Future of Florida Springs: A Discussion on Springs Health

Remarks prepared and delivered by Dr. Robert Knight, Director Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute – at a panel discussion held at the University of Florida on April 1, 2023, and hosted by the Samuel Proctor Oral History Project.

Over the past 70 years of focused research, Florida springs science has progressed from infancy to maturity.

Starting with the seminal work of Howard Odum in the 1950s and continuing with the efforts of dozens of springs scientists since that beginning, we currently have a clear idea of what comprises an ecologically healthy spring.

The attributes and indicators of springs health include physical factors such as flow volume, temperature variation, and water clarity; chemical factors such as dissolved oxygen, specific conductance, and nitrate nitrogen; and biological responses such as plant community composition, faunal populations, and ecosystem productivity.

Based on more than 40 years of quantitative historical data for these attributes, the Florida Springs Institute recently published a detailed summary of changing health indicators for 32 Sentinel Springs located throughout the Springs Region of North and Central Florida.

Based on this limited data record, the health of each of these biologically and economically important springs was graded from “A” to “F”.

An “A” indicates a rating of “Very Good” and a recommended intervention response of “Ecologically desirable status; requires minimal intervention for maintenance”.

An “F” indicates a rating of “Failed” and a recommended intervention response of “Primary spring functions very low or absent; restoration increasingly difficult; may result in extirpation of spring/and or associated species; requires immediate and holistic intervention.”

The results of this analysis confirmed what many springs advocates already knew from their own observations. None of the Sentinel Springs received an overall ecological health rating above “B+”. Half of all of the Sentinel Springs were rated “D+” or lower. And 75% were rated “B-“ or lower, basically, an unacceptable level of ecological harm.

Springs located in east-central Florida, Southwest Florida, and along the Suwannee/Santa Fe Rivers are most imperiled due to human activities. Many of these springs are prominent centerpieces within state and county parks. A few notable springs outside these most affected areas, such as Jackson Blue and Wakulla in the Panhandle and Wekiva in the Upper St. Johns, are also severely imperiled.

Finally, the proximal causes of these excessive springs impairments are well known and human mediated. Groundwater extractions have depleted spring flows by more than one third on average, and much more during drought periods.

Nitrate contamination of the Floridan Aquifer is due to the wasteful use of inorganic urban and agricultural fertilizers on vulnerable karst areas, and poor management of animal and human wastewaters.

Excessive human recreation, dams, and seawalls add to the toll of springs ecological harm.

Analysis of the human groundwater “footprint”, the combination of groundwater extraction and pollution that impair springs health over the entire 27 million acre Florida Springs Region, indicates that a relatively small group of corporations and individuals are responsible for the greatest share of the impacts on springs health. Reasonable limits placed on the excessive impacts of these responsible parties are well within legal options available to Florida’s governor and legislature.

But the documented and worsening ecological health of Florida’s priceless springs provides ample evidence that Florida’s political leadership is not working to fix these problems. Much of the tax dollars being directed to “springs protection” are, in fact, spent on projects that have had no measurable spring benefits. Springs health impairments continue to worsen with every passing year.

This is an unacceptable fate for Florida’s most unique and precious natural resources and presents a clear danger for the sustainability of the Floridan Aquifer. The future livability of the Springs Region is not just threatened – it is already substantially diminished.

Everyone I know sees and loves springs differently. But based on what you hear today and what your own eyes tell you, I hope that you will leave with a renewed commitment to act on behalf of your springs and the life they support.

Please feel empowered to help protect the future of Florida’s natural and human environment.

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