Low flows of Santa Fe River, springs a concern
Published: Saturday, June 9, 2012 at 7:52 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, June 9, 2012 at 7:52 p.m.
HIGH SPRINGS -- Jim Wood looked out at what used to be a river and spotted a glass bottle. He stepped down and used a pole to retrieve it from the muck. At least, he joked, the Santa Fe drying up made it easier to clean.
From the dock of Wood's business here, the Santa Fe Canoe Outpost, the river has been barely moving recently, and its depth is the lowest he has seen since buying the outfitter in the 1980s.
When he bought the company, the water came about 50 yards farther inland, up to the lot where the canoes are stored.
Now, he said, “It's like a swamp.
“What a difference 20 years make.”
Like the Santa Fe, springs in the area also are flowing the weakest they have since data started being collected in the early 20th century.
One reason is the severe drought the region has been in for the past few years. But academics, officials, the environmentally conscious and river-goers are grappling over the impact human consumption has had on the water table and what needs to be done to keep that in check.
At a time when the water supply is stressed, the Florida Legislature has fiscally gutted the state's five water management districts and imposed more oversight over their spending, making their difficult charge of balancing growth and preservation that much more arduous.
But there has been no indication from the districts covering North Central Florida — the Suwannee River and St. Johns River water management districts — that more pumping permits won't be granted, though an effort is beginning to require the largest water users — farms — to monitor what they are pumping out of the ground.
A few weeks after Wood was on his dock bemoaning the condition of the Santa Fe, the river was covered in a green algae, a byproduct of the low water levels and nitrates from lawn fertilizer seeping into the aquifer.
“We keep pumping more and more out of the ground,” Wood said. “I'm afraid we're going to kill the goose that laid the golden egg.”
Lowest flows, levels ever?
Poe Springs has been closed to swimmers for the past four months as Alachua County builds a new retaining wall and steps around the swimming hole.
But the severely low flow out of the spring is threatening to keep the park closed even after construction ends because, if it stops flowing, bacteria could develop there, said Chris Bird, director of Alachua County's Environmental Protection Department.
“It looks like an abandoned swimming pool,” Bird said recently.
On May 23, the flow was down to 0.59 cubic feet per second, according to data from the Suwannee River Water Management District, which includes western Alachua County. On Monday, it was at 0.26 cubic feet per second.
In May 2005, it was measured at 74.6
“We know where it's going,” Bird said. “It's going to zero.”
Some springs in the region already are there.
Hornsby Spring, at Camp Kulaqua off U.S. 441 south of the Santa Fe River, stopped pumping weeks ago, said Phil Younts, the camp's executive editor.
Traditionally, the senior class at Buchholz High School takes a trip to the spring at the end of the school year, but the Class of 2012 had to go elsewhere.
Younts said the spring stopped flowing once before that he knows of, in 2002 and 2003 during the midst of the last drought.
Bird said he can't recall Poe Springs ever stopping.
“In terms of recorded measurements, no one has recorded it stopping,” he said. “I'm not aware of any old-timers who remember it stopping.”
Flows in other springs such as Gilchrist Blue, Treehouse and Columbia have all dropped considerably in recent months, according to data from the water management district.
Wood said that because of the low water levels and lack of flow in the Santa Fe, paddlers who put in at his dock would end up spending three hours to take what is normally an hour-and-a-half trip down the river because they would have to get out of the canoes and walk in parts.
Lars Andersen, who owns Adventure Outpost, another outfitter in High Springs, said the river was “as low as I have seen it,” which is prompting concern among residents and officials.
“That combination of the visual evidence and the hard information is really getting people's attention, fortunately,” Andersen said. “Though it's hard to say what the remedy will be, at least short term.”
How much is being pumped?
Part of the water issue is that it's not entirely clear how much is being pumped every day.
The water management districts issue consumptive-use permits, setting the maximum amount of water a permit holder can withdraw in a day.
But large farms and ranches, which officials say use the majority of the groundwater that is pumped from the aquifer, aren't required to monitor their withdrawals.
A proposed 25,000-acre project being planned in Marion County called Adena Springs Ranch has filed an application with the St. Johns River Water Management District to pump more than 13 million gallons of water per day from the aquifer to feed the 30,000 cows that eventually will graze on the property.
Environmental groups have expressed concerns about the impact the ranch would have on the already-depleted Silver Springs nearby.
Jon Dinges, the director of water supply and resource management at the Suwannee River Water Management District, said the lack of monitoring of agricultural users has left a “data gap” for engineers who are trying to determine exactly how much is being drawn — and whether the biggest users are overdrawing.
“If you don't know what your water usage is or has been, it's very difficult to predict what it will be,” Dinges said. “It's important information in normal rainfall years or drought years.”
He and other staff from the district recently met with ranchers discussing plans to begin requiring monitoring of their usage.
During a meeting Friday in Gainesville of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services' recently formed Agricultural Water Policy Advisory Council, state officials said they are working to formulate a long-term projection of agriculture's water needs.
Rich Budell, director of the Office of Agricultural Water Policy, said that task will not be easy. He said many farmers might not know what crops they will be growing four years down the road, and factors such as rainfall are difficult to predict.
That discussion also focused on the state's ongoing effort to have uniform statewide rules for all water withdrawal permits, including those for agriculture, and potential incentives to promote conservation on agricultural properties.
Pumping's effect unknown
David Richardson, the assistant general manager for water and wastewater systems at Gainesville Regional Utilities, said residential usage has dropped in the past few years because of conservation efforts and an uptick in xeriscaping, the practice of using plants in lawns that don't require irrigation, unlike the ever-popular St. Augustine grass.
Overall pumping in the utility's system has gone up and down since 2005, according to GRU data, going from 25.52 million gallons a day in 2005 to 27.21 million in 2007 to 24.59 million in 2011.
Richardson said the current drought conditions have exacerbated the issue, as farms will pump more water than normal to make up for the lack of rainfall.
Still, he said, it's unclear how much of the water issues are from the drought or from pumping.
“The hard part is teasing out what is driven by the climate and what is driven by pumping,” he said.
Megan Weatherington, a senior engineer at the Suwannee River District, said data to answer that problem isn't available, save for a study indicating that pumping had an impact on the Ichetucknee River.
“The reason the springs are low is because we're in a drought,” Weatherington said. “Pumping effects can make it worse, obviously, but there is no science right now, aside from work on the Ichetucknee, that can say it's a 1 percent impact or 10 percent or 50 percent. Those numbers do not exist.”
Still, there are people who would like to see the districts stop issuing permits for the time being.
Last month, the Suwannee River Water Management District's governing board passed a water-shortage order that will limit homeowners to watering their lawns once a week while still allowing golf courses to water their greens and tees every night.
Later that day, members of a nonprofit group of concerned residents, Our Santa Fe River Inc., applauded the step at a meeting called to discuss the state of the river.
But they made it clear to Charlie Houder, the acting executive director of the district, that they thought his agency could be doing more.
Asked whether the district planned a moratorium on issuing water-use permits, Houder said it didn't and that such a move isn't necessary at this point, adding it would be more disruptive than it would be good.
“Disruptive to whom?” a woman asked.
Demand down, water stress up
Wendy Graham, a water resources professor and director of the Water Institute at the University of Florida, said current conditions are largely because of the drought but that pumping has exacerbated the strain on the system, which in the past could handle a rain shortfall.
Graham said that while water demand on municipal utilities such as GRU has tended to go down over the past decade, as conservation pushes have become more widespread, the landscaping and farming needs have continued to put stress on the system during the drought.
“We're pushing things toward the edge,” she said. “As our water use goes up, we need to be smarter about how we use the water.”
Robert Knight, the director and founder of the H.T. Odum Florida Springs Institute, said the fact that droughts have come and gone before but Poe Springs and the Santa Fe River haven't been in such bad shape in recent memory indicates there is more at play than a cyclical climate.
“It's not a direct measurement of the groundwater level, but it's a pretty good indicator of it,” Knight said. “It's just too much pumping, and it becomes really obvious during a drought.”
Knight recently gave a presentation about the state of the Santa Fe to the Alachua County Commission, and while he said he appreciated some commissioners' interest in the issue, he said it wasn't necessarily up to them to fix the problem.
That responsibility, he said, rested with the water management districts. Or was supposed to.
Christopher Meindl, an associate professor of geography at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, has been following the districts and how the Legislature has handled them in recent years, and his graduate students now are examining how Tallahassee has made changes to their budget processes.
Meindl said some could rightly be critical of the water management districts for being stacked with board members who were builders and ranchers who weren't tough enough on the water issue.
But, he said, the Legislature is chipping away at the power they did wield.
In 2011, lawmakers cut their budgets by roughly 40 percent.
Earlier this year, the Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott approved Senate Bill 1986, a measure that meant legislative leaders would have to approve the water management districts' budgets each year.
To Meindl, that smacked of, at best, overreach as Florida's voters, in the 1970s, created the districts to independently collect property tax revenues to be spent on water projects around the state.
“We have this half-decent infrastructure set up with water managers,” he said. “I think one of the biggest threats to water supply and the state of water generally is the disregard — the contempt almost, it seems to me — with which state leaders hold water management districts.”
Beryl offers little help
Last month, Tropical Storm Beryl swept from the Atlantic Ocean over Jacksonville and west over the Panhandle, dumping between 4 and 6 inches of rain on the area.
At the meeting at Poe Springs about the slime-coated Santa Fe, rain left over from the storm fell to the ground around the pavilion. It was a welcome reprieve, from the heat and the drought.
Days later, though, officials and river observers said they hadn't seen much uptick in water levels or flows since the rains, the heaviest in months.
Staff reporter Christopher Curry contributed to this report. Contact Chad Smith at 338-3104 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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