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Despite Heavy Rain, Drought Continues to Affect Florida Springs and Rivers

Continued draining of wetlands, lakes, and the aquifer for public utilities, agriculture, and industry are making conditions worse

The summers have been dry for years. And quiet. No chorus of frogs. No dragonflies. No mosquitoes. No rain. Mowers have been silent. The grass brittle and brown. Leaves crunched underfoot as I walked along our creek near Gainesville, FL. No water—only a bed of sand gleaming under the scorching sun.

drying river Photo by Eleanor K. SommerFlorida’s historical average annual rainfall used to be 59 inches, but the past six years has seen that
rate drop, on average, by 10 inches.

Long-term drought has parched northern Florida’s normally verdant summer landscape for nearly a decade. The past few years have been the driest. Lakes and rivers have been in severe decline from the drought. Florida’s historical average annual rainfall used to be 59 inches, but the past six years has seen that rate drop, on average, by 10 inches. In north Florida, where the lack of rainfall has been more extensive, many springs and wells have dried up.

This summer, the upper Santa Fe was so dry that exposed soil was quickly covered with grass, shrubs, and small trees. Canoe enthusiasts were confined to the lower basin area where springs, although diminished in magnitude, still pumped enough water for a decent day’s paddle.

Visitors to the O’Leno State Park, located along the banks of the Santa Fe River, could hardly discern movement on the stagnant waterway. Many parts were reduced to a trickle and piles of stones protruded from mud flats. The swirling of the famous sink where the Santa Fe River makes its spectacular dive underground was still, green scum floating on the surface.

So when Tropical Storm Debby drifted ashore and parked itself over north Florida at the end of June, residents welcomed the rain. We were not, however, prepared for the damage caused by this slow moving storm that dropped as much as 28 inches of rain in some areas of the state during the four days that it moved across the state.

There was plenty of damage to homes and properties, including a number of sink holes in central Florida. The Santa Fe swelled over its banks, covering picnic tables and cooking grills and taking down parts of the boardwalk that allows visitors to circumvent the river and the famous river sink.

The unofficial flooding at O’Leno was 52.46 feet above sea level, which is probably the highest the upper Santa Fe has seen since 1992, according to Megan Wetherington, a senior professional engineer with the Suwannee River Water Management District. The median river stage since 1980 has been 34.47 feet above sea level.

The rain and flooding were significant enough to wreak havoc on the park infrastructure, said Cindy Preston, park service specialist at O’Leno.  Preston, though, doubts this tropical storm has broken drought conditions in north Florida. “We’d need a whole lot more water to make up for the low aquifer,” she said.

Wetherington echoed this thought, explaining that this time of year rainfall does not have a chance to soak into the ground.

“During the summer, evapotranspiration is very high, so you get less ‘bang for your buck’ from normal summer rainfall. It is not as advantageous as the winter rains or the tropical storm events in the fall,” she said. During the summer growing season, the vegetation takes up most of the rainfall and what isn’t used is “exhaled” as vapor.

Paddlers might have been overjoyed at the bulging Santa Fe, but in early July officials were not allowing boaters or swimmers into the waterway. The rocks and submerged trees had turned from challenges to hazards, discernible only by subtle eddies on the surface of the rapidly moving river.

flood Photo by Eleanor K. SommerIn June, Tropical Storm Debby brought enough rain and flooding to wreak havoc on public and private
property, but experts doubt it will help break drought conditions in north Florida.

As of mid-July the trails around the Santa Fe River in O’Leno were still closed, but my husband and I and our yellow Lab ventured out anyway to see how much the river had changed since we were last there.

Greeted by armies of mosquitoes and a surprised park ranger, we found the parking lot empty when we arrived. There were, the ranger said, some inveterate campers who hadn’t cancelled reservations and were willing to battle thick, wet air and the fierce insects to enjoy the park, one of the most visited in the Florida. O’Leno has a rich history and features a suspension bridge built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, original buildings, a tiny nature center, and small museum.

Bob Mardis, a park volunteer, was sitting outside the nature center swatting mosquitoes. A writer and self-taught naturalist, Mardis said when people ask if the drought is over, he answers, “For the moment.”

Historically Florida depends on regular inundations of tropical storms and heavy rains every two or three years. Drought conditions in Florida, particularly the central and north regions of the state have worsened over the past 20 years despite the hurricanes of 2004 and 2005.

“We are in a period of declining average rainfall,” said Bob Knight, director of the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute in Gainesville, FL.

So despite the huge amount of rain, drought continues to affect the springs and rivers that emerge from the Floridan aquifer. The springs are vital to a variety of natural ecosystems, and provide significant economic resources through aesthetic and recreational activities for residents and visitors.

While rain is required to protect these resources, the drought conditions are exacerbated by overconsumption. The continued draining wetlands, lakes, and the aquifer for public utilities and private agriculture and industry stresses the groundwater making drought conditions worse, according to Knight. “In which case those water bodies won’t recover, even during wet periods,” he said.

Knight’s prognosis matches Preston’s and Wetherington’s: It’s going to take a lot more rain —especially more rain in the fall and winter — to make a difference in Florida’s groundwater levels. While Debby’s deluge has positively affected some surface and groundwater — possibly for up to six months — many drought stricken lakes and ponds remain well below normal levels.

“The river flooded, Wetherington said, “but the rainfall in the lower Santa Fe wasn’t enough to push the groundwater aquifer levels back up to normal, and it allowed the river to flow back into the aquifer [reverse flow], which while not out of the question seemed to happen at an extreme level this time.”

Sally Lieb, manager at Silver River State Park, southeast of Gainesville, said the river there rose about ten inches. And now like elsewhere in north Florida, there’s a “gigantic bloom in mosquitoes,” she said.

Although annoying and potentially dangerous, a mosquito outbreak has its advantages. The severe drought of the past two summers had silenced the frogs and kept the insect population in severe decline, affecting the rest of the food chain. Birds, bats, and reptiles had declined along with their food sources.

Lieb said the rain should at least refresh the insect populations — for a while. “I expect to see dragonflies starting to show up in larger numbers, and bats. They’ll respond positively,” she said.

The frogs started singing before all wet weather rolled in. Are they psychic I wondered?

Just biology, Lieb said. “Their skin is so sensitive that they can pick up the humidity increases and it makes them sing.”

While the spring runs and rivers in northern Florida are recovering from both drought and flood, the parks remain open, although some services may be diminished. Call ahead if you are making vacations plans, or visit the parks’ websites to see what’s available. We’re still having some of those regular afternoon showers so typical of summer in Florida, but the precipitation is anemic, more like a spritz than actual rain.

And in case you want to know if afternoon rain will spoil your canoe plans, listen for those frogs. Apparently they’re better at forecasting rain than the weather service.

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