Last weekend’s Florida Springsfest was a reminder of the former glory of Silver Springs. With an outpouring of public enthusiasm, Marion County’s most unique natural feature may once again be elevated to its rightful importance.
An estimated 7,000 visitors traveled to Silver Springs for the 17th Annual Florida Springsfest. Hosted by the nonprofit Marion County Springs Festival, with the help of dozens of park staff and volunteers, this year’s Springsfest was a celebration of the past and future glory of the world’s largest, most famous and most visited artesian spring.
A kickoff gathering on Friday marked the start of activities, allowing volunteers, park staff and local notables a few hours of calm before the weekend flurry. The evening event was complete with rides on the fabled glass-bottom boats over the lucid head spring waters, and a special announcement by Florida State Parks Director Eric Draper regarding the demolition of the dilapidated Wild Waters attraction and the anticipated rebirth of that site as a world-class springs environmental education center.
Saturday and Sunday saw a stream of park visitors from morning until night; riding the glass-bottom boats for half fare; watching a group of history-loving scuba divers re-enacting the “Sea Hunt” adventures of Mike Nelson (Lloyd Bridges); visiting dozens of informative exhibits; photographing selfies with live mermaids; and enjoying mild weather, excellent food and music at the renovated stage. Springsfest was the perfect blend of the outdoor experience at one of the most unique natural settings in the world, and an interpretive deep dive into understanding why Silver Springs is special, the challenges it faces, and a path forward to restoration and preservation.
Formerly a failing for-profit attraction, the state of Florida cancelled Palace Entertainment’s lease in 2013 and expanded the existing Silver River State Park to become the 5,000-acre Silver Springs State Park. Following public input, Florida’s park planners launched a comprehensive facelift to remove many commercial aspects of the former attraction and replace them with environmentally friendly practices and activities.
Ross Allen’s Reptile Institute was replaced by a boardwalk that traverses the ancient cypress swamp. Hundreds of captive animals were removed from the wildlife zoo and re-homed to other zoos, sanctuaries and wildlife refuges. Water and wastewater systems were upgraded to modern standards. Many neglected buildings were torn down or renovated to new uses. Wild Waters, synonymous with summer recreation but also with Florida’s flagrantly wasteful water use, is nearly gone.
A bright future will come again only through a thoughtful and collaborative vision for a restored Silver Springs. The Florida Springs Institute is excited to partner in this ambitious endeavor. Re-imagining the former Wild Waters site, the proposed Silver Springs Environmental Center may one day be the first stop for visitors to the state park.
The envisioned center will be a comprehensive learning and research facility that is funded by a mix of public donations, foundation grants and academic partners. The entrance and exhibit halls will include displays that interpret Florida’s springs, their groundwater origins, the extent and finite limits of the Floridan Aquifer, and the importance of surrounding lands that comprise their springsheds. Threats to spring flows and water quality will be illustrated and remedies will be described.
The center will host high school advanced placement and college-level students and their instructors in classrooms and a lecture hall, provide researchers with an onsite laboratory space, and house vessels and aquatic research equipment. Permanent staff will support these facilities and work throughout north and central Florida’s springs heartland to monitor and report on changing springs health. Visiting college students and faculty from throughout the world will be invited to conduct freshwater research and training at the center.
With the winning combination of the Silver Springs Environmental Center, recovery of aquifer levels and increased spring flows — and a successful effort by the state to reduce groundwater nitrogen contamination — the environmental health of Silver Springs can be restored and protected for the future. Add to that goal a restored Ocklawaha River that allows the free passage of fish and hundreds of manatees into the proposed Silver-Ocklawaha Paddling Blueway, and it is not difficult to imagine more than 1 million tourists each year visiting Silver Springs State Park.
The rising tide of a vibrant and healthy Silver Springs ecosystem and an informed and appreciative public will contribute to the economic prosperity of the region and state for the foreseeable future.
Robert Knight is executive director of the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute with offices in the North Florida Springs Environmental Center in High Springs.