughout Florida’s springsheds, from wastewater to agriculture to septic systems. These aggressive plans are designed to achieve reduction goals in 15 years, ahead of the 20-year requirement of the law.”

DEP also provided a breakdown on the BMAPs:

"The BMAPs include new wastewater management requirements for new construction on less than an acre, and lay out a methodical planning process for local governments to address pollution sources such as urban fertilizer, wastewater and existing septic tanks. In all areas, homeowners with existing septic tanks do not have any requirements until funding, technology rules and sewering plans are developed.
Each BMAP will be reviewed and progress reported on annually, with formal assessments every five years. This allows for updates to be made to the plans to improve restoration based on new science and project results," the department said.

In regard to funding, the DEP will fund studies within each affected county to determine which areas are best suited to switch to sewering and which areas should remain on septic. A grant will also be established to assist homeowners in paying for the cost of replacing their septic system with a nitrogen-reducing system.


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