Do lawmakers know or care that our springs are dying?

Published: Sunday, March 10, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, March 7, 2013 at 11:48 p.m.

On the day we all gathered at the river to worry about water, we were warned not to we touch the stuff.

The water, I mean.

It was Tuesday and maybe 150 of us had met at Otter Springs, on the banks of the Suwannee River. Bob Knight, director of the Howard T. Odum Springs Institute, had convened a summit to talk about why Florida — arguably the world's epicenter of fresh-water springs — had very few healthy, free-flowing springs left.

(Full disclosure: I was one of the panelists, in which capacity I rambled on about the toxic mix of water and politics; a tirade that is not worth repeating here.)

As it happened, the Suwannee was in flood stage, and Otter Springs had been drowned in the famed river's tea-colored waters.

Which we weren't supposed to touch, thanks to a sewage spill that had occurred upriver, in Georgia.

"If you have been in contact with the river water," a story in The Sun cautioned that very morning, "health officials urge you to wash your hands thoroughly before eating or drinking."

Which was a shame, really.

Because we don't need Georgia's help to pollute our rivers and springs.

We are perfectly capable of doing it ourselves, thank you very much.

Just ask Mark Wray, whose family has owned Ginnie Springs, on the Santa Fe River, for more than four decades.

"There are no plants living in our springs," he said. "I've never seen our springs look this way in 40 years ... There's nothing but algae."

Or ask Lars Anderson, who makes his living guiding canoe and kayak tours on spring-fed rivers all over north Florida. He talked of spotting dead trees and palms "as far as the eye can see" on Crystal River, victims of salt-water intrusion and decreased spring flow.

"We're seeing the impacts on every river I do," he said. "It's heartbreaking."

Or ask Helen Miller, mayor of White Springs, population 775. In an earlier century, her tiny town was Florida's original tourist attraction, with 14 hotels to accommodate the Yankees who arrived by train to partake of the presumably healing waters of its sulfur springs.

Now it's not just the tourists who have gone missing. So has the spring, a victim of the excessive groundwater pumping that enables distant Jacksonville residents to keep their lawns nicely watered and green.

If Jacksonville ever runs out of groundwater, she said, it can fall back on desalination from the ocean.

"But what about us?"

What plagues Florida's springs — and its rivers for that matter — is no great mystery.

Overpumping of the aquifer has dramatically reduced spring flows. And nutrient contamination, mainly due to lawn fertilization, agricultural runoff and septic tanks, is killing the vegetation that once added color and biological diversity to our crystal clear springs.

The degradation of our springs is real and measurable. And yet our water management districts continue to issue new pumping permits, even though the districts have no real idea about how much water is already being pulled out of the aquifer.

"How can you continue to write checks when you don't know how much is in your checking account?" wonders Jim Stevenson, a former Florida Park Service official.

What's missing from the ongoing discussion about the fate of Florida's springs and rivers is any particular sense of urgency, especially in Tallahassee.

State environmental regulators talk about remediation plans that will be decades in the unfolding. Meanwhile, solutions that might have a shorter payback period — restrictions on lawn fertilization, a ban on septic tanks in the springsheds, metering on all water withdrawals, tighter agricultural fertilization mandates, tougher conservation measures a moratorium on new consumption permits and so on — are deemed too politically risky or too expensive.

"We don't have a water supply problem," said Katie Tripp, president of the Save the Manatee Club. "We have a water addiction problem."

On the day we gathered at the river to talk about water, we were told not to touch the stuff. Meanwhile, a hundred miles or so to the north, legislators were kicking off their annual legislative session, cashing campaign checks harvested from special interest lobbyists ... and drinking their water from expensive little plastic bottles.

Do they even know that our springs are dying?

Do they care?

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun.

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