Two of Central Florida’s crown jewels, Wekiwa and Rock Springs, are in danger, and a plan meant to save them is woefully insufficient.
It is well known that both springs, as well as Rock Springs Run and the Wekiva River, are suffering from high levels of nitrates and phosphorus that are causing an imbalance in the aquatic plant and animal communities, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
These nutrients have led to growth of nuisance algae and other undesirable aquatic species that are choking out vegetation that fish and other wildlife need to live.
In 2008, FDEP determined that nitrate concentrations should be less than 0.286 milligrams per liter to protect the water quality of the two springs and their runs. But the nitrate levels in Wekiwa Springs average about 3 to 4 times higher. In Rock Springs, the nitrate concentration is even higher, averaging between 4 to 5 times what DEP says it should be.
In 2016, the Florida Legislature passed the Florida Springs and Aquifer Protection Act which requires development of plans to protect water quality in outstanding Florida springs. These are called Basin Management Action Plans or BMAPs. The Act requires that FDEP develop strategies to reduce pollutants so that the water quality in the springs and their runs will meet the required nitrogen levels.
FDEP recently issued the draft Wekiwa Spring and Rock Springs BMAP, which identifies fertilizers and septic tanks within the Wekiva Basin as the major contributors of nitrogen to groundwater that reaches Wekiwa and Rock Springs. The BMAP estimated that approximately one million pounds of nitrogen reach the groundwater within the Wekiva Basin each year. Of that total, approximately 29% comes from septic tanks, 26% from urban turfgrass fertilizer, another 23% from sports turf fertilizer, agriculture and livestock wastes, and about 16% from wastewater treatment plants.
The draft BMAP is set to be finalized this summer. But it recommends that nitrogen loads to groundwater within the Wekiva Basin be reduced by only about 20 percent. – certainly not sufficient to reduce the nitrogen concentrations in the springs by more than the needed 70 – 80 percent. The Friends of the Wekiva River believe that the draft BMAP must provide more specific requirements for reducing nitrogen loads to groundwater from septic tanks, fertilizers and wastewater treatment facilities by at least 80 percent.
Drilling Down on Septic Tanks
The draft BMAP would allow new septic tanks to be installed within an area designated as the Wekiva Basin Priority Focus Area – if the permit applicant can demonstrate that “sewer connection will be available within 5 years.” (Note: the draft BMAP does not specify that connection to the sewer is required, only that sewer be available). Existing septic tanks within the Priority Focus Area on lots less than an acre would be required to be either connected to a sewer system or upgraded to provide “enhanced” nitrogen removal within 20 years from the date of the BMAP adoption.
Friends of the Wekiva River urged FDEP to prohibit any new conventional septic tanks within the Priority Focus Area to prevent any additional nitrogen loads to groundwater. The Friends also urged FDEP to require “high level nitrogen removal” (removing at least 90% of the nitrogen in septic tank effluent) for new septic tanks and existing septic tanks where sewers cannot be installed within the next 15 years.
The Friends also believe that local utilities should undertake sewer construction projects within the Priority Focus Area to eliminate septic tanks in places where groundwater is vulnerable to nitrogen pollution, as identified by the Florida Geologic Survey. The Friends believe that Orange and Seminole counties and Apopka should extend sewer service to existing homes within the areas designated by the FGS as vulnerable and more vulnerable to groundwater contamination.
Spreading the News on Fertilizers
The Friends believe that the draft BMAP should require limits on fertilizer use within the springshed. At a minimum, the draft BMAP should include the following recommendations: Allow only slow-release organic nitrogen fertilizers to be sold within Orange, Seminole and Lake counties; prohibit fertilizer application during the rainy season; ban fertilizer sales within the three-county area during the summer months; establish application rates for lawns in residential and commercial areas; prohibit fertilizer application within 10 feet of water bodies, ponds, wetlands or sinkholes; make local code enforcement officials responsible for enforcing fertilizer ordinances; enforce limits on disposal of grass clippings and debris; and require public education programs on fertilization within the three counties.
Breaking Down the Flow of Wastewater Treatment Facilities
The Springs and Aquifer Protection Act prohibits new wastewater treatment facilities with permitted capacities greater than 100,000 gallons per day within the Priority Focus Area, unless the facilities reduce nitrogen in their effluent to 3 milligrams per liter or less. The Friends recommend that no new treatment facilities of any size be permitted within the springshed. Further, the Friends recommends that all existing wastewater treatment facilities in the springshed using percolation ponds or rapid infiltration basins – both of which allow wastewater to slowly seep into the ground — should be connected to sewer or provide treatment to limit effluent nitrogen concentrations to 3 milligrams per liter or less.
What Must Be Done to Save Wekiwa
The Friends are deeply concerned the draft BMAP recommendations won’t meet FDEP’s nutrient criteria for Wekiwa and Rock Springs. The Friends believe that more stringent limits on discharges of nitrogen from new and existing septic tanks and more stringent limits on use of fertilizers and wastewater treatment facilities are needed. The FDEP should rethink these issues before the plan becomes final and step up for Florida’s future.
FDEP has already committed $50 million per year for springs restoration statewide. The Friends recognize that even more money will be needed to get the job done. The Friends will work with our FDEP and our elected representatives toward obtaining more funding so that the Legislature’s goal of restoring our springs can be met within the 20-year goal.
Cleaning up our springs will take collaboration, cooperation, concessions and additional funding. But if we don’t act now, future generations could be robbed of the crown jewels we failed to protect.