Nov 3, 2011

By Henry Taksier

Independent Researchers Fight to Save Florida’s Springs

As the sunlight fades over Adventure Outpost, a small shop along Highway 441, Lars Anderson returns his paddles, kayaks and canoes to their proper place after leading travelers down the Santa Fe River.

Anderson, who wears a brimmed hat and speaks with a Florida accent, says he spent his childhood in Gainesville and explored the springs whenever he could. These days, he leads tours along 60 different waterways in North Central Florida, and he gives three to four tours in a typical week.

“I just want people to have a great time with nature,” he says. When Anderson isn’t managing his shop, leading tours or writing travel guides, he studies conservation issues affecting the springs. “The future looks pretty grim with Rick Scott and the likes,” he says, closing his shop for the night. “There are people [in power] who want to ignore science in favor of their own short-sighted agendas.”

Anderson, who serves on the advisory board of the Florida Springs Institute, does whatever he can to educate others. Working groups throughout the state have gathered a solid collection of data, which indicates over-pumping, nitrate pollution, and irresponsible land use. They’ve also presented solutions. The next step is action, which at this point is lacking.

“With legislators standing in the way, people are sitting at these working groups, coming out with all this great research,” he says. “But the solid action is up against a brick wall. We’ve reached a low point in recent decades.”

Since 2001, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) spent up to $2.4 million each year on its Florida Springs Initiative program, which sought to identify problems facing the springs and solve them through research, education, outreach and restoration. The initiative also funded working groups, which brought together shareholders to better understand the issues associated with individual springs.

This year in July, state administrators abruptly ended funding for the Florida Springs Initiative. As a result, four of the most established working groups, which focused on Silver, Rainbow, Wakulla and Ichetucknee Springs, have been discontinued. A three-year contract to maintain the working groups and write restoration plans for each of the four springs has been prematurely terminated.

Florida’s leaders spent up to $24 million to keep the Florida Springs Initiative running throughout its ten-year existence. Comparatively, Florida has at least 900 artesian springs, known for their clarity and vibrant color, which contribute more than $300 million to the state economy each year through recreation and eco-tourism.

A small group of springs in central Florida, which includes Ginnie Springs, the most popular freshwater diving spot in the world, generates $10 million a year for surrounding communities. One local dive shop saw visitors from 46 different countries. Ichetucknee Springs, which includes a famous pool where children get baptized, generates $23 million in visitor spending each year, including $5 million in wages for local workers.

“We won’t have a strong economy if we have a weak environment, and that’s been proven throughout Florida’s history,” said Bob Knight, 63, director of the Florida Springs Institute. Knight began studying Florida’s springs more than 30 years ago. He worked under the mentorship of the late Howard T. Odum, the world’s first ecologist to document the flow of energy through aquatic ecosystems. His famous study, published in 1957, focused on Silver Springs.

Knight continued Odum’s work for decades, documenting changes over time in multiple springs throughout Florida. Silver Springs, the largest spring in the country, lost 30 percent of its output since 2001. Ichetucknee and Rainbow Springs lost 15 percent each, and countless others are close to drying out completely. Almost every spring in Florida connects to the Floridan aquifer, where the state gets 60 percent of its usable water.

“We need to reduce the amount of water we’re pumping out of the aquifer,” Knight said. “Water management districts are beginning to recognize this, but they’re still giving out permits for additional groundwater withdrawals. They’re handing them out like candy.”

Where does all the water go? Over 1,500 golf courses exist in Florida, more than in any other state, and the number is growing each year. Combine that with about 3 million suburban lawns, which soak up nearly half of the public water supply. Then there’s industrial agriculture, which the Florida DEP lists as the second most prominent force depleting the aquifer.

Laws exist limiting the amount of permits granted by water management districts based on the concept of minimum flow levels, defined as the amount of water that can be drawn from the aquifer without significantly harming springs and other natural bodies of water. Determining minimum flow levels is a scientific process, but the issue has been politicized, which opens the floodgates for reckless behavior.

“It is likely that [almost] every major artesian spring in Florida… experiences declining flows as a result of human consumptive uses,” Knight wrote in 2008. “By the time flow reductions become obvious in springs, they are often so great that significant ecological values and functions have already been lost.”

To make matters worse, the statewide use of nitrogen fertilizers causes nitrates to enter the groundwater, contaminating the aquifer and spreading outward into the springs. Knight said Ginnie Springs is an exceptional example, with a nitrate concentration 30 times higher than what should naturally occur.

Nitrate pollution triggers the growth of filamentous algae, otherwise known as “noxious algae,” which clouds the water, blocks sunlight, and decimates native plant life. As a result, all the animals higher up in the food chain — fish, turtles, birds, and otters, to name a few — begin to die off as well.

In regions of North Central Florida where artesian springs are common, groundwater nitrate concentrations have increased from natural levels of 0.02 parts per million to widespread concentrations of more than 1.0 parts per million (that’s 50 times higher), according to estimates from 2008. Knight pointed out that 50 percent of the biomass in Silver Springs has already been overtaken by noxious algae.

“The leaders of Florida are in denial that there’s a problem,” he said. “They say they’re dealing with it, but they just give out more permits. And the permits go against current laws, but nobody is challenging them. Because what you have to challenge is a very rich machine that is benefiting from these groundwater withdrawals and pollution. You have people that are benefiting at the expense of the whole public, and the public is not organized, aware, or well-funded enough to do anything about it.”

Knight wrote in 2008 that the Florida Springs Initiative had “contributed to a much better understanding of the springs and the problems they face” but that current levels of funding were “inadequate to turn the tide away from continuing degradation.” Two years later, instead of increasing efforts to protect the springs, state administrators slashed them from the budget completely.

“It sounds like the sky is falling and, you know, it actually is,” Knight said. “We really do have springs that are drying up. There are holes in the ground where there used to be flowing springs.”

In the face of recent setbacks, Knight is taking matters into his own hands. He started the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute last year, which aims to expand on the work of the Florida Springs Initiative, with or without state funding. Knight is both director and founder, and he’s in the process of gathering staff. Since the 1950s, Odum imagined a research center in Silver Springs, but nothing ever came of it in his lifetime. “It’s sort of a dream Dr. Odum had. We had it together, and I’m starting it now.”

Above: An egret swipes a fish out of the water at Ichetucknee Springs (photo by Henry Taksier). All ecological and economic facts in this story, unless otherwise cited, are based on the most recent estimates from the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute.

Check Out Other Local Stories:

Where the Red Fern Grows
A Haunting Past: Fenced In
A Difficult Thirst to Quench

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14 Comments

  1. Thank you for this excellent article!

  2. Paddle Florida is a 501(c)3 organization formed to promote water conservation, wildlife preservation, restoration of springs and protection of waterways in Florida. Lars Anderson is one of our board members. Thanks for drawing attention to this most important issue.

  3. Linda Stewart says:

    How sad that by the time the citizens of Florida wake up to what our politicians are doing to our state, it will probably be too late. I’m one native Floridian planning on getting out of this state so I don’t have to watch the destruction of the state I love so much.

  4. Pat Berna says:

    Thank you so much fo your concern and work. I hope ou keep on working to make difference.Ecotours and the like do help to rise awarenes.Maybe you all could package and sell golf balls,with a label picture illustaing/pointing to the devastation potential of injudiciou use & treatment of water resouces. Pictres say it so well-as exampled by the oil spill photos of willife impact that broke so many hearts an raised awerness so effectively. Some tee shirts- ” Think golf is an expensive sport? Well….etc” Anyway, keep up the important effort.

  5. Curtis Duffield says:

    Unfortunately, it isn’t just Florida. The same story exists everywhere we visit – developers destroying wetlands, shorelines, springsheds, hillsides, mountains, etc all for the quick buck. Add mountaintop removal in my home state. If we don’t protect what we have we won’t have to worry about the jobs. We won’t have any clean water or usable farmland. Read a copy of the late Harry Middleton’s book, “The Earth Is Enough”. Not everyone beleives in the quick buck.

  6. Norman Taylor says:

    Florida’s springs have changed significantly since the late 50′s when I first moved to this beautiful state. Water levels, algae, and clarity are negative signs of what’s being allowed to happen to our gift from nature. High water consumption, the use of chemical fertilizers, and other turf care poisons are ruining our springs, our drinking water. Every resident of this state should be alarmed by this and let their politicians and water management districts know this is not acceptable and needs to be reversed.

  7. jonathan Wall says:

    New Jersey’s short sighted Governor Christie tried to demonize the Highland’s Act that protects our precious groundwater. Fortunately, former governor’s from both parties continue to support and advocate for the Highland’s initiatives. Please see this five minute video prepared by the Highland’s Coalition staff. It’s an inspiration.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EW12pR472wQ

  8. John Ennis says:

    This is to be expected when you have a governor who took the 5th amendment before congress 75 times, a record that surpasses those of the mafia bosses. He is a perfect example why most politicians are considered by the public to be little more then political prostitutes.

  9. joe williams says:

    was wondering if the folks involved in the Florida Springs Initiative depended on the state funding for their livelihood? if so, i find it difficult to believe they are not politically motivated.

  10. Henry Taksier says:

    Joe,

    I’m sure the situation varies between researchers. Regardless, isn’t that why scientific papers get peer-reviewed?

    Bob Knight – my primary source and one of the Florida Springs Initiative’s most vocal defenders – was a coordinator at the Wakulla Springs working group, which received funding from the initiative.

    Did his livelihood depend on it? Probably not, since he also runs a private environmental consulting firm called “Wetland Solutions,” which he started long before the Florida Springs Initiative existed.

    More about that here:

    http://wetlandsolutionsinc.com/

  11. Very well done article. I just hope that some of the politicians are also reading this. Unfortunately, unless uncontrolled building is halted, uncontrolled well drilling permits stopped, Florida is in dire straights. Also unfortunately, money has always controlled the final outcome of virtually everything in our existence. Money wiped out an entire civilization in Florida, then corrupted those who came after.

    Major actions must be put into place to stop the waste of our aquifer. Cause once it’s gone it will always be gone. Perhaps I would be considered a doomsday singer, but I have no doubt that the time will come when water will be strictly rationed, for everyone. Unless we can do something, which may well be already beyond our reach, the time will come when civilized people will kill for water. In this Country!

  12. Unfortunately the government and states look at the short term, not the future of what the effects of abuse and neglect now will cause. We are battling the dredgiing of the Savannah River for years and now it looks like the dredging may happen. The Savannah River is the largest source of drinking water for Georgia and South Carolina. There is more attention focused on development and commercial business for the financial stimulus, but not the impacts over the future.
    I love kayaking the springs and rivers in Florida and every year travel down with friends in the winter to enjoy the beauty of the springs and rivers, but the Homosassa River is an example of how a river can go bad,as the waters that used to be clear are cloudy and the food source for the Manatees is disappearing due to development and pollution.
    Keep the fight going and hopefully we all can save our precious resources.

  13. I dove the Itchetucknie and others in 1974-7; it was one of the most beautiful places on the face of the planet. I say that having seen more than most. The crimes done by generations of (mostly Republican) environmental rapists and profiteers can never be avenged or repaired. The best homo sapiens can hope for is protection of what remains for future generations to curse our memory, and to hope for evolutionary alacrity. You won’t see my face turning blue.

  14. Brian Glenwright says:

    Politics at its worse. I’m not real sure about this but I’ll put it out there. I do quite a bit of diving around and in Florida. I also drive a lot. One thing that has been in the news for sometime and petition after petition is the discharge of so called treated sewage into our ocean. I’ve also heard of some of this treated water going onto golf coarses and landscaping in the state. This may cost needed money to do but why can’t pipes be laid to carry treated water to golf and agricultural areas? My question behind this,is this water safe or would this make food non edible and would it seep into the aquifers and contaminate them also? Or should we wait till it’s to late like most cases that are waiting political resolve?

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