Gov. Rick Scott is floating a $55 million proposal to restore and maintain the state's natural springs, as state lawmakers increasingly focus on issues of water quality and quantity.
The springs proposal, released Tuesday, is the latest issue Scott has highlighted as he continues to roll out different aspects of his proposed re-election year budget.
"These dollars will fund infrastructure projects that better utilize water, reduce water usage and decrease the amount of nutrients that end up in Florida's wells," Scott said. "In other words, we'll protect our water, resources and wildlife, while restoring water quality."
Scott said the money for the springs is expected to be matched by local governments, boosting the funding. He addressed the issue as part of his "It's Your Money Tax Cut Budget" following a Department of Environmental Protection employee-awards ceremony at the R.A. Gray Building in Tallahassee.
The proposal comes as a group of senators works on a $380 million long-range funding package for the natural water bodies that are sprinkled throughout Central and Northern Florida. Springs restoration efforts are also expected to be in a House package that addresses water issues statewide.
Scott's request easily overshadows the $6.5 million he proposed for the springs prior to the 2013 session. Lawmakers will consider the new proposal during the legislative session that starts March 4.
The governor's latest figure also easily outpaces both the Department of Environmental Protection's $15 million request for the coming session and a $5.2 million request from the Department of Agricultural and Consumer Services to reduce agricultural nutrients from reaching the state's northern freshwater springs.
Scott's proposal includes $25 million to improve water quality by reducing pollutants that run off in the waterways and $25 million for restoration work. Also, the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services would get $5 million to help agricultural operations increase water conservation and use more efficient fertilization practices.
No projects have been designated for the money, and Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Herschel Vinyard said the money would be directed toward springs based on priority.
"The key is we (have) got to look to our scientists to decide where are we going to best be able to utilize those dollars," Vinyard said. "Our focus is to look to the springs that are most in need, where we can also utilize cost sharing. We were able to expand the $10 million appropriation last year to about $37 million in projects, not studies but actually projects where we could see measurable improvements in our springs."
The state Legislature was able to match the $10 million set aside for springs in 2013 with $27 million from local contributions for projects in eight areas between Central Florida and the Panhandle, including: Silver Springs in Marion County; Ichetucknee Springs in the Lake City area; Wekiwa Springs in the Orlando area; Kings Bay in the Crystal River; springs in the Homosassa and Weeki Wachee areas; Suwannee River Springs in Dixie County; Jackson Blue Spring in Marianna; and Williford Spring in Youngstown.
"We have to build on our success," Scott added.
Drew Bartlett, Department of Environmental Protection deputy secretary for water policy and ecosystem restoration, added that the state agency will ask the public for input on projects to fund.
"We have pristine springs, we also have impaired springs, so we certainly are looking at fixing the impaired springs and protecting the clean springs," Bartlett said.
Last year, water-management districts drafted a $122 million plan to start the restoration effort for a number of endangered springs, which face threats from groundwater pumping and pollution.
Ann Shortelle, Suwannee River Water Management District executive director, said in a release the money would allow the district to continue "reducing nutrient loading and restoring flows."
The springs -- there are more than 700 in Florida -- are threatened by defective septic systems, excessive fertilizer use, runoff from urban communities and the growing demand for water as Florida will soon become the third most-populated state in the nation.
But not everyone is on board.
John Moran, co-director of the Springs Eternal Project, a collaborative of researchers and artists focused on the state's springs as part of the Alachua Conservation Trust, said Scott needs to provide leadership by stressing a reduction in the use of water and "springs-killing" fertilizer.
"What ails our springs cannot be fixed just by throwing a few million dollars at the problem," Moran said in an email. "We must stop overpumping the aquifer, and we must stop pollution at its source."
Moran added that without a healthy environment, the state cannot sustain a healthy economy.
"The issues plaguing our springs are largely the same issues afflicting waters from the St. Johns River to Lake Okeechobee and the Indian River Lagoon," Moran added. "The condition of our springs and rivers and lakes and coasts is a growing public health threat, a deepening environmental crisis and a looming economic disaster. I see a public relations nightmare for a state that can ill afford to lose its reputation for natural abundance and clean water."
The springs proposal will be debated along with a Senate package that is expected to include new regulations regarding wastewater-treatment plants, fertilizer use and reducing nutrients from septic tanks. The package is being proposed by Sens. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, Charlie Dean, R-Inverness, Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, and Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee.
"The governor's commitment of funding for springs restoration underscores the importance of moving quickly to address the challenge we face," Montford said in a release.