Medice, cura te ipsum! (physician, heal thyself!) is an applicable biblical quote depicting the current fate of Silver Springs. Attributed to Jesus in Luke 4:23, this passage can be interpreted to warn against the hypocrisy of claiming to have the ability to solve a problem in others while being unable to avoid the problem in ourselves.
In early 2018 the Florida legislature ratified Senate Bill 670, codifying a “prevention strategy” for Silver Springs. The purpose of this addition to the St. Johns River Water Management District’s consumptive use applicant’s handbook was … “to ensure that flows and levels within Silver Springs do not fall below the recently adopted minimum flows and levels (MFLs) during the next 20 years”. The minimum average flow the District had recently adopted for Silver Springs was 412 million gallons per day (MGD) which authorized an average flow reduction of 22% compared to the historic, pre-1990 average Silver Springs flow of 530 MGD.
At the end of 2017 the annual average flow at Silver Springs was 301 MGD or 111 MGD below the “minimum” average set by the District and 43% (229 MGD) lower than the historic average. In fact, annual average flows at Silver Springs for 16 of the 18 years prior to 2017 had been below the minimum regulatory target. In the meantime, Silver Springs was visibly dying as evidenced by blue waters turning green, and the rampant, nutrient-fueled growth of filamentous algae and submerged aquatic vegetation. The intersection between rapidly rising nitrogen enrichment and declining flows was exceeding the capacity for Silver Springs to “heal herself”.
Conveniently, Mother Nature came to the rescue with record rainfall totals in Marion and Alachua counties in 2017 and 2018. After hitting a daily low flow of 206 MGD in June 2017, Silver Springs flows began to rise as soon as the summer rains began. The 2018 rainfall continued strong with more than 125 inches of rain in the previous 19 months, raising Silver Springs annual average flow above the District’s minimum average for the first time in 13 years. But, even after two years of near-record rainfall, Silver Spring flows were still well below historic wet year conditions.
On recent sampling trips to Silver Springs, staff with the Florida Springs Institute documented an amazing change. Large areas of the Silver River’s bottom that had been covered by dense growths of noxious filamentous algae, now show their former white sand and shell sediments. Rising spring flows have resulted in higher water velocities, achieving the natural cleansing effect that occurred almost continuously before the 1990s. Over a large area Silver Springs is silver once again!
Other than the doubtful benefits of the District governing board’s prayers for more rain, Mother Nature gets the kudos for this startling transformation. Under the cover of the flawed minimum flow rule the District continues to issue new groundwater pumping permits. Every new permit and pumped well draws more water from the Floridan Aquifer. Every new groundwater extraction further reduces the long-term average flow in Silver Springs.
Wikipedia defines hypocrisy as “… the contrivance of a false appearance of virtue or goodness, while concealing real character or inclinations; …hence, in a general sense, hypocrisy may involve dissimulation, pretense, or a sham.”. The St. Johns River Water Management District’s Silver Springs’ minimum flow rule is hypocritical and does not prevent the issuance of additional well permits that contribute to the drawdown evident in the Floridan Aquifer or the continuing decline in long-term average flows at Silver Springs.
Silver Springs cannot heal herself. As guardians of the public trust, it is our government’s responsibility to act in the best interest of the people and prevent significant environmental harm. Most importantly, it is the government’s responsibility to protect in perpetuity precious natural resources like Silver Springs.
Dr. Bob Knight has conducted research and monitoring at Silver Springs over the past 40 years. He is Executive Director of the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute in High Springs.