The Water Sellout

Florida’s water seems free for the taking — at a cost to the rest of us
BY CARL HIAASEN
chiaasen@miamiherald.com

Here’s a government agency that sucks.

Literally.

Last week, the Southwest Florida Water Management District voted to cut the flow of the famed freshwater springs that feed Crystal River and Kings Bay by up to 11 percent. Billions and billions more gallons will be diverted to benefit developers.

That’s major suckage from the springs, and plenty of people showed up at the SWFWMD meeting to speak against it. Still, board members voted 9-1 to rob the flow.

This sort of sellout has been happening at water districts throughout Florida since Gov. Rick Scott packed the boards with pro-development and pro-Big Agriculture surrogates.

It’s the same reason that the South Florida Water Management District, which oversees water policy in the southeastern part of the state, is now basically a public-relations arm of the sugar industry.

Over on the west coast, the SWFWMD (sometimes known as Swiftmud) insists its computer models show that the Crystal River and 70 springs of Kings Bay won’t be damaged by more groundwater pumping.

The agency says its findings were submitted for scientific peer review and found to be “thorough, scientifically reasonable and based on the best available data.”

Lots of folks who live there don’t believe it. They’ve seen the clear springs change in alarming ways as the flow has been choked to provide more water for development.

Craig Pittman of the Tampa Bay Times reports that residents of Crystal River and Kings Bay are encountering algae blooms, pollution, and even the appearance of saltwater fish and barnacles, never a good sign in a freshwater river.

While the iconic manatees still gather by the hundreds there, attracting tourists from all over the world, the water quality is declining. The Florida Springs Institute says Swiftmud’s computer models overlooked the obvious long-term damage from a worsening trend:

Groundpumping in that area has increased from 401 millions gallons a day in the 1960s to about 965 million gallons a day in the current decade.

Siphoning Florida’s public springs to enrich private industry doesn’t bother policy makers in Tallahassee. Bottled water companies, for example, are encouraged to help themselves to our aquifers.

The Nestle corporation, which markets Zephyrhills and other popular brands, spent a measly $230 for a permit to suck almost 1.5 million gallons daily from the Blue Spring in Madison County.

Worried about the threat of dangerous droughts, the staff of the local water management district argued for a reduction in the amount of water Nestle would be allowed to take. State officials sided with Nestle and even offered tax breaks for its bottling plant, which opened in 2004.

The company has said it deserves to get all that precious spring water for free, because it’s a good neighbor and job provider.

Ironically, while Nestle is allowed to continue this massively lucrative suckfest, Florida officials are pursuing a costly lawsuit against the state of Georgia, alleging that it diverts too much water from the Apalachicola, Chattahoochee, and Flint rivers.

The result has been serious downstream damage to Apalachicola Bay, impacting oyster and seafood production.

Because, duh, that’s what often happens when you screw around with a natural water supply, whether it’s a river or an underground spring.

The Crystal River controversy arose because a 2016 law requires water districts to set “minimum flows” for all Florida springs. As you would expect from Scott appointees, the levels being set allow generous water diversions to accommodate future development.

The Florida Defenders of the Environment and other groups are suing the St. Johns River Water Management District challenging the low flow levels approved for Silver Springs, another treasure and landmark tourist destination.

The lax new Crystal River rule could end up in court, too, and it should. Any data presented as “science” by politicized water boards deserves intense scrutiny, because the stakes are so high.

We think of Florida’s fresh springs as eternal, but in truth they can be polluted, salt-infused and sapped to a relative trickle by exploitative pumping. While the consequences might not be as visually distressing as dead oyster beds in Apalachicola Bay, it’s the same moral crime, born of the same greed.

So the governor is suing Georgia for doing the same thing to Florida rivers that he’s doing to Florida springs. Can you bottle hypocrisy?

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