$10M set aside for springs stirs hope and discussion


A woman snorkles in the basin of Ginnie Springs in 2004.

Alan Youngblood/Staff photographer/File
Published: Monday, May 27, 2013 at 5:36 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, May 27, 2013 at 5:36 p.m.

When Mark Wray took ownership of Ginnie Springs in 1971, its crystalline waters were picture perfect.

But like the rest of Florida's springs, patches of algae have since clouded over some of the waters, making parts seem more like a moat than a sanctuary.

The demise of Florida's springs is an old problem, and for years, various solutions have been batted around among environmental activists, legislators and scientists.

Last week, state government might have signaled a willingness to dive into solving the host of problems in the springs by assigning $10 million out of the budget to springs protection for efforts such as improving water quality, reducing nitrate levels and conserving water.

"We have a lot of projects in house that we know can help the springs," Florida Department of Environmental Protection press secretary Patrick Gillespie said.

Lawmakers and experts also are reviewing various counties' projects on restoring the springs, he said. Lawmakers will meet with officials from the DEP, the water management district and, possibly, the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to work out the details. "Our goal is to get the best bang for our buck and stretch that $10 million to benefit the most springs throughout the state," Gillespie said.

On paper, this bodes well for the decades-long battle to restore the springs to health, but in practice some of the players entrenched in the fight, such as Wray, say other issues need to be solved at the legislative level before that money can be put to good use.

"No money is going to do any good if we don't have maximum daily load numbers for nitrates and basin management action plans," Wray said. "We need accurate models and serious science to support an action plan that's realistic about our goals for having a healthy ecosystem."

Lesley Gamble, a partner in the "springs eternal project," a collaborative effort among scientists, artists and activists to promote and protect the springs, added that the nitrate levels for all springs — mainly from large-scale agriculture, leaky septic systems and animal waste — greatly exceed healthy levels.

"We need to think about having the right kind of agriculture in the right kind of places," Gamble said. When dairy farms were relocated decades ago from South to North Florida, he explained, they were put in "unconfined" areas where the karst geology that typifies much of North Central Florida with its porous texture has allowed chemicals from fertilizers to seep into the aquifer that supplies most of the springs.

Wray agreed that a cap on commercial agricultural activity would be a step in the right direction. Instead, water districts "are issuing agricultural permits when springs and rivers are already struggling for flow and quality," he said, adding that recently two new vegetable farms have been licensed to operate on properties adjacent to Ginnie Springs.

Beyond the aesthetic and ecological ruin this agricultural activity is costing the springs, it's also spoiling the water we drink, Wray continued.

"We're all drinking this. Everyone in this county (Gilchrist) and in Alachua County is drinking this," he said. "It's just absurd."

Karen Ahlers, an environmental activist in Gainesville, said breaching the Rodman Dam, which was built half a century ago during construction of the ill-fated Cross-Florida Barge Canal, would be the "biggest bang for your buck that could be done" to help save the springs and other bodies of water.

"It would be to the benefit of the entire St. Johns River Basin, including the Oklawaha River and Silver Springs," Ahlers said.

Silver Springs, outside Ocala, could be a prime beneficiary of the Legislature's spending, Sen. Charlie Dean, chairman of the Environmental Preservation and Conservation Committee, said recently. Dean said Silver Springs was at the top of his list of "doable" springs for improving water quality.

Ahlers said algae-eating fish populations in Silver Springs declined 90 percent after the construction of the dam.

"They could be doing a lot to improve the ecology of the spring that has been in steady decline for 40 years when these natural migratory paths were blocked," she said.

For her part, Gamble is also a water lover and diver who's disheartened to see the slimy water and loss of species and plant diversity up close.

"It's happening in less than a span of a generation. It's happening fast," she said.

Contact Kristine Crane at 338-3119 or kristine.crane@gvillesun.com.

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