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By MARK SCOHIER
Millions of dollars could be funneled toward springs protection and restoration projects in the state if approved by the governor later this year.
Anne Shortelle, executive director of the Suwannee River Water Management District, said in a meeting last week that SRWMD alone had submitted about $15 million worth of proposals for springs projects upon a recent request by Gov. Rick Scott.
The projects, tentative at this point, will be presented as a first-ever line item for springs restoration in the governor’s budget.
Don Quincey, SRWMD board chair, said at the meeting, “I’d just like to say that … after five years of being on the board, this is the first time that we may have something there …. For the governor to do a line item in his budget … it’s a pretty big deal. We really are excited about that, and I think it’s an opportunity to get some money.”
As part of the overall request, the district, just one agency in the state submitting proposals, is asking for $450,000 to remove sediment from Otter and Hart springs to help improve flow and recreational use, as well as $2.5 million to construct wastewater lines in the parks, which will ease contamination from septic tanks already in use there.
Part of the projects also include a $5 million request to retrofit agricultural irrigation systems in the Suwannee River Basin to help reduce water use and the need for fertilizer, the biggest source of nutrient pollution in the area. Another $2 million, on top of $900,000 previously allocated, will go toward the same purpose in the Santa Fe River Basin.
The remainder of the money, if granted by Scott, will go to other projects in the district that include additional spring sediment removal projects, as well as projects to upgrade wastewater processing in Lake City.
The neighboring St. Johns River Water Management District, said by some to impact groundwater levels in SRWMD through heavy drawdown, has submitted proposals for about $98.2 million in similar projects, according to information sent in an email from district representative Teresa Monson.
Florida springs advocate Jim Stevenson said in a phone interview last week he’s glad to hear some money might get put toward restoring one of the state’s most precious resources. “We haven’t had anything in a couple of years,” Stevenson said, referring to Florida Springs Initiative funds that were slashed by Scott.
Stevenson, who served as chief biologist for the state park system for 24 years, is largely credited with kick starting springs protection funding that started under Gov. Jeb Bush. In 1999, Stevenson took Bush and then-Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary David Struhs on an educational boat trip down the Ichetucknee River where both learned about some of the problems facing Florida’s springs. The trip prompted Struhs to form the Florida Springs Task Force. Bush put in place the Florida Springs Initiative.
Stevenson, though glad to hear that some money might again go toward Florida’s springs, said it’s important to keep in mind what protection and restoration really means.
When the state first started purchasing springs, the first of which was Manatee Springs, the idea was that having control of the spring would protect it, he said. “But when you buy a spring, you’re only buying a hole where the water comes out. You’re not protecting the water.”
Within a spring itself, he said, many consider restoration to mean the removal of sediment and dredging of spring runs—such as some of the recent proposals submitted by agencies to the governor’s office.
“But when I say restore, I mean restoring the water,” which, he said, means improving the quality and quantity of water available throughout the state and in areas such as Levy County.
“Probably every child that grew up in Chiefland has swam in Manatee Springs,” he said. “It’s part of the cultural fabric of the area. To let it go down the drain is a waste.”