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Environmentalists to judges: State’s plans to clean Florida’s springs are ineffective

Judges heard oral arguments about protecting Florida's freshwater springs.
Credit: photo by John Moran
Peacock Springs, 2019 by John Moran

Environmental groups working to save Florida’s treasured freshwater springs made oral arguments before three judges Tuesday afternoon in the First District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee, saying state mitigation plans from the Department of Environmental Protection don’t do enough to reduce pollution threatening the health of the waters.

In the appeal, the groups continue their challenge of five DEP Basin Management Action Plans, which focus on restoring water quality and reducing pollution, particularly nitrates that get into the groundwater from septic tanks fertilizers.

Experts with the Florida Springs Institute say excessive nitrates can lead to harmful algal blooms, destroy water quality, hurt aquatic life and even humans if consumed at excessive levels.

They say BMAPs for the Santa Fe River, Silver Springs and Upper Silver River and Rainbow Spring Group and Rainbow River, Suwannee River, Volusia Blue Spring, and Wekiwa and Rock Springs will not lead to enough nitrogen reduction to maintain or restore an acceptable water quality at the springs in those areas.

"This is about accountability. This is about responsibility,” said attorney John Thomas, who is representing the Sierra Club and other environmental groups, including Save the Manatee Club, Silver Springs Alliance, Rainbow River Conservation, Our Santa Fe River and the Ichetucknee Alliance.

The Basin Management Action Plans were established as part of the 2016 Florida Springs and Aquifer Protection Act. That law identified 30 “Outstanding Florida Springs” that need additional protection. Twenty-four of those springs are classified as pollution-impaired.

An attorney representing the Department of Environmental Protection said the state has followed the law as it is written and that the environmental groups are asking for more than what the law requires.

“You have to distinguish between the ‘is’ and the ‘ought,’” said attorney Jeffrey Brown. “I think that the petitioners in this case have a strong belief as to what the law ought to be and what the law ought to require the department to do with a BMAP. That's not what the law is.”

DEP previously said the original 2019 challenge of the five BMAPs delayed implementation. The department says all BMAPs are effective as of May 2021.

The appeals case now rests with judges expected to make a ruling in the near future.

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