A clear directive

FDEP to rewrite water quality restoration plans for the state’s endangered springs and waterways.

,members of the Silver Springs Professional Dive Team, gently fan weeds and algae from the historic wrecks in the Silver River at Silver Springs State Park in Silver Springs, Florida on Saturday August 10, 2019. Algae and weeds grow fast covering the wrecks in a thick coating during the long summer days. Divers are careful not to touch or scrub the delicate artifacts. [Alan Youngblood/Correspondent]

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Posted March 17, 2023 | Rosemarie Dowell

A throng of springs advocates and conservationists are hailing a recent major court decision that will force the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) to immediately rewrite its water quality restoration plans for the state’s endangered springs and waterways.

The 1st District Court of Appeals on Feb. 15 ruled the FDEP violated Florida law by not allocating the pollutant load to categories of nonpoint sources when drafting Basin Management Action Plans (BMAPs), which are frameworks for restoration focusing on reducing pollution.

The victory was the culmination of a four-year legal brawl to hold the FDEP and polluters accountable for inadequately protecting 13 impaired Outstanding Florida Springs (OFS) of the Suwannee, Santa Fe, and Ichetucknee rivers, as well as Rainbow, Silver, and Volusia springs.

The FDEP will also have to comply with the ruling when updating the remaining OFS BMAPs.

“It’s a big win, but it is frustrating; we’d rather have the DEP as a partner rather than an adversary,” said Ryan Smart, executive director of the non-profit Florida Springs Council, which was joined in the lawsuit by Sierra Club Florida, Save the Manatee Club, Our Santa Fe River, Ichetucknee Alliance, Silver Springs Alliance, Friends of the Wekiva River and several individuals.

“The springs was theirs to protect,” he said.

Nitrate pollution is one of the biggest threats to Florida’s abundant freshwater springs and some of the main causes are stormwater runoff, septic tank systems, agriculture and fertilizers used by homeowners and landscapers alike.

The BMAP process requires the FDEP to meet water quality goals by allocating the necessary nitrogen load reductions to categories of pollution sources like those mentioned above, but the FDEP failed to include them in the BMAPs for Outstanding Florida Springs, the lawsuit maintained.

“It’s about accountability,” said Smart. “What the ruling means is that the DEP has to allocate the pollutant load. It’s complicated, but it’s not rocket science; you just have to put less pollutants in the ground.”

Each individual BMAP is supposed to show the number of harmful pollutants each polluter is loading into the respective basin and keep track of those that are achieving reductions to meet specific goals, said Smart.

“Without assigning responsibility you have no accountability, and without that you have no way to see if water quality goals were met,” he said.

Michael McGrath, Sierra Club Florida lead organizer, said in a press release following the court’s decision that the ruling makes it crystal clear FDEP’s current BMAP program is a failure.

“We can’t continue to throw taxpayer money at projects when it is stopping pollution at its source—regulation—that we desperately need,” he said. “It is time for Governor DeSantis’s DEP to stop fighting this and give us BMAPs that put our springs on the fast road to recovery.”

In 2016, the Florida Legislature identified 30 Outstanding Florida Springs requiring additional protections to ensure their conservation and water quality restoration, outlined in the BMAPs, according to the FDEP website.

The Florida Springs and Aquifer Protection Act addressed problems due to pollution, declining flows, ecological imbalances, and activities including agricultural and urban landscape practices, leaking septic systems, and or inadequate stormwater management near the springs.

In June 2018, the FDEP adopted 13 restoration plans, specifically addressing 24 nitrogen-impaired Outstanding Florida Springs.

The years-long legal tussle began in January of 2019 when seven Florida Springs Council member organizations and three individuals challenged the ineffective springs BMAPs arguing that the plans did not meet the minimum requirements under the law.

The FDEP, however, maintained the plans didn’t have to achieve water quality goals, they only needed a target for doing so. They also claimed they didn’t need to assign pollution reductions to categories of non-point sources, and that they didn’t need to offset the inevitable increases in pollution from future growth in both population and agriculture.

An Administrative Law Judge later that year ruled in FDEP’s favor. The three-member panel of the 1st District Court of Appeals reversed the lower court’s ruling in its Feb. 15 decision.

“The law says all these springs have to be restored and meet water quality goals by 2038,” said Smart. “For the past four years the DEP sided with polluters, and it took citizens groups and hundreds of thousands of dollars just to make them follow the law and protect the environment.”

“That’s not the way it should be,” he said. “There was no need for it.”

Other groups in the legal showdown heralded the decision as a major win for Florida’s springs and waterways in the press release.

“The ruling is a huge win for Florida’s springs and its manatees,” said Kim Dinkins, senior conservation associate for the Save the Manatee Club “Unfortunately, the four years we have spent fighting the ineffective BMAPs has resulted in not only delaying improvements, but in some cases, worsening water quality.”

“Healthy springs are vitally important for manatees and for the people of Florida…we’re hopeful this ruling will help turn the tide for springs before it’s too late,” she said.

John Jopling, president of the Ichetucknee Alliance stated: “We are grateful for the critical backing of the Florida Springs Council, for the commitment of the other plaintiffs, and for the financial contributions of the many Floridians that enabled this case to go forward. This is an important win not only for the Ichetucknee but also for all of Florida’s freshwater springs.”

Meanwhile, Smart said, precious time has been lost in the fight to restore and protect the state’s springs.

“Now that the DEP wasted all this time, we need them to act very urgently to get these new plans up and running and restore the springs,” he said.

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