What will become of springs?
Published: Saturday, June 23, 2012 at 5:31 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, June 23, 2012 at 5:31 p.m.
OCALA — Memory. The word that resonated most on Saturday at Silver River State Park was “memory.”
Bob Graham has a childhood memory of Silver Springs, where abundant fish and the sandy river bottom were visible from glass-bottomed boats. Florida’s former governor and U.S. senator wants his grandchildren, and their grandchildren, to have similar memories.
Twelve and 20. The numbers that resonated most on Saturday at Silver River State Park were 12 and 20.
Silver Springs’ flow will stop in 12 years, by conservative accounting, and within 20 months if the worst models prove true, according to Charles Lee, of Audubon of Florida.
The word “memory,” these numbers and those speakers met receptive ears at “Speak Up: Silver Springs,” a daylong forum that attracted several hundred people. The goal was to educate people about Florida’s natural resources and encourage them to influence public policy makers so that Silver Springs, and all Florida’s springs, can enjoy a brighter future.
Hanging in the air with the humidity, and almost going unmentioned by name, was a project that has invigorated local environmentalists and no doubt inspired some of them to attend the forum.
Several miles east of Silver Springs, land is being prepared for a new cattle ranch that wishes to draw up to 13.2 million gallons of groundwater per day.
The developer cites scientific studies to show that such a water draw wouldn’t harm Silver Springs, and that the spring’s ailing flow levels are not attributable to development.
Judging from their reactions, most people at the park on Saturday didn’t agree.
Along with lightning and love bugs, few things are more reliably present in North Central Florida than battles over water.
Government and water management districts restrict lawn watering, often to the chagrin of homeowners. Experts warn of saltwater intrusion into the drinking supply, a worry that has turned to reality in Cedar Key.
Elected leaders fear water transfers from North Florida to Central and South Florida. And environmentalists worry that unencumbered development puts unrelenting pressure on the state’s springs and other waterways.
All those things weighed heavily on the minds of the speakers who braved the muggy air and attended Saturday’s forum, which was presented by the Florida Conservation Coalition in partnership with the park, the Silver River Museum, the Silver Springs Alliance and the Marion County Springs Festival Committee.
On the program cover, organizers printed a provocative suggestion: Imagine a Florida Without Water.
Lee, from Audubon, can imagine it. He encouraged attendees to go have a look at the Silver River — before it’s too late.
In the past 12 years, he said, Silver Springs’ flow has dropped from 800 cubic feet per second to 250 cubic feet per second. At that rate, the flow could cease altogether in as soon as 20 months or as long as 12 years.
“We are in danger of losing that spring completely,” he said. And since the Silver River is interconnected with other waterways, any damage would have significant direct and indirect effects.
To fend off Chicken Little-styled dismissals, Lee cited Kissengen Springs near Bartow, which dried up in the 1950s. The first stress signs presented themselves only 15 years before that spring dried up, he said.
Lee blamed Floridians’ “addiction” to lawn watering. He blamed water management districts for not using the latest, most reasonable rainfall estimates. He blamed municipalities and the water districts that allow them to draw too much water.
He also blamed, or at least cautioned against, one person: Frank Stronach.
Stronach, a Canadian businessman, is developing Adena Springs, which will include a grass-fed cattle ranch and meat processing plant on thousands of acres in Fort McCoy.
Stronach’s team argues that the operation won’t hurt Silver Springs, and that the flow reductions to which Lee refers are the result of an undefined event that is not related to rainfall or development.
Stronach has personally pledged to prevent damage to water resources, even if that means cutting back on water usage. He said he wanted to be a good corporate citizen.
But Lee wants Gov. Rick Scott and the St. Johns River Water Management District to oppose the cattle ranch’s request for a consumptive-use permit. Drawing 13.2 million gallons of water a day, he said to applause, “could well be the last nail in the coffin of Silver Springs.”
Graham, who was the day’s first speaker, also referenced the cattle operation.
After receiving a standing ovation — the applause just a bit louder than that bestowed upon the guys who set up fans inside the speaking tent — Graham mentioned his agricultural background, which includes a family cattle business.
“I can’t imagine” why a cattle operation would need as much water as Adena seeks, he said to hearty cheers.
Graham told the hundreds of people in the audience that they are the “front line of the protectors” for Florida’s water resources. He encouraged them to apply common sense — and to encourage their elected leaders to do the same.
Why do people move themselves and their businesses to Florida? “It’s not because of our beautiful strip malls,” Graham said. To neglect our waterways is to harm not just our environmental future, but also our economic present.
“If we screw this up, we have killed the goose that laid the golden eggs,” Graham said.
Lee Constantine, a former state senator, also emphasized the economic angle. The state’s success depends on protecting natural resources, he said, calling for “enlightened self-interest” instead of dewy appeals for beautiful vistas.
Like Graham, Constantine treasures childhood memories of Silver Springs. “We, as Floridians, have an obligation to protect our culture and to protect our heritage,” he said.
By 10:30 a.m. Saturday, the parking lots at Silver River State Park were almost full. People wore green T-shirts from the Silver Springs Alliance, green T-shirts that encouraged people to “Ask me about slime,” and green stickers that asked others to “fight slime crime.”
The shaded, leafy grounds, still a bit spongy after recent rain, were covered with guests checking displays from St. Johns Riverkeeper, St. Johns River Alliance, Friends of the Wekiva River and similar groups. Tucked inside a pavilion was a group of student researchers from Vanguard High School’s IB program.
Joyce and Frank Gamache, from Ocala, got a front-row seat to hear Graham and the other speakers talk about action and energy and memories. “This is certainly building awareness,” Frank Gamache said.
The couple moved to Florida from Manchester, N.H., in 1981. Their son, John, was just 2 years old. Ocala became home, and the importance of its environment became apparent during many boat trips down the Silver.
Now John is grown. On Saturday he joined his parents and hundreds of their like-minded fellow citizens at the forum.
“We raised him on that river,” Joyce Gamache said.