[Originally published in Florida Wildlife Magazine, July/August 2010 issue. Photo of manatee taken at Wakulla Springs, Florida in November 2009.]
Cave crayfish move out of the fissures in the limestone 100 feet underwater. The least killfish, the smallest vertebrate animal in North America, searches for snails among the waving tapegrass, its white flowers blooming just beneath the surface of the water. Eel skim the deepest depths of the cave systems. Apple snails attach themselves to eelgrasses that gracefully pirouette just beneath the surface of the water in the spring runs. And the endangered limpkin comes to feed on the apple snail protruding from the crystal blue water of Florida’s unique spring system. Alligators and turtles sun themselves on the banks of the rivers filled with the spring water that has emerged from the Floridan aquifer.
This is the picture of a healthy functioning spring, spring run and cave system that exists within the backbone of the northern half of the Florida peninsula. At the bottom of the springs, fissures in the porous limestone create the alleys and passageways leading to large rooms where the water is so clear it seems not to exist at all. And beneath it all lies the Floridan aquifer, which supplies most of North Central Florida – from Jacksonville to Tampa – with its drinking water.
When the springs show signs of contamination, when the plants narrow down to only a few species of algae, when the endangered and uniquely Florida limpkin leaves because the apple snail no longer exists, then the aquifer and the very water we drink stands on the precipice of extinction.
“The water coming out of the springs tells the health of the aquifer and the aquifer provides us with our drinking water,” said Jim Stevenson, coordinator of the Wakulla and Ichetucknee Springs Basin working groups. “But we’ve been sloppy housekeepers of the springs, messing them up with wastewater, fertilizer and irrigation practices.”
Now retired but still active in protecting Florida’s springs, Stevenson worked for Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection for 38 years as first a park ranger and then as chief biologist with the Florida Park Service. As he neared retirement, he was working almost exclusively with the springs. Stevenson recalls what he now refers to as a “watershed” moment more than a decade ago when he led then Gov. Jeb Bush on a canoe trip down the Ichetucknee.
“Gov. Bush was awed by what he saw. Soon afterwards, he formed the Florida Springs Task Force and appointed me chair,” Stevenson said. “That trip with the governor showed me the value of officials seeing the resources first hand.”
Kent Smith, a biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) was appointed to the task force when it was formed in 1999. The task force has completed its work, replaced by interagency committees charged with implementing the recommendations of the task force. Smith remains actively involved in those working groups, an advocate for the species that occur in the springs’ habitat.
“Certain species of wildlife are unique to the springs, the spring runs and the cave environments,” Smith said. “Endemic species such as the blind cave crayfish and shrimp and lots of other crustaceans are highly dependent on this system.”
The wildlife, plants and water are all highly connected and when the water, pumping 7 billion gallons per day in Florida, becomes impacted so does the life within the springs’ environment. And the experts agree that when the springs’ health is jeopardized, the very lifeblood for humans is impacted as well.
“If dirty water is coming out of the springs, then we’re drinking dirty water,” Stevenson said.
And dirty water is coming out of the springs.
It’s a two-fold problem, Stevenson warns. The Florida’s decade-long drought combined with the withdrawal of water by humans lowers the volume of water in the springs. Cities, such as Jacksonville, broadened their wellheads out into rural North Florida. The resulting withdrawal means White Springs near Live Oak no longer flows. Impacts from Gainesville, Ocala and Tallahassee wellheads may have already started to lower the flow levels of many other first magnitude springs in Florida.
“This karst region is the backbone of Florida. The springs are in a lower region and the withdrawals of the wells means the water never makes it down to the springs – this issue is most significant to the volume in the springs,” said Wes Skiles, a world-renowned underwater explorer and filmmaker. “It’s a double-edge sword: Decrease in volume of water increases the concentration of pollutants even if the pollutants are lessened. Both are bad.”
The pollutants show up in the presence of nitrates, which offer rich nutrients to plants such as algae which can absorb and grow at a more accelerated rate than the flowering plants that are necessary to maintain a diverse habitat. Once the algae begin to grow it covers the bottom of the springs and smothers all other plant species, leaving a lifeless, sterile habitat and water filled with pollutants.
“It’s a double whammy,” said Harley Means, a geologist with the Florida Geological Survey with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. “We’re coming off a 10-year drought, and we’re continuing to pump out of the aquifer.”
Means points to a U.S. Geological Survey research that shows statewide from 1991-2003 there has been a trend of a downward flow in the springs.
Fanning Springs, near Chiefland, represents the postcard picture for springs’ contamination. The spring, once a first magnitude spring, overflows into the Suwannee River, but it’s filled with nitrates and the level of the flow has lessened.
“Fanning Springs is not a first magnitude spring now,” Means said. “And the Ichetucknee River’s flow is down 15 percent.”
The importance of the springs
The springs of Florida exist on small patches of land, offering tons of beauty for residents, tourists, artists, photographers and writers.
“The springs were the first truly magical place I explored as a child,” said Skiles. “We first went to Ginnie Springs, and I was totally mesmerized and consumed. I never had any doubt – even at that young age – that I was going to do everything in my power to keep coming back to the springs.”
By 1981, Skiles had mapped four of the major cave systems in North Florida. Eventually those maps led to more maps and the realization that everything humans do in the watershed area near the springs directly affects everything in, on, around, and under those bubbling pools of water.
“There has been an exponential increase in nitrates directly related to human activities in upland areas in the watershed of the springs,” Smith said. “These activities include agriculture, municipal stormwater runoff, waste dispersal, and lawn and gardens pesticides.”
Smith adds that springs such as Fanning Springs represent the visual contamination of the system.
“The water is clear; people are still using it and some species are still there, but if you go down the run there are no plants, such as eelgrass because it’s being smothered by the algae,” Smith said.
And without the plants, the wildlife leave.
The blind cave crayfish in the springs are like the canary in the coal mine and they are disappearing, says Stevenson. Another indicator is the limpkin, a rare Florida bird historically always present at the 14 main springs in Florida, but in 2002 when a team went out in search of them at the 14 main springs, only a few were found.
“We believe this is directly related to the presence of apple snails,” Stevenson said. “As ecology changed with more nitrates, the apple snails disappeared and so did the limpkin, which feeds almost solely upon the apple snail. In 1954, the Florida Bird Life listed Wakulla Springs as one of two centers for the limpkin. By 2000, all the limpkins had disappeared from Wakulla Springs. In less than 50 years, an entire species is gone.
“We’ve been sloppy housekeepers of the springs, messing them up with wastewater, fertilizer and irrigation practices.”
According the experts, two major things have contributed to the problems with flow and increased nitrate levels in the springs: population increases in Florida and the decade-long drought.
“More people create a greater problem,” Stevenson said. “Everything in Lake City pulls down the flow of the Ichetucknee. Everything in Columbia County, including private domestic wells, creates huge withdrawals from the aquifer. Nassau and Duval counties have impacted White Springs, which no longer flows. The more we withdraw the more we impact our water supply.”
Stevenson points to the springs within the Ocala National Forest to prove this point. The flow at those springs has not been affected and the nitrate levels are under control.
“That’s because the watershed area is located within a protected national forest,” Stevenson said.
“Individuals must curb their appetite for water,” Skiles said. “The unnecessary uses of water must be eliminated and we must resist pointing our fingers at others and instead point the finger to our own backyard.
“Everybody needs to tighten up their belts because the very planet depends upon it.”
Skiles suggests individuals can do several things immediately that will help to restore the flow and lessen nitrate levels going down into the springs.
“We must begin to let go of the idea of a highly manicured “sterile” lawn,” he said. “Nonnative grasses are no longer sustainable, so let’s give out awards for individuals who have native yards and environments.”
Keeping native grasses, plants, shrubs and trees in the yard means less watering because native species can adapt to the natural fluctuations of rain patterns. Fertilizers and pesticides no longer become a necessity to maintain a pest-free and perfect yard.
Many of Florida’s springs lie within rural areas that have become more populated with people in recent decades, but those residences still depend upon individual septic tanks that can seep nitrates into the watershed.
“I’ve made a commitment to replace my current septic system with an anaerobic one in the next two years,” Skiles said. “This is a dual-treatment septic tank, and there are several kinds available. Basically it uses the bacteria to eat the nitrates that can seep into the groundwater.”
Stevenson believes that permitting for withdrawing water must slow down until it is clear how much is being withdrawn and how it’s impacting the spring flow.
“Individuals must stop treating water as if it’s free and limitless,” Stevenson said. “We turn on the faucet and let it run; we’re watering our lawns; municipalities are watering medians to keep them green. We need to raise the price of water to its true value.”
Stevenson urges each household to look into ways to save water from installing low-flow toilets, decreasing lawn watering, and lessening expectations for the perfect yard.
The springs working groups in Florida are helping to save the resource, which can recover, but as Skiles puts it, it’s similar to a teenager with acne.
“When the acne is gone, the scars still remain,” he said.
The FWC works with the water management districts and has developed a minimum flow level to help the districts determine their standards for minimum flow. If the flow level increases, the habitat will thrive and the diverse and unique wildlife of Florida’s springs will return. And when the crayfish, the turtles and the limpkin find their way back to the water, Floridians can be assured they water they drink is healthy.
“Florida has the best of the best. I recently went to Texas and visited the springs there. Even though Texas is supposed to have the biggest and best of everything, their springs can’t hold a candle to what we have here,” Stevenson said. “This is an outstanding resource we almost forgot, but through the work of the working groups and agencies such as the FWC and individuals taking an important role in their protections, we may be able to save the springs.”