Write Simple English Rules to Save Florida’s Natural Springs

Florida’s freshwater springs need our help. We have abused it over the past few decades. Many important people talk about supporting the sources, restoring them to their original state or something close to that. In 2016, the Legislature even passed a sweeping law that required the state Department of Environmental Protection to create rules to combat overpumping of groundwater that keeps springs healthy. But six years later, the state has still not established these rules. Six years.

Florida has over 700 freshwater springs. Some are just a trickle, while others shoot out over 100 cubic feet per second. It’s like filling 17 standard bathtubs to the brim every second. When healthy, they are home to many wildlife species. They also attract tourists and locals looking for a place to cool off. But for decades, the springs have taken a devastating punch, Zachary T. Sampson of the Tampa Bay Times reported in a recent article. Fertilizer runoff and other pollution have spread contaminants that smother the springs with algae. Pollution has altered 24 of 30 state-designated “Outstanding Florida Springs,” according to state records.

At the same time, businesses and local governments have diverted huge amounts of water from the aquifer to homes, farms and bottling plants. All this pumping has slowed the flow of some springs. Less water flowing through the source means pollution is not diluted as effectively. Damage, in other words, feeds on itself.

The 2016 law was a solid attempt to fix the problem. People, farms and businesses need water to survive, but lawmakers agreed the state should establish rules to ensure the long-term health of springs. The idea was to tighten the water extraction permit process around one of the state’s designated “exceptional Florida resorts,” The Times reported. The rules would stop overpumping and help restore sources. Not everyone was happy, but that’s often the case when trying to strike the right balance with natural resources.

And then six years passed.

In March, state environment officials unveiled draft rules. Just a draft, mind you, not the final product. It will take longer. The bill, however, was loaded with jargon that undermines the law’s purpose, said David Simmons, a Republican and former second-in-command of the Florida Senate who helped craft the law. Look, bureaucrats sometimes like jargon. They cannot help themselves. But jargon can also be used to complicate the application of rules. No one can tell what the rule is actually aiming for, so it lacks power. Is that what’s going on here? State officials say otherwise. They are still seeking comment on the rules, they said. They also point to the $220 million spent on source restoration over the past three years. Yet why confuse the simple concept of “do no more harm”? Simmons helped write the law, and he’s not impressed. This is not a good sign, at least for the springs.

These rules should be simple and easy to understand. They must balance the needs of residents, farmers and businesses, but they cannot be written in a way that does little or nothing to strengthen existing laws. What we are doing now is not working. If we continue to do this, the pollution will get worse. As the state moves towards a final draft, the benefit of the doubt must go to the sources. They are far too valuable to further degrade by promoting too much pumping. If they make a remarkable comeback, review the rules again. But right now, the springs need saving. Now. Not in six years.

Editorials are the corporate voice of the Tampa Bay Times.