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Scott proposes springs funding to lawmakers

8:21 AM, Jan 22, 2014   |    comments
Gov. Rick Scott speaks -- very briefly -- with reporters in Tampa on Thursday.
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(Tallahassee.com) - Gov. Rick Scott is calling on lawmakers to set aside $55 million in the upcoming budget for the restoration and protection of the state's imperiled freshwater springs.

"We need to continue to protect our springs," Scott said after a Tuesday event honoring state employees for their environmental stewardship. "They're a part of our state parks, they're part of our heritage, they're part of what's going to make our state continue to be a great state to live, work and play."

Improving spring water quality and quantity already is poised to be one of the biggest issues tackled by the Legislature when its session begins in March. A bi-partisan group of influential state senators, including Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, is expected to file sweeping legislation aimed at protecting ground water resources. Other spring restoration bills already have been introduced by Democrats, and House Republicans also are expected to file legislation aimed at improving water quality.

Last year, the Legislature set aside $10 million for springs protection, which state Department of Environmental Protection officials say was parlayed into about $37 million through partnerships with local governments and water management districts.

DEP Secretary Herschel Vinyard Jr. said the proposed $55 million "blows the lid off our spring efforts."

There is no current list of projects that would be funded if money were to be allotted. Vinyard said projects would be evaluated and selected to get "the most bang for the buck" through cost-sharing.

"What we want to do is spend the money wisely," Vinyard said. "The key is we've got to look to our scientists to decide where we are going to best be able to utilize those dollars. Our focus is to look at the springs that are most in need."

As part of a planning exercise last year, the state's water management districts estimated that getting a start on restoring Florida's springs would cost more than $122 million.

Jim Stevenson, former chairman of the Florida Springs Task Force, welcomed Scott's announcement. He said citizen advisory committee of non-agency springs experts - such as the task force phased out by the state - should recommend projects and priorities for the proposed influx of money.

"Since the funding can't serve all 1,000 springs, springs should be prioritized for funding," Stevenson said. "They should be the large, clear, blue-water springs that are state parks. They are the best of the best."

On the top of his list are large, first-magnitude springs, including Wakulla, Ichetucknee and Silver springs.

Scott's budget recommendation would dedicate $25 million for projects to reduce and eliminate pollution and the impact of nutrients on springs, as well as ensure adequate flow. An additional $25 million would be earmarked for alternative water supply development and the remaining $5 million for agricultural water conservation and improved fertilization operations.

A recent draft of the bill being hammered out by Montford and the other senators called for, among other things, $380 million in annual state documentary stamp revenue to be allocated for the improvement or removal of septic tanks. In 2012, the Legislature rescinded a law passed two years earlier requiring inspection of septic tanks after property owners balked at the cost.

Septic tanks are a key contributor to nitrate pollution that is hurting waters throughout the state, including Wakulla Spring and the upper Wakulla River. There are about 2.7 million septic tanks in the state and about 6,500 in the Wakulla Spring's basin.

On Tuesday, Scott stopped short of supporting any particular legislative proposals.

"I'm looking forward to continuing to work with the Legislature to make sure we continue to take care of our Florida treasures," he said, "whether it's putting the money into the Everglades, putting the money into our springs or our beaches."

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