Robert Knight: Significant harm


Published: Sunday, June 30, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, June 28, 2013 at 7:44 p.m.

The Santa Fe River and its tributary, the Ichetucknee River, delineate the border between Alachua, Columbia, Gilchrist, Putnam, Suwannee and Union counties. They are "waters of the state," a phrase that connotes their common ownership by all state residents.

As a concerned citizen living on the north side of Alachua County, in May 2007 I participated in the development of regulatory limits on the amount of flow reduction the upper Santa Fe River could tolerate. My comments to the Suwannee River Water Management District can be summed up succinctly — this upstream river segment was already adversely affected by too much groundwater extraction.

This was evident by increasing periods without baseflow in the upper and lower river; Santa Fe Spring, a former first magnitude spring, was only flowing episodically during flood events; and the district's data indicated a long-term flow decline at the U.S. 441 bridge of about 40 percent.

Nevertheless, the district staff and their consultant held a single public meeting in the little town of Lake Butler and steamrolled the adoption of minimum flows and levels (MFLs) that allowed an additional 15 percent harm to the flow and ecology of the upper Santa Fe River.

Within three years, additional studies determined that the upper Santa Fe River MFL was already violated, resulting in significant ecological harm to the resource. However this revelation did not slow the issuance of new groundwater pumping permits. Subsequently, no efforts to effectively alleviate the depleted flows in the upper Santa Fe River have been instituted since that error was exposed.

Last week, the Suwannee district issued its draft recommended MFLs for the lower Santa Fe River and Ichetucknee Springs. In January of last year, the Florida Springs Institute concluded that the total flow in the lower Santa Fe River had declined by 50 percent since 1968 and that the average collective flow of the 36 named springs along this portion of the Santa Fe River had declined by about 35 percent.

In combination with excessive nutrient pollution during recent dry spells, much of this stretch of the Santa Fe River has become a stagnant, foul, algae-filled channel, unfit for wildlife or humans.

While the downstream-most springs like Ginnie and Devils Eye still flow during these dry spells, all of the upstream lesser springs lose all or most of their flows. Poe Springs, once Alachua County's crown jewel, essentially dried up in 2011 and has back-flowed black water into the depleted aquifer repeatedly since then.

I was somewhat comforted when I saw that the district has concluded that the flows in the lower Santa Fe River are already reduced beyond the point of significant harm. This is obvious to all regular users of this portion of the river. However, as with the upper Santa Fe River, development of a recovery plan in no way will assure recovery to the former average flow.

The ecology of the lower Santa Fe River will continue to be harmed as long as the district refuses to substantially reduce existing groundwater withdrawals.

As part of the same MFL setting process, the district has decided that the flow in the Ichetucknee River is also approaching the level that constitutes significant harm.

In August 2012, the Florida Springs Institute documented reduced flow conditions in the Ichetucknee River, finding that flows have been below critical levels for several decades, largely due to excessive groundwater pumping in the district and as far away as the Jacksonville area.

In combination with extreme nitrate pollution, it was concluded that the Ichetucknee River is already severely impaired.

As Outstanding Florida Waters, the Santa Fe and Ichetucknee rivers are legally protected from any form of water quality degradation. Reduced flows create and exacerbate water quality violations in springs and spring-run rivers and should not be tolerated here or anywhere else.

The water management districts, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services are well aware of what actions need to be taken to alleviate the ongoing destruction of these springs and rivers. These problems will not be solved until our state agencies reduce the amount of groundwater pumping and the tons of nitrogen fertilizers being spread over North Florida.

These agencies will not admit their complicity in this tragedy and take responsibility for returning these water bodies to their former health unless we all demand that they do so.

Please visit www.floridaspringsinstitute.org to learn more about the restoration needs for these rivers and springs and to find out what you can do to have your voice heard.

Robert L. Knight is director of the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute. Comprehensive restoration plans for both the Santa Fe River springs and Ichetucknee Springs can be downloaded from the institute's website.

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