FSI is currently restudying Silver Springs System. In light of the changes we are seeing, we are re-publishing the following op-ed written by Dr. Knight, originally printed in the Gainesville Sun in August 2015.

Staff at the Florida Springs Institute (FSI) have been active in the scientific study of Silver Springs since the 1970s. FSI’s efforts, as well as research conducted by the State of Florida have demonstrated severe biological impairments at Silver Springs as a result of reduced flows, elevated nitrate nitrogen concentrations, and lost connectivity to the St. Johns River. All of these detrimental impacts are a result of human actions, are reversible, and are contrary to Florida laws that protect the biological integrity of Outstanding Florida Waters such as Silver Springs.

For more than four decades, the State of Florida has had laws that were intended to protect the flows, water quality, and natural functioning at Silver Springs. For most of that 40-year period state agencies have been finding reasons to delay the removal of the Rodman Dam on the Ocklawaha River. In 2001, fourteen years ago, state water managers started to develop a rule to limit further flow reductions at Silver Springs. Two years ago, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection finally initiated a plan to limit increasing nitrate pollution at Silver Springs.

To-date, none of these long overdue efforts is complete, while additional permits for groundwater pumping and pollution are still being issued. Even more embarrassing for the state’s environmental agencies is that the draft versions of these restoration efforts such as DEP’s recently released draft Basin Management Action Plan, even if fully implemented, will fall far short of restoring the health of Silver Springs.

To help fill this interminable gap, FSI prepared a comprehensive restoration plan for the Silver Springs System in 2014. FSI’s Silver Springs Restoration Action Plan describes a feasible approach to restore the historic flow at Silver Springs, reconnect the Silver and St. Johns rivers, and lower nitrate-nitrogen concentrations to protective concentrations. This “People’s Plan” represents the public’s best interests rather than the special interests that have influenced the state’s insufficient restoration efforts thus far. Comprehensive restoration of Silver Springs will be dependent upon returning the system as closely as possible to its historical physical, chemical, and biological conditions. Existing restoration planning efforts by state and local governments have not slowed Silver Springs continued decline.

FSI’s Silver Springs “People’s Plan” outlines a specific set of actions that will improve the natural condition of the river in the short-term (next five years) and will ultimately (next 20 years) restore it to a near-pristine historical condition. During the first five years of this proposed restoration effort, it is critical that the state legislature mandate collection of Aquifer Protection Fees” on all groundwater and nitrogen uses to encourage voluntary efficiency and conservation efforts.

FSI’s recommended water quantity restoration goal for Silver Springs is to increase existing average spring flows to >90% of their historic average of 520 million gallons per day (MGD). The average flow of the Silver River over a recent decade (2003-2012) was 345 MGD (more than 33% below historic flows). This flow recovery goal will require a groundwater pumping reduction of about 132 MGD in the regional area that affects flows at Silver Springs. This goal can be accomplished through the state’s existing permitting procedures if they are properly enforced.

FSI’s and the state’s initial target for nitrate-nitrogen concentration reduction at Silver Springs is a maximum monthly average of <0.35 mg/L, which equates to a 79% reduction in nitrogen loads to the vulnerable portions of the springshed. A substantial portion of this nutrient reduction can be accomplished in concert with the water quantity restoration described above. Cutting back on permitted groundwater extractions for agricultural and urban irrigation will have the beneficial side-effect of reducing nitrogen fertilizer use. Human wastewater nitrogen loads in the springshed can be reduced by implementing advanced nitrogen removal for all central wastewater plants and by providing centralized collection and wastewater treatment for all high-density septic tank areas.

Removing the Kirkpatrick Dam on the Ocklawaha River is a priority to provide open passage for aquatic wildlife between the Atlantic Ocean, the St. Johns River, and Silver Springs. Breaching the dam will increase the diversity and dominance of fish and other aquatic wildlife species within the river ecosystem. These native aquatic vertebrates have been shown to optimize the photosynthetic efficiency of the Silver Springs System, increasing the forage base that supported the formerly diverse and abundant fish and wildlife populations that utilized Silver Springs.

Reduced spring flows, increasing concentrations of nitrate-nitrogen, and a downstream dam impeding the movement of aquatic fauna are resulting in visible long-term changes to the natural flora and fauna of Silver Springs. While the past cannot be changed, the future can be. This springs’ restoration opportunity should not be lost as a result of weak enforcement of existing laws by politically motivated state and local governmental agencies. Ecological restoration of Silver Springs will require a holistic approach for dealing with all sources of impairment simultaneously, rather than a piecemeal approach of delayed and divided responsibilities. It is time to fully implement the “People’s Plan” for a restored Silver Springs.

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