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State gives $3M for district springs projects

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By Mark Scohier, Staff writer

The state has set aside $3 million for projects aimed at improving the health of springs within the Suwannee River Water Management District's 15-county boundary, according to state officials.

"If I could sum up the (last legislative) session in one word, it would be 'springs,'" said Steve Minnis, director of governmental affairs and communications with SRWMD, at a governing board meeting Thursday in Cedar Key.

"We're gonna' see a lot more next year," Minis said. "There's been more interest in springs."

Minnis, in a later email, stated that the money would be used for such projects as establishing Minimum Flows and Levels (MFLs) along the Suwannee River, a move meant to protect the river and associated springs from heavy water withdrawals, and for six other plans aimed at water preservation and improvement, including aquifer recharge projects, additional agricultural Best Management Practices (BMPs) and plans to remove sediment and erosion from the spring vent at Otter Springs.

The money is less than 1/4 of the $15 million sought by the district in January when Gov. Rick Scott, who ended money for springs preservation early in his term, suddenly began asking for proposals from water management districts throughout the state for springs projects. 

Many of the projects now are the same proposed in January.

But some environmentalists aren't sold on the projects being offered.

Aquifer recharge, a technique that stores treated water underground, is a controversial topic in some circles. Environmentalists say the method, which doesn't address the contaminants that aren't filtered out, is a dangerous alternative to simply cutting back on the amount of water the water management districts allow to be pumped from the aquifer.

Some studies even show that injecting the water back into the ground causes the premature release of radiation and naturally occurring chemicals such as arsenic already present in the rock.

Save our Suwannee's Annette Long said some of the projects, such as a plan to upgrade wastewater facilities in order to reduce nutrient pollution, would make a big difference in water quality for area springs. Other projects won't do much good.

"Projects like moving dirt and  rocks around at Otter Springs might improve the recreational experience and make the spring flow  to the river again, but it won't touch the water quality issue or increase the amount of water that flows from the spring," Long wrote in an email Monday.

As for BMPs, where farmers voluntarily agree to take up certain methods that state representatives say will preserve the quality and quantity of Florida's water, Long said there simply isn't any proof. 

"I've been asking for over a year for any single study that proves that Best Management Practices for maximum crop production with minimal inputs will actually improve water quality," Long wrote. "I have yet to receive as much as a 'yes it will,' much less the studies that show it  to  be true. BMP's save the farmer money by allowing maximum crop production in a field, but BMP's actually encourage year- round irrigation and fertilizer application.  It makes water quality and  quantity worse in my experience. "

Taxpayers, without any evidence that it works, are footing the bill for this, she wrote. District officials brag about new equipment, such as low flow nozzles, creating a net reduction in water use by millions of gallons per day, she wrote, yet they continue to hand out many more millions of gallons per day in permits, which is a "net loss to our drinking water and rivers."

As far as setting MFLs, Long says the districts have dragged their feet for too long. They have already issued so many water permits, it will take "decades to fix." The SRWMD is developing a "recovery plan" for the Suwannee River, yet, in the meantime, the district continues to issue huge permits.

"We are spending money to make the rules, but they aren't being enforced according to the spirit of the rule.  In my experience watching the Upper Santa Fe River MFL and "recover strategy," loopholes and work-arounds make MFL's barely worth the paper they are written on."

Long, who has been attending district meeting for decades, said she's used to seeing promises being made and then broken whenever politicians get their hands in the mix.

"Their job is to manage water using science, rules and facts, but when politics get involved, all bets are off for healthy rivers, springs and lakes."