"Green" Springs Lead to EPA Takeover in Florida

Man measuring water quality
Mike Wollam lifts an algae-clogged anchor from the Chassahowitzka River.
CHASSAHOWITZKA (2010-2-11) -

If you're wondering why the federal government is taking over monitoring of the state's waters, all you have to do is take a close-up look at some of Florida's springs.

On a recent morning, Mike Wollam fired up the engine of his small Carolina skiff at the Chassahowitzka River campground and floated into another time. Leaving the concrete pad behind, he entered a world of cypress trees, brown pelicans and mangrove snappers.

Wollam putters over the "boil," the main spring that feeds this seven-mile river just north of the Hernando-Citrus county line. Manatees swim nearby.

Since time immemorial, this spring has pumped out millions of gallons of crystal clear water every day from somewhere down in the aquifer.

But in the past few years, the view under his boat has become somewhat murkier.

“You see how it's all black? You don't see any white on the bottom, because it's covered with green algae. They're called cyanobacteria. They're a low form of algae."

Wollam said when he first came to this spring, it had white sand on the bottom. Not anymore.

“All this used to be white up here... This is not natural for all this black muck to be on the bottom like that,” he said.

It used to be that the words "pristine" and "spring" went together. Florida has the most freshwater springs of any state - more than 750 have been counted. But all of our fertilizer runoff and drainage from septic tanks have to go somewhere, and much of it seeps into the aquifer. And a lot of homes are too spread out to be hooked into a sewage treatment plant.

Wollam is a fourth-generation Floridian who has been plying these waters since 1970. He taught biology at Pasco-Hernando Community college for nearly 30 years. That came after a stint teaching at the Marine Science Station in Crystal River.

“I don't ever recall in the early 70's the springs being anything but crystal clear.”

He said he went back in the late 80's to dive with a friend, and “when we got there, the water looked like pea soup.

“I went in with mask and flippers. I said to her, ‘This is clearly where the boil is coming out, it's got to be clear,’ and I couldn't see the bottom, so I said I'll dive down, I know I'll get into some clear water.

“And this is a fact: I hit my head on a rock at about 30 feet and didn't see it. That's how murky it was,” he said.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency is getting ready to take over monitoring the quality of the state's waters from Tallahassee. The decision stems from a lawsuit filed by several environmental groups that say Florida has failed to keep the state's waters clean.

It’s an extreme step – the first time the EPA has actually taken over another state’s water monitoring.

The EPA takeover is opposed by many business groups, who say it could cost the state's industries billions of dollars to comply with new regulations. Jose Gonzalez is vice president of Associated Industries of Florida, a statewide business lobbying group.

“When we're faced with the highest unemployment rate in the state of Florida since 1975, and we're looking at any potential increase in bills for Floridians and business owners, you're going to see a citizenry that's going to react negatively to these standards,” Gonzalez said.

“Florida's going to lose its ability to compete with Southeastern states in attracting businesses to our state, when other states don't have to meet these standards, and it really is not the right time to be discussing these kinds of regulations,” Gonzalez said.

Some environmentalists say one solution is encouraging cities and counties to pass laws regulating when fertilizer can be applied to lawns. Already, Pinellas and Sarasota counties have limited fertilizer use during the summer rainy season, when it can wash into waterways. Hillsborough is considering such a ban.

Wollam, however, says there's no quick fix.

“I hate to be the cynic about this, but I'm not sure we can solve the problem. We can maybe keep it from getting a whole lot worse by fertilizer bans and trying to get better septic systems or sewage treatment plants. But anybody who thinks that is going to be a solution that in four or five years, I think is deluding themselves,” he said.

The public will get to weigh in on the EPA's proposed fix - specific numeric limits on nitrogen and phosphorous in waterways. The agency is hosting three public hearings next week in Tallahassee, Orlando and West Palm Beach.

For more information on the EPA's public hearings, CLICK HERE.

Here's the dates for the public hearings:

February 16, 2010 at the Florida State University Conference Center
555 West Pensacola Street, Tallahassee.
10:00 a.m. to 12:00 noon
1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.
7:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.

February 17, 2010 at the Crowne Plaza Orlando Universal
7800 Universal Boulevard, Orlando.
1:00 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. (this session has been extended 1.5 hours)
7:30 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. (this session will begin 30 minutes later than originally planned)

February 18, 2010 at the Holiday Inn Palm Beach Airport
1301 Belvedere Road, West Palm Beach.
12:00 noon to 5:00 p.m. (this session will begin 1 hour earlier than originally planned)
6:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. (this session will begin 1 hour earlier than originally planned)

Soundslides

Blue Heron
Clogged Springs Lead to EPA Takeover in Florida
CHASSAHOWITZKA (2010-2-11) If you're wondering why the federal government is taking over monitoring of the state's waters, all you have to do is take a close-up look at some of Florida's springs.
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