It is not in the public’s best interest to dry up or pollute any of Florida’s artesian springs. Healthy springs support a vast and abundant assemblage of charismatic and endangered wildlife, nourish our many rivers and lakes during droughts, and are the sought-after playground for tens of millions of visitors each year.
Springs are essential for our local ecology and economy. Governmental agencies responsible for protecting Florida’s environmental prosperity would be reckless and irresponsible to allow priceless springs to stop flowing or to experience rising nutrient concentrations.
Yet, DEP and the water management districts are complicit in the on-going decline of Florida’s once crystalline springs. Not content with already permitting nearly five billion gallons of groundwater withdrawals per day from the Floridan Aquifer, these water managers continue to issue hundreds of new water withdrawal permits each year.
The simple truth is that every gallon of water pumped from underground and not returned to the aquifer is one less gallon contributing to spring flow. During dry years with less rain to recharge the aquifer and greater pumping for irrigation, many springs stop flowing entirely. During subsequent high rain events, these dry springs reverse flow, allowing tannic surface waters to enter the underground conduits of the Floridan Aquifer.
The springs that feed the Santa Fe River are not immune to this fate. In 2012 several first and second magnitude springs feeding the river stopped flowing. Worthington, Santa Fe, River Rise, Treehouse, Columbia, Hornsby, Poe, Rum Island, and others, ceased to emit their crystalline flow to the Santa Fe River, resulting in a stagnant and foul waterway.
Springs along the Santa Fe River discharge between 1,500 and 2,000 tons of anthropogenic nitrogen annually to the Santa Fe River and ultimately to the Suwannee River and Gulf of Mexico.
Research shows that there is a clear and significant inverse relationship between river flow and nitrate concentrations. Restated – lowered spring flows exacerbate nutrient concentrations in these rivers.
Groundwater quantity and quality must be considered together to solve these worsening problems. Unwisely, DEP separates the regulation of these two threats, reduced flows and increasing nitrate pollution, to our springs.
In 2012 DEP adopted a basin-wide water quality action plan for the Santa Fe and Ichetucknee rivers. That plan required a 50 percent reduction in nitrogen fertilizer loading for the 1,800 square mile springshed.
In 2014 the state’s water managers completed a multi-year study of the Santa Fe and Ichetucknee rivers and concluded that both waterways were beyond the point of significant harm due to declining flows.
The following year DEP adopted a prevention and recovery strategy to restore a fraction of the lost flows to the Santa Fe and Ichetucknee minimum flow requirements. However, between 2015 and 2018, 2,100 new well permits were issued in the Santa Fe Springshed.
In 2018 DEP revised the Santa Fe Basin Management Action Plan, relying on the same unsuccessful agricultural best management practices that failed in the 2012 plan.
And now, at the end of 2019 and early 2020 the DEP and the Districts are back, revising their failed 2015 minimum flows with a new analysis that indicates there is more groundwater to pump.
Every well permit that allows more groundwater to be withdrawn from the aquifer indirectly encourages more fertilizer to ag fields or lawns. The resulting depletion and pollution of our region’s groundwater is a double blow to the health of our drinking water and local springs.
The state has concluded that the Santa Fe is harmed by a flow reduction of 8 percent and Ichetucknee at 3 percent. Meanwhile the actual measured flow reductions are 28 percent in the Santa Fe and 21 percent in the Ichetucknee. And yet the state continues to issue additional groundwater extraction permits that exacerbate the problem.
Springs that were translucent-blue 25 years ago are now green-brown and most of their plants and fish are gone as a result of poorly regulated human activities.
The science is clear – the aesthetic and economic health of our local rivers and springs is being stolen as groundwater withdrawals and fertilizer inputs increase, one gallon of water and one pound of nitrogen at a time.
It is past time to stop this senseless destruction of our region’s natural heritage and to expeditiously restore protective flows and safe nitrogen levels to the Santa Fe and Ichetucknee Rivers and Springs.
Dr. Robert Knight is Executive Director of the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute with offices in High Springs.