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Fountains of Life in Peril

Florida’s Famed Springs Threatened by Unsustainable Groundwater Extraction

There are more than one thousand artesian springs in Florida – prehistoric, beautiful, world-famous – and endangered from drought, pollutants, overconsumption, and overuse.

Due to its unique geology, north-central Florida has one of the highest concentrations of freshwater springs in the world, as well as the largest number of “1st magnitude” springs – spring with a flow rate of more than 100 cubic feet of water per second. Wakulla Springs, for instance, just outside Tallahassee, claims the distinction of being the largest and deepest spring on the planet.

The springs draw thousands of visitors and millions of dollars to the state every year. On weekends, especially during the summer, the springs are crowded with people swimming, boating, and enjoying picnics waters that hover near 72 degrees year-round.

photo of a woman wearing a respirator in a canoe, holding a slimed paddle for the cameraJohn MoranLesley Gamble paddles through green slime outbreak on the Santa Fe River
on May 22, 2012.

The unsurpassed beauty of these bubbling springs has been featured in art, photography, music, and films. For many the springs hold a deep mystery that they believe is spiritually and physically healing.

But Floridians and visitors may be loving these incredible resources to death.

We injure them at our peril because these ecological gems are a key indicator of Florida’s supply of potable water. The springs’ diminishing health is a sign that the state’s ground water aquifers are reaching alarmingly low levels.

“It’s not a pending water crisis – we are in a water crisis,” says Carol Lippincott, who has worked in natural resource protection for 24 years. As a former senior environmental scientist with the St. Johns River Water Management District, Lippincott knows a great deal about the threats to Florida’s water supply.

“Water management districts across the state have notified local governments that there is no more ground water for them to withdraw,” she says. “Local governments must start conserving water in much more meaningful ways.”

Springs Are Drying Up

Across the state, spring flow is slowing. Portions of the spring-fed Santa Fe River were impassable by watercraft in February 2012. By late spring, grass, shrubs, and even trees could be seen growing in the drought-stricken portions of the river. Canoeists, if they adventure on the river at all, must portage their canoes dozens of times to make a single run.

At Ichetucknee Springs, a state park located in Suwanee and Columbia counties, the flow rate has decreased about 15 percent since 2001. Park officials at Ichetucknee Springs have notified the public that the tubing in spring may close at any time because of drought. They suggest visitors check the park’s website before leaving home.

Poe Springs has declined in flow from an average of 47 cubic feet per second to less than half a cubic foot per second. Worthington Springs and White Springs have been dry for years. Kissengen Springs, located at the north end of the Peace River in southwest Florida, ceased flowing in the 1950s. Its demise has been blamed on hundreds of wells drilled into the aquifer in the springshed.

Springs in Florida emerge from the Floridan Aquifer, the same source that provides water for homes, agriculture, power generation, and industry. The aquifer is an underground limestone matrix that experts estimate holds nearly two quadrillion gallons of potable water suspended above a level of saltwater. It spans 100,000 square miles from Florida to South Carolina and includes portions of Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi.

Florida’s springs originate from geologic activity dating back 55 million years to the Eocene and Miocene ages – formed from shells and skeletons that accumulated and hardened into calcified rock formations. As the Appalachian Mountains eroded, sand and clay were deposited over the limestone. Rainwater, which is slightly acidic, filled depressions and spaces in the limestone and over eons created tiny holes, crevices and, in some cases, sinkholes and large underground caves.

Florida is famous for the resulting karst springs that discharge – often with tremendous force – through openings to the surface. Florida has 33 1st magnitude springs that exceed flow rates of 100 cubic feet per second. That’s about 64.6 million gallons per day.

With population growth and increased agriculture and energy needs in the Southeast, water levels in the aquifer are dropping and spring flow is slowing.

“The aquifer is like a big Slurpee cup,” says Bob Knight, director of the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute and president of a wetlands consulting business. “Just imagine that there are lots of straws and everyone is pulling out water at the same time.”

It’s an apt metaphor, except for one thing: There’s no way to refill the aquifer Slurpee on a human time scale.

Help Wanted: Rain Dancers

The rainwater “recharge” of the aquifer isn’t quick. Some rainwater evaporates immediately and depending on landscape, air temperature, and other factors, as little as 15 percent might make it back into the groundwater. That’s why agricultural practices and water use for industry needs to be sustainable, according to Knight and others. When water makes into the ground, it filters slowly back into the aquifer. A lot of the water used by utilities in Florida is discharged into rivers or the ocean – and so is lost to any short-term recharge.

Groundwater pumping in northeast Florida is pushing the groundwater divide to the west, encroaching more and more on the rainfall recharge areas that historically fed the springs and rivers, Knight explains. Data published by the US Geological Survey indicates that pumping in the Jacksonville area has pulled down the levels of the aquifer about 35 to 40 feet in the last 60 years.

Lack of rainfall has become an issue in Florida, which has suffered from a decade-long drought with little relief in sight. Climate scientists predict that global warming will make rainfall in the state more sporadic, with a higher incidence of droughts.

In addition, climatologists Curtis Marshall and Roger Pielke, of Colorado State University, report that the conversion of wetlands to agriculture and urban areas, decreases surface water storage that evaporates from wetlands, rivers, and lakesl. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Florida had 36 million acres of wetlands. The Florida Division of Environmental Assessment and Restoration currently calculates wetlands at about 9 million acres.

Green Slime

Drought and overconsumption are not the only threats to Florida’s springs. Overuse through human activity in and near the springs causes battered shorelines, trampled native aquatic grasses, and stressed wildlife. Springs within state and national parks often restrict numbers of visitors and close areas that need a rest from people. But springs and rivers with abundant shoreline development, such as Rainbow Springs, show signs of ecosystem degradation.

And then there’s the green slime.

A number of springs in Florida are being overrun by Lyngbya wollei, a noxious aquatic weed that grows in thick gelatinous filaments, hanging in the water or forming mats on the bottom of spring runs. Slow flow, shallower water, and warmer temperatures have caused the algae to explode during the spring and summer.

Besides a deterrent to enjoyment, algal overgrowth is an ecological disaster. Algae near spring vents may signal high nitrate levels in the aquifer, which can be toxic to people and animals, says Stacie Greco, water conservation coordinator with Alachua County Environmental Protections Department. The algae have caused human health issues, including respiratory problems, rashes, and stomach ailments, according to a 2004 report prepared for the Florida Department of Health by an environmental engineering firm in Jacksonville.

Unchecked growth of these filamentous algae began in the mid-1980s and is blamed on high levels of nutrients such as fertilizers, manure, septic tanks, and municipal sewage that run off into waterways or filter into ground water. In 1998, the US Environmental Protection Agency insisted that Florida place limits on the nutrient levels, but the state objected. In 2008 Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law organization, filed a Clean Water Act federal lawsuit in the Northern District of Florida on behalf of a number of environmental groups in Florida.

In June, an administrative judge in Florida ruled against Earthjustice request to require Florida to take proactive corrective action on nutrient pollution of waterways. Florida’s rules require action only when there is an algae outbreak. No corrective action can be required until studies are completed, a process that can take years.

In the absence of a state response, some Florida counties are taking action on their own. Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, for instance, have passed ordinances that restrict the use of some types of fertilizers and ban fertilizer use during summer rainy months when runoff is significant.

While nutrient levels have been the dominant theory of algal overgrowth in Florida springs, other ideas are being explored.

Matt Cohen, a systems ecologist and hydrologist at the University of Florida, and fellow researchers are not sure that nitrate levels are “correlated with algal abundance across a broad population of springs that have been sampled.” They theorize and are now testing a relationship between dissolved oxygen, grazer density, and algal blooms.

“The elevated nitrate concentrations in combination with other stressors – such as low oxygen, reduced flow rates, trampling, and aquatic herbicides – are stressing or eliminating the dominant native aquatic plants in the springs,” Cohen says. This allows the Lyngbya to take over, he believes.

Whatever theory is being investigated, a lack of consistent patterns is vexing for researchers. Some springs have filamentous algae but normal rates of nitrates and dissolved oxygen. Some have high nitrates and no filamentous algae at all and are still shining crystal clear under the Florida sun.

Changing Behaviors to Protect the Springs

Anyone living in springsheds, also known as recharge areas, can compromise the health of a spring. There are scores of springsheds in Florida that can cross hundreds of square miles and are part of even larger river basins. Action in one location can affect water in a distant one. The unique geology of Florida makes water a shared experience.

The challenge for Floridians is how to protect this vital resource without stifling growth or unfairly impinging on people’s enjoyment and use of the springs. Studies show that Floridians are universally attracted to springs and value them as aesthetic, recreational, and environmental resources.

“I’m optimistic for several reasons,” says Lippincott, a native Floridian and environmental scientist who facilitated several springs basin working groups comprised of stakeholders and residents. “I believe in the capacity of people to make good decisions when they are well guided.” She sees Florida’s culture “as very protective of water resources, while allowing ample opportunity for economic vitality in the state.”

One of the missions of now defunct Florida Springs Initiative was to reconcile protection and use of springs. The goal was to create a partnership between economic development and support for healthy ecosystems within springsheds – thus protecting the state’s water supply. The Initiative succumbed to budget cuts in fall 2011.

Some of the working groups established through the initiative have continued on their own. Some are embroiled in clashes with developers and water management districts – perhaps the beginning of water wars more common to the American Southwest. The Silver Spring Alliance in Marion County, for instance, is engaged in a battle against development of a 30,000-acre grass-fed cattle operation that has filed for a consumptive use permit for 13.2 million gallons of water a day from the aquifer.

Peter Colverson, who co-facilitated some springs working groups, says people who live a distance from the springs needs a reason to change their habits. Colverson believes that the public education emphasis should be on water protection rather than springs protection. Everyone pays attention to potable water resources, he says.

“That is a very hard sell. How do you create a connection between someone who lives in Williston, their everyday activities, and Rainbow Springs, which is 50 miles away?” he wonders.

A version of this article originally appeared at Eleanor K. Sommer is a Florida-based writer who covers the environment.

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