Florida focuses on saving springs

The vast majority of Florida's 720 identified springs are in danger.


Karen Pate, director of the Crystal Springs Preserve in Crystal Springs, looks at a tree knocked down in the springs by Hurricane Charley. Crystal Springs, once a popular local swimming hole and picnic spot, is now off-limits to all but those studying its fragile ecology, or officials of the Nestle company, which pumps part of its liquid bounty for commercial sale.

The Associated Press
Published: Monday, January 3, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 3, 2005 at 12:17 a.m.
HOMOSASSA SPRINGS - Horror stories abound about Florida's natural springs, some of which have turned from cool bastions of idyllic beauty into victims of such severe ecological damage that they're facing extinction.
Some remain lush with water but have descended into weedy neglect. Others are going dry from drought, overpumping or urban development. Others are so polluted that they would sicken swimmers.
Of Florida's 720 identified springs, most of which are located in North and Central Florida, the vast majority are in danger, said Jim Stevenson, a member of a statewide task force charged with preserving and restoring the springs.
"Growth is the problem: The more people, the more pollution," said Stevenson, who retired in 2003 from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. "Most of what is being done is done out of ignorance, and people, once they understand how these systems work, they're willing to alter their acts."
In 1999, state officials asked Stevenson to set up the Florida Springs Task Force, and charged it with recommending strategies to protect and restore the complex system of springs that discharge more than 19 billion gallons of freshwater each day.
The task force was founded the same year Gov. Jeb Bush took a highly publicized canoe trip down the clear Ichetucknee River, fed by springs at Ichetucknee Springs State Park, north of Gainesville.
With reporters in tow, the governor vowed to protect the state's precious natural resources, although a controversy soon erupted over plans to build a cement plant nearby. The plant was eventually built, but the state required additional environmental safeguards to protect the area.
But elsewhere, troubled springs exist. Florida State University researchers said Sulphur Spring, in Tampa, could be a "poster child for Florida's diseased springs."
Sulphur Spring once was one of the state's most glamorous springs. Two generations ago, locals and tourists flocked to swim in the crystal-clear waters of the springs, which flowed at an estimated rate of 100 million gallons a day.
But now, the spring's flow has declined to 20 million gallons a day as it has fallen victim to urban development that destroyed nearby wetlands, said Gordon Leslie, a geologist with the Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Agency.
Before scientists were able to discover the connection between the spring and its network of nearby sinkholes, which funnel freshwater to the springs, builders had used the sinkholes as drains for water, trash and construction debris.
Stripped of its shady grace, it is a murky greenish color, and so severely polluted that the city built a new concrete swimming pool directly beside it rather than try to clean it up enough to accommodate bathers.
"It has been a victim of the old ways of doing things," Leslie said.
"Nowadays, rules don't allow that sort of thing," Leslie explained. "That's the difference between the '20s and '30s, versus 2000. It's gotten a lot better; the new way is a lot better."
He said the City of Tampa is trying to correct some of the causes of Sulphur Spring's distress, such as building stormwater ponds north of the spring to filter urban runoff, and unclogging sinkholes so they might resume their role as conduits for clean rainwater.
That's exactly what the state's $2.5 million Florida Springs Initiative is seeking to do in rehabilitating troubled springs.
Mike Bascom, the chairman of the springs task force, said local involvement is key.
He urged those trying to aid troubled springs to be creative when looking for help, tapping assistance from local boards and bodies, water management agencies, even individuals that might contribute manpower.
One volunteer group, "The Springsbusters," cleaned three 3,000-pound boulders from Bluebird Springs and tons of trash from its surrounding Citrus County park.
"The springs are a traditional point of pride in Citrus County, and folks want to protect and enjoy them, and preserve them so their kids can enjoy, them, too," said Gary Maidhof, a member of the springs task force and director of the Citrus County Department of Development Services.
The state in 2002 provided money for a restoration project at Fanning Springs, part of Fanning Springs State Park, in Levy County, which was showing declining water quality.
Too much foot traffic knocked sediment into the spring, and eroded native plants that anchor soil to the shoreline, said Sally Lieb, manager at Manatee Springs State Park, 10 miles south of Fanning Springs, who supervised the project.
The solution was to build a boardwalk to keep foot traffic away from the edge of the spring, remove tons of rock and sand from the water, and replant damaged vegetation. The park also has added improved septic systems to keep restroom waste from polluting the spring.
Officials believe the cost of the improvements - more than $375,000 - was worth it to protect an important environmental and economic resource.
In a report to the task force, Florida State University professors calculated four Florida springs alone - Homosassa, Volusia Blue, Ichetucknee and Wakulla - created an average economic impact of $17 million each year to the counties where they are located.
The benefits of what environmentalist Marjory Stoneman Douglas poetically termed "bowls of liquid light" is also something Floridians should consider when they ponder the future of their local springs, Bascom said.
"Whole lives of families grew up around the springs. It's an important piece of their history. Once you lose that, it doesn't come back."

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