Florida Water Sins

CreekWildflowers

Ichetucknee Wildflowers
(Photo by Lucinda Faulkner Merritt)

There are several key issues that need to be addressed before problems with the Ichetucknee River System, as well as similar problems with other water bodies throughout Florida, can be solved. We call these the “Florida Water Sins,” and we believe it is in the best interests of all of us, our children and grandchildren to find solutions to these problems as soon as possible.

1. Many polluting activities are not effectively regulated under Florida law.  Nutrient pollution from non-point sources such as farms, ranches, septic tanks and lawn fertilizer is not effectively regulated under Florida law.

While agricultural operations may voluntarily use Best Management Practices (BMPs), those BMPs may not be effective at reducing nutrient pollution to acceptable levels or to the levels needed to restore damaged bodies of water. Where Basin Management Action Plans (BMAPs) have been adopted, Best Management Practices are legally required; however, monitoring and enforcement may be ineffective. And in areas of the unconfined aquifer where many springs systems exist, some experts believe that Best Management Practices may not be effective at all. To make matters worse, the Florida Legislature repeatedly bends to special interest pressures—from, for example, the agriculture and fertilizer lobbies—to erect roadblocks that prevent local governments from effectively regulating nutrient pollution.

2. Water use decisions are based on inaccurate water models.  Water management districts (WMDs) use flawed, scientifically inaccurate water models that do not reflect (1) the realities of karst topography, (2) seasonal changes in water use, and (3) the cumulative effects of thousands of consumptive use permits (CUPs).

3. Florida lacks a water budget; our water bank account may already be overdrawn. Florida has never developed a water budget—an analysis of recharge versus outflow of water in natural systems—so we have never quantified how much water can safely be removed from the aquifer without damaging our springs, lakes and rivers. Given the population increase in Florida since the 1950s and the water management districts’ insistence on continuing to issue consumptive use permits, our water bank account may already be overdrawn.

4. Our natural systems are vulnerable because of the way our laws are written. Under state and federal laws, natural systems such as springs, rivers, and lakes are not guaranteed inherent rights to exist; they are treated as property and as commodities. Commerce laws trump environmental laws.

5. Lack of water meters is a problem. Not all wells are metered—including wells on agricultural operations and at rural households—meaning that it impossible to tell  how much water is actually being used in given areas and whether efforts at conservation are successful.

6. Water pricing, and lack thereof, complicates matters. After initial well installation, water in rural Florida is basically free. There are few incentives to conserve, and the true costs of producing water-intensive crops and livestock are obscured. The ensuing damage to water quality and water quantity in natural systems is not factored into agricultural production costs. While citizens in urban areas regularly pay for wastewater treatment, rural citizens on septic tanks do not; this discrepancy raises an issue of fairness.

7. Multiple problems are affecting our water management districts. The actions of our water management districts—particularly the issuance of consumptive use permits (CUPs)—are increasingly being challenged.

  • The boards of the water management districts are appointed by the governor, as is the head of the Florida Department of Environmental Regulation (FDEP). The governor and the head of FDEP have budgetary and policy oversight for the WMDs—a situation that puts total control of Florida’s water resources in the hands of one person, the governor.
  • One complaint is that the WMDs represent “taxation without representation,” since taxes fund the WMDs but board members are appointed, not elected.
  • Another complaint is that many WMD board members are members of special interest groups, and that there are very few representatives from environmental groups on those boards.
  • The WMDs have a dual charge:  to protect our water resources and to issue consumptive use permits. Some people feel that this dual role does not ensure adequate protection for our waters, and that the WMDs are not taking the required care to see that CUPs represent the public interest.
  • Since 2011, WMD budgets have been slashed and staff members with many combined years of experience and institutional memory have been let go.
  • There are reports of WMD staff members being muzzled about what they can say to reporters and to the public. These are some of the people who are in the best position to help us solve our water problems, yet they are silenced even while our tax dollars pay their salaries.

8. Water quality and quantity are not viewed as related issues. Water quality issues are often considered separately from water quantity issues and vice versa, but actually these two issues are completely entwined:  a reduction in water quantity can make pollution more concentrated, and pollution can result in less water available for drinking, recreation, etc.

9.  The effects of climate change on our waters are ignored. With the possible exception of a few local governments, Florida seems to be ignoring the impact of man-made climate change on the state’s water issues.

10. There is no awareness of the Precautionary Principle. The people who are in charge of making Florida’s water decisions invariably fail to recognize that our scientific knowledge—especially in the form of our inaccurate water models—is both limited and flawed, and that, therefore, the Precautionary Principle should be invoked:  We should be acting with care and erring on the side of protecting the long-term health of our environment and our waters, rather than basing water use decisions on extremely short-term economic considerations.

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Ichetucknee River
(Photo by Lucinda Faulkner Merritt)



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