Robert Knight: Black clouds still loom over Silver Springs
Published: Sunday, February 3, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, February 1, 2013 at 8:41 p.m.
Silver Springs has been the subject of considerable attention for the past year. Last spring, Silver Springs' flows were plummeting to a record low and nitrate contamination was at an all-time high.
The proposed Adena Springs Ranch was requesting a permit to withdraw an additional 13 million gallons per day from the aquifer feeding Silver Springs. The ranch was also planning to put 30,000 cattle with a manure production of about 2 million pounds per day in the spring's groundwater recharge basin.
More than 1,700 local citizens attended a “Speak Up: Silver Springs” rally at the Silver River State Park to hear keynote speaker and former Governor and Senator Bob Graham call for enforcement of existing laws to protect the quantity and quality of water at Silver Springs.
One year later, Silver Springs' flows are still less than half of their historic average and nitrate concentrations are more than 30 times higher than their pre-development levels. But for the first time in years there is blue sky showing through the dark clouds swirling above Silver Springs.
In response to the public's massive opposition, Adena Springs Ranch reduced their requested groundwater extraction by 60 percent and their number of cows by 42 percent.
Even with these concessions, staff of the St. Johns River Water Management District still found the revised Adena permit request insufficient and requested a mountain of additional studies to prove that this industrial farm would not harm the area's surface and groundwater resources.
The district's governing board held four public workshops to learn more about the threats facing Silver Springs. District staff have requested a greatly increased budget for springs monitoring and protection.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection proposed and finalized a numeric nitrate standard for Silver Springs that requires regional efforts to reduce nitrogen loads to the groundwater by 79 percent. The department kicked off public workshops that will eventually lead to finalization of a basin-wide management action plan to achieve this water quality goal at Silver Springs.
And perhaps most exciting to long-time Silver Springs observers, the department's parks and recreation division rolled out an interim plan to eliminate the last private tourist attraction at Silver Springs. The plan would replace it with a customer- and environmentally-focused state park that promises to end commercial exploitation of the headspring area.
These events are all good news and may preview a bright future at Silver Springs. In a more perfect world, it would appear that Silver Springs might be on course to regain its status as the biggest and most productive spring in Florida.
But black clouds still darken and reflect the green hue of this damaged natural wonder. Continuing foul weather is still in the spring's forecast, likely for decades to come. Concerned citizens should be considering what they can do to be ready for a rough period before Silver Springs is eventually returned to its former health.
Public vigilance and a healthy share of skepticism are the best protections against the continuing degradation of Silver Springs.
True restoration of Silver Springs will likely require the following regional efforts:
A permanent reduction of existing groundwater extraction throughout North and Central Florida to less than 50 percent of today's rates.
Elimination or major reduction of all urban/suburban uses of nitrogen fertilizers.
An incentive-based program to shift agriculture from water- and nitrogen-intensive crops to managed forests.
Upgrades to all regional wastewater treatment facilities and replacement of many septic systems by central treatment facilities.
Restoration of the Ocklawaha River to allow unimpeded migration of fish and manatees up the Silver River.
An informed and energized public that has easier access to Silver Springs through the new state park and the ability to recognize and oppose threats and celebrate successes.
This is an exciting time in the long history of Silver Springs. One of the wonders of the natural world, Silver Springs has the chance to turn the corner from more than 50 years of regulatory neglect and decline to a future of recovery and protection.
Silver Springs can serve as an allegory for all of Florida's natural wonders. Either it can go the way of the ivory-billed woodpecker and Carolina parakeet, or it can be returned from near extinction like the brown pelican and the bald eagle.
The future of Silver Springs is a choice that will be made by the actions or inactions of our generation.
Robert L. Knight is founder and director of the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute, a nonprofit group dedicated to supporting springs science and education.