The 2016 Florida Legislature adopted SB 552, a long-awaited, comprehensive water bill that tackled issues from Everglades restoration to water supply and created the Florida Springs and Aquifer Protection Act (the Springs Protection Act or the Act), which is now Part VIII of Chapter 373, Florida Statutes. See Ch. 2016-1, § 22 et seq., Laws of Fla.

The Springs Protection Act is aimed at protecting Florida springs fed by the Floridan Aquifer, one of two aquifer systems which underlie the majority of the state (the other is the Biscayne Aquifer, located in an area stretching from Boca Raton to the Florida Keys) and one of the most productive aquifers in the world. As the legislature recognized, the “[w]ater quality of springs is an indicator of local conditions of the Floridan Aquifer,” and these springs are threatened by polluted runoff, discharges resulting from inadequate wastewater and stormwater management practices, and reduced water levels of the Floridan Aquifer from withdrawals. The Act focuses on the water quantity and quality of Florida’s springs.

The Springs Protection Act builds on existing law, including the Florida Water Resources Act and the Florida Air and Water Pollution Control Act, and requires the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) to adopt:

  • recovery and prevention strategies to ensure that water levels at Florida’s springs do not fall below established Minimum Levels; and
  • basin management action plans (BMAPs) to ensure that pollutant levels in Florida’s springs are below established Total Maximum Daily Loads.

Water Quantity

The Florida Water Resources Act requires Florida’s water management districts to establish minimum water levels for springs below which further withdrawals would significantly harm the water resources or ecology of the area (Minimum Levels). See § 373.042(1), Fla. Stat.

The Springs Protection Act focuses on the “Outstanding Florida Springs,” which include thirty three (33) first magnitude springs—those with flows of at least 100 cubic feet per second, which is roughly 54 million gallons per day: five times the volume of water in the Atlanta Aquarium—and six (6) select second magnitude springs[1], those with flows between 10 and 100 cubic feet per second. Also covered are the spring runs from these springs. "Spring runs" means the body of flowing water that originates from a spring or whose primary source of water is a spring or springs under average rainfall conditions.

To ensure an adequate volume of water for the Outstanding Florida Springs, the Act requires FDEP to adopt a recovery or prevention strategy for each spring that is below or projected to be below its established Minimum Level within 20 years. The recovery or prevention strategy must include a list of projects, in terms of priority, to implement the plan, set out the estimated cost and source of funding for each project and include an implementation plan designed to achieve the adopted Minimum Level for each impaired spring. § 373.805, Fla. Stat.

Water Quality

The Florida Air and Water Pollution Control Act, which implements parts of the Federal Clean Water Act, requires establishing Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs) for impaired springs in order to manage point and non-point sources of pollution. For each impaired spring, FDEP is required to (a) conduct an assessment for the basin that identifies the specific pollutants causing impairment, and (b) establish a TMDL for each identified pollutant, which is allocated among point (e.g., waste-water treatment plants) and non-point sources (e.g., fertilizers and septic tanks) to reduce pollutants and achieve desired water quality standards. § 403.067, Fla. Stat.

Under the Springs Protection Act, where a TMDL is established for an Outstanding Florida Spring, FDEP must also establish a BMAP (or revise an existing one) that identifies the sources of pollution and includes a list of projects to implement the plan, the source of funding for each project and an implementation plan designed to achieve the adopted TMDL for the spring. § 373.807, Fla. Stat.

In addition, for each impaired Outstanding Florida Spring, FDEP is required to delineate a "Priority Focus Area," which is the area where (a) the aquifer is most vulnerable to pollutant inputs and (b) there is connectivity between groundwater pathways and the spring. §§ 373.802(5) & 373.803, Fla. Stat. To protect water quality, local governments within a Priority Focus Area are required to adopt ordinances to reduce the use of pollution-causing fertilizers. Further, the following uses are prohibited: (i) waste water treatment facilities that do not meet certain pollution targets, (ii) septic systems on lots smaller than an acre, (iii) hazardous waste disposal sites, (iv) land application of partially treated wastewater and biosolids that do not minimize pollutant discharge, and (v) new agricultural operations that do not comply with best management practices. § 373.811, Fla. Stat. Finally, to further protect water quality, the Department of Health, local governments and utilities must develop an onsite sewage treatment and disposal remediation plan where at least twenty percent (20%) of the non-point source pollution within a basin is caused by septic tanks. § 373.807(3), Fla. Stat.

The Act’s Impact

The Springs Protection Act will be of particular interest to those regulated entities that use large quantities of water and may contribute to pollutant levels. The Act will also be noteworthy to local governments and individuals who rely upon septic systems for treatment of domestic wastewater, particularly in those in rural areas where the cost to convert to centralized wastewater treatment would be cost prohibitive.

The Springs Protection Act requires FDEP, in coordination with the water management districts, to adopt rules to implement the Act and directs the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to coordinate revisions to existing best management practices, as needed, and adopt new rules to improve and protect Florida’s springs. The Act also calls for development of recovery and prevention strategies to increase water levels and BMAPs to reduce pollutant levels.

To assist in implementing the Act, the legislature also appropriated $50 million to FDEP for springs protection and provided additional funding for BMP and water supply planning and TMDL development.

It will be important for affected stakeholders, from environmental advocacy organizations to affected industries to engage in the rule-making process, the development of recovery and prevention strategies and BMAPs for impaired springs, delineation of Priority Focus Areas, and the creation of new or revisions to existing best management practices for non-point source runoff.