Bob Knight. Published in the Gainesville Sun on February 19, 2021

It was Voltaire’s “Candide” that reminded us to tend to one’s own garden. Whether he meant taking care of the Garden of Eden, or the small portion of the world that is closest and dearest to each of us, we are drawn to the importance of helping to make the world healthier and safer in our relatively small local area of personal influence.

In that regard, the Florida Springs Institute just completed a three-year study of our home river and springs — namely, the lower Santa Fe River, from Worthington Spring at the State Road 121 bridge, downstream to the river’s confluence with the Suwannee River. In addition to more than 30 springs large and small, this river segment receives much of the surface runoff from Alachua, Bradford, Columbia, Gilchrist and Union counties.

Amazingly, more than 75% of the average flow in the Santa Fe River is from groundwater inputs from those springs. In other words, the lower Santa Fe River is technically a spring run, and when the springs that feed the river stop flowing, so will the river. And when the groundwater and springs are polluted, so is the river.

Worthington Spring, the uppermost spring feeding the river, stopped flowing in the 1950s. By the end of a prolonged drought in 2011 and early 2012, the entire Santa Fe River stopped flowing at Poe Spring, the first time on record. In 2012 several large springs on the river not only stopped flowing, but also reversed flow direction when a two-year drought was followed by the flood caused by Tropical Storm Debby.

The Santa Fe River has lost too much of its historic vitality. Overall, river flows have declined by 200 million gallons per day, primarily the result of lost spring flows. Adding insult to injury, the nitrogen pollution in the river has increased 20-fold to about 1,900 tons of nitrate nitrogen discharged into the Suwannee River each year and rising.

While our Santa Fe River and springs still attract more than 1 million visitors each year, supporting more than 1,150 jobs, many visitors are literally loving the river and springs to death. Excessive human use of a shallow spring increases turbidity, smothering native plant communities and greatly reducing fish populations.

And every year these problems get worse.

In the current vacuum of environmental leadership at the state level, the Florida Springs Institute conducted the Lower Santa Fe River and Springs Environmental Analysis to detail the historic and current health of the aquatic ecosystems and offer recommendations for achieving springs restoration and sustainable protection. As amply evidenced by the scientific data we reported, the state’s spring flow and pollution protection efforts have been unsuccessful at avoiding the ongoing demise of these beautiful natural creations.

I was reminded of this ecological tragedy this month when my sampling team visited Santa Fe Spring (aka Graham Spring), a large first magnitude spring one mile upstream of Interstate 75 and three miles downstream from Worthington Spring. Santa Fe Spring was one of Alachua Conservation Trust’s most recent acquisitions as part of its 254-acre Santa Fe Springs Preserve. Buying the spring and the surrounding land is a logical way to restore and protect this spring.

But, in 2001, Santa Fe Spring was first observed to stop flowing and actually reverse flow direction. Springs only backflow when aquifer levels are lower than river levels, typically as a result of excessive groundwater pumping.

Looking at the past 20 years of flow data from Santa Fe Spring, there is an increasing frequency of these reversal events. The result is a blackwater spring that lacks natural vegetation and is less attractive for swimming or snorkeling. This month we measured backflow from the river into the spring of 137 million gallons per day, a reverse flow equal to two first-magnitude springs.

As documented through data analysis, reducing regional groundwater pumping by at least 16 million gallons per day will be required to restore adequate flows to this one spring. And nitrogen loads in the springshed must be reduced by 260 tons per year, equivalent to a fertilizer load to about 3,500 acres of intensive farmland.

Restoring all of the springs feeding the Santa Fe River will require a combined reduction in pumping of nearly 200 million gallons per day and cessation of fertilizer use on more than 150,000 acres.

What is left of the natural and unspoiled Santa Fe River system is our local Garden of Eden. Unfathomably, the state’s approach to “protecting” these priceless aquatic resources is to continue to issue new groundwater extraction permits that attract even more nitrogen pollution loads from agricultural and urban development.

The healthy Santa Fe River and springs will only be a memory if nothing is done to save them.

A regular visitor to the Santa Fe River pulls debris from the shallow water near the public boat basin just off US 441 in High Springs. Photo by Erica Brough, The Gainesville Sun

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