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Algae and Development Plagues Florida's Iconic Springs

Blue Spring with Manatees
Photo:  Phillip Lott
Soon after taking office, Governor Ron DeSantis promised long-awaited fixes for the ailing Everglades, the green slimes at the waterfronts of Stuart and Martin County and the red tides along Sarasota and Fort Myers.  Everyone knew the promises were empty.  The new Governor, a Trump sycophant, had no intention of spending money cleaning up Florida's environment.

Those massive South Florida aquatic disasters have rallied broad alliances of environmentalists, anglers, waterfront homeowners, motel and restaurant owners, boaters, beachgoers and local politicians in the heavily populated bottom half of Florida.

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Meanwhile, the majority of Florida's hundreds of springs—a natural phenomenon unlike anywhere else in the world—are confined largely to rural and less-affluent places north of Interstate 4, Orlando and Tampa Bay, and often are secluded in woods or wetlands at the end of quiet country roads.
Rainbow Springs head spring
Photo:  Phillip Lott
In 2016, the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature identified 30 "Outstanding Florida Springs" that require additional protections to ensure their conservation and restoration for future generations. These protections are included in water quality restoration plans, known as Basin Management Action Plans (BMAPs). These plans are focused on reducing nitrogen pollution that is impacting the water quality of these springs.

In June 2018 DEP adopted 13 restoration plans, addressing all 24 nitrogen-impaired Outstanding Florida Springs. Eight of these ineffective plans are effective as of January 2019, while five others are pending the outcome of legal challenges.

For environmentalists taking on the state over springs in a costly legal challenge, politics haven't favored many wins since Republicans consolidated political power in Florida.  Traditionally Florida Republicans are much more interested in bulldozers and development than preservation and conservation.  They might come up with a nice fact sheet and a well-worded press release now and then.   There are the uncomfortable-looking photo-ops with Florida senators and the President by polluted lakes, but nothing positive is ever done.
One of many springs on the Rainbow River
near the head spring
Photo:  Phillip Lott

Clay Henderson, executive director at DeLand's Stetson University Institute for Water and Environmental Resilience, said authorities, with a nod from the new governor, could regroup and revise their springs strategy. 

Otherwise, environmentalists know, what remains is a do-or-die fight with an intransigent Republican-controlled Florida legislature and two environment-hostile Florida senators eager to develop more at any cost.

Florida springs are plagued with excessive growth of algae feeding on pollution seeping into groundwater from septic tanks, sewage systems, agricultural and lawn fertilizer, and stormwater.

Once jewels of blue water, neon-green eelgrass and brilliant-white sand, Florida springs have been rendered darkly slimy.  The best example of this degradation is world-famous Silver Springs which now owned by the state and run down is surrounded by imposing developments that continue to degrade its water quality to the point of making it more murky than "silver."
An Anhinga in Florida's Silver Springs
Tom Frick, Florida's Department of Environmental Protection director of restoration says "We have plans in place that are aggressive," describing for lawmakers recently how premier springs are target for rehabilitation within 20 years.  Environmentalists and Florida natives know that places like Silver Springs will likely be gone before 20 more years passes.  Does Florida really intend to remove all the development that now encroaches on the Silver Springs watershed?  Its not just unlikely.  Its never going to happen.

Many citizens groups have labeled the State's approach as so feeble for regulations, projects and funding it would lead to further degradation of springs even it it succeeded as designed.
Spring Surfing Ichetucknee
(outside Fort White about an hour from Gainesville).
Photo:  Phillip Lott

Their legal challenge, to be conducted in September at a state administrative hearing (trial), will be immersed in pollution rates, sources and remedies, Floridan Aquifer dynamics and nature's limits.  But don't expect much from this hearing.  In the past Florida has simply declared emergencies to invalidate environmental law and proceed with more development.  There is no reason to think anything will be different now.

Veteran environmental lawyer John Thomas, working with the Florida Springs Council, said authorities have shown little will for stemming agricultural and septic-tank pollution and no urgency for necessary spending on restoration measures.

The state's plan is an "inventory and not a corrective tool,"  Thomas said.

Here are updates on 5 of Florida's most revered springs that are at the center of the legal challenge.

Blue Spring
Early on a cool winter day at Blue Spring near Orange City
Photo:  Phillip Lott
In the winter Blue Spring and its stream (spring run) are closed to swimmers, there are no noisy picnics, steam rises from the water on cool days and one can hear a chorus of hundreds of manatees. . . breathing.

Blue Spring, the largest on the St. Johns River and a critical habitat for manatees, is ailing.  Its flow is declining due to urban withdrawals and its waters are polluted.

A legal challenge filed by Save the Manatee Club asserts that the state's pollution-reduction plans for Blue Spring are "based on projects that contain no specific planning information beyond 'not provided' or 'TBD.'

Completion dates are sparse and funding is not identified, according to the challenge.

For those reasons and others the state's plan "therefore drastically overestimates the benefit to the springs," the challenge states.

Blue Spring's role as winter habitat for manatees is obvious on cold January days when 600+ manatees refuge in the spring and its run.

If something isn't done soon, it will be too late.

Ichetucknee Springs
Ichetucknee Head Spring
One of 7 major springs on the Ichetucknee River
Photo:  Phillip Lott
John Jopling, president of the Ichetucknee Alliance, wears a ball cap monogrammed on the back with:  "BRINGING BACK THE BLUE."

That had been the color of the water, flowing over white sand, at Ichetucknee Springs, which has long been a rite of outdoor exuberance for students driving a little more than 30 minutes from the University of Florida in Gainesville.

The Ichetucknee and its run remain a Florida paradise, a visual feast of wetlands embracing a river framed by a canyon of ancient cypress trees.

But the water's primary color is inky dark from algae.

"It just about makes me weep," said Jopling, who was born in Lake City and is a UF law graduate who practices in Gainesville.  His group is challenging the state's cleanup plans for the springs.

The suspected chief source of pollution is the extensive agriculture surrounding the springs.  The Ichetucknee Alliance contends that the state's cleanup plan does not go far enough.

But Jopling thinks Ichetucknee Springs, because it is not as degraded as other springs, could serve as an example and inspiration for springs restoration elsewhere.

Ichetucknee is "relatively salvageable,"  Jopling said. "This water could be blue again."

Manatee Springs
The head spring at Manatee Springs
Photo:  Phillip Lott
Manatee Springs, at the Suwannee River in the remote Big Bend region near Chiefland, is strikingly scenic.

The state park there has a long boardwalk along the springs that extends through deep-swamp cypress to the Gulf of Mexico-bound Suwannee River.  

The boardwalk is where  Whitey Markle ripped the state for not better protecting his deceased mother's favorite spring in all of florida.

As a youngster, Markle was a 'nut' for diving and swimming, he said.  In the 1950s, his parents drove the Jacksonville family to a lot of springs, including to as far as the Panhandle's DeFuniak Springs.

The sand beneath Manatee Springs' water, he said, was "snow white."  It was what his mother cherished, and it's gone now, cloaked in lyngbya, a mat-forming cyanobacteria.

Now, Manatee Springs, surrounded by agriculture, is heavily polluted and is often a petri dish of big, green blogs of algae and slime that coats the once-pristine sand bottom.

Markle is chair of the Suwannee/St. Johns Sierra Club Group, which has joined the legal fight against the state.

"We've listened to these (state) guys say 'we've got the fix and here it is,'" Markle said.  "What are we supposed to think?"  

We all know Florida's promises are lies.

Silver Springs
Rundown and neglected Silver Springs State Park
Sunny day.  Still cannot see the bottom
Photo: Phillip Lott
Once east of Ocala at the edge of the Ocala National Forest, now in the middle of Ocala's urban sprawl, Silver Springs was one of Florida's earliest attractions as a steamboat destination.  This is where Capt. Karen Chadwick first got a sense of her calling.

She was four years old in 1964 when her mother took her on a glass-bottom boat ride.  Her mother had to grasp Chadwick's arms.  

"I really, really wanted to touch the motor," Chadwick said.  "I really wanted to drive the boat."

That's her occupation now, operating her own tour boat on the waters of Central and North Florida, with Silver springs and Silver river being her home base.

She became deeply committed to the springs nad river after taking a job in 1990 at Silver River Museum where she created and set up exhibits.

In the years that followed, she watched as the Silver Springs system, with nearly 30 springs and one of the largest such groups in Florida, grew dark and often choked with algae.

Chadwick is a member of the Silver Springs Alliance, which is challenging the state's spring plan.

The group is asserting that the state would do far too little to curb septic tanks, lawn fertilizer, and agricultural pollution.

Honestly, Silver Springs like so many Florida Springs is probably beyond saving.  It would cost hundreds of millions of dollars to remove all of the urban sprawl that now encroaches on the spring system from all sides.  Florida isn't being honest about Silver Springs.  But these photos tell the story, on a recent sunny day, you can barely see the bottom of Silver Springs.

Shameful!  But do Florida Republicans have the ability to be shamed anymore?  We doubt it.
Murky Silver Springs near the head spring
on a recent sunny day
Photo: Phillip Lott
Wekiwa Springs
Wekiwa Springs, head spring
Photo:  Phillip Lott
Wekiwa Springs (aka Wekiva Springs) is the centerpiece of more than two dozen springs, including Rock Springs, Helene Springs, Nova Springs, Shark's Tooth Springs, Blackwater Springs, Seminole Springs, and Boulder Springs, that feed 42 miles of the Wekiva River and its tributaries (including Lake Norris and the Blackwater Creek), hydrating a massive sub-tropical forest landscape.

The main spring is at the bottom of a grassy slope, appearing as the aquatic state of a natural amphitheater.

The natural pool churns with swimmers on hot days, swimmers who happen to break apart a relentless growth of algae.

The concentration of nutrient pollution in the spring water is 3-4 times the amount that the aquatic ecosystem can tolerate and be healthy, according to state authorities.

"It's never going to come back to the way it was,"  said William Eggers, a member of Friends of the Wekiva River, which submitted one of the many legal challenges to Florida's restoration plan.

The 37-year-old group, while instrumental in securing many of the state protections for the spring sand river, is not large and is actively seeking donations for the legal fight and "any amount will help."

"We can do a lot more to be better steward of [the springs] and bring [them] back as much as possible,"  said Eggers, a professional water ecologist and consultant.

He said the state has presented a clean-up plan with inexplicable math, initiatives that exist as little more than wish-list concepts and restoration projects that are neither difficult nor costly.

"They've taken all of the low hanging fruit," Eggers said.  "The real work has to start to get to the point where you don't see algae covering the bottom."

That isn't likely to happen anytime soon, if ever.  The Wekiva is boxed in by massive ongoing development including the construction of a super highway right through the middle of the ecosystem which has the melodious name "Wekiva Parkway."  At each exit of the new super highway there will be even more growth.  1,000s of acres await bulldozers in the Seminole Woods area (SR 46A at SR44), acres which are conveniently located adjacent to the new superhighway.

Say goodbye Wekiva.  Goodbye to the Black Bear Preserve.  Goodbye to the Seminole State Forest.  It will all be gone soon at the rate development is proceeding.

Donate to the cause:  Friends of the Wekiva River
Read about the challenge:  State Plan Falls Far Short of Solving Wekiva's Pollution Problems
Kayaking the Wekiva River
This is some of the scariest black water you'll find anywhere in Florida.  I'm not usually afraid of much but on a recent afternoon I could see nothing, inches into the river.  My kayak paddle disappeared into the murky muck.  The Wekiva is perhaps the worst case scenario for all of Florida's springs if something doesn't change and change soon.
Photo: Phillip Lott
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