By Robert Knight. Published in Orlando Sentinel, January 28, 2023.
Once compared to the greatest hydrological wonders of North America, including Niagara Falls and the Mississippi River, North Florida’s springs in the 1850s were praised for their extreme water clarity and complex ecology. Like the Everglades in South Florida, artesian springs in North Florida continue to delight millions. Increasingly “discovered” by tourists and recreationalists from Florida and beyond, healthy springs provide waders and swimmers with the cool freshness of pure water against a unique underwater forest of aquatic plants and animals.
Faced with rampant drainage and development, the Florida Everglades, just like Florida’s springs, have struggled to stay alive. Large swaths of habitat and wild animals have been lost. The connected ecosystems in Florida Bay, Caloosahatchee River, and St. Lucie River have been decimated by altered and polluted water flows. The remaining Everglades’ sawgrass and sedge meadows have been compromised too, by drainage and filling.
Thirty five years ago, the death of the Everglades ecosystem was imminent. Today, through a monumental effort to save these critical lands, a lasting future for the amazing Everglades is now conceivable.
Four hundred miles north of the Everglades, 2.7 million acres of the Florida Springs Region is centered around the Florida Springs Heartland of the Suwannee River basin, including its principal tributaries the Santa Fe and Ichetucknee Rivers. With a combined historic spring flow of about 4.7 billion gallons per day of fresh groundwater, this watershed rivals the Everglades in size and magnificence. More than 300 artesian springs are arranged like beautiful blue beads along these three rivers.
During historic drier times, the Suwannee and Santa Fe Rivers were clear throughout their winding courses. A canoe trip on either river presented what seemed to be an endless opportunity to “springs hop” from unique spring to unique spring.
Nearly 50 percent of the combined flow from these springs has been lost due to excessive groundwater pumping in South Georgia and North Florida. More than 5,000 tons each year of nitrate nitrogen pollute these rivers from intensive fertilizer applications, dairies, and chicken farms. Tragically, efforts by state or federal water managers have been inadequate to stem the harmful tide of expanding water and nutrient-intensive agriculture in the Suwannee River basin.
A recent study of the largest Suwannee River springs — Lafayette Blue, Troy, Fanning, and Manatee, all centerpieces of Florida’s renowned state parks and all designated Outstanding Florida Springs — found that all four first magnitude springs are ecologically dead or dying. This is despite empty promises and wasted expenditures of tax dollars for “springs restoration” by Florida’s state government.
Lower spring flows result in increasing flow reversals by tannic river water, “browning out” the springs for longer periods. Brown outs and increasing nutrient pollution have contributed to the loss of the native spring plant communities and aquatic fauna. Springs filled with tannic waters are also shunned by recreational swimmers and scuba divers.
Most of the Suwannee springs are covered by noxious algae, and fish are scarce. Manatees can no longer find the aquatic vegetation needed for survival. Based on a year-long quantitative assessment of springs health by the Florida Springs Institute, Lafayette Blue and Troy received F grades, Fanning received a D, and Manatee received a C-plus.
Tallahassee politicians want you to believe that they are concerned about our springs and that they are taking effective actions to reverse this tragedy. They don’t want you — the concerned public — to know what is actually happening to our beloved springs.
Notwithstanding the state’s press releases, the data and our own eyes don’t lie — many of Florida’s most precious springs are dying.
Florida’s Everglades were on the brink of destruction by human agricultural and urban development in the last century. But in 1988, the federal government sued the State of Florida under the U.S. Clean Water Act. That legal action ultimately led to the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, and Florida’s government has joined in the recovery and protection of the Everglades.
But the inconvenient truth is that the Clean Water Act is being violated in nearly every Florida spring and in many of our lakes, rivers, and estuaries. Don’t these critical ecological jewels of Florida deserve protection also? Like the Everglades, perhaps Florida’s springs need to be in a National Park to gain the federal protection they deserve?