Water district to set minimum flows and levels for Silver Springs

From left, Aquaholics Paddlers Group Kayakers Phyllis Clark, (center) Trish Bergdoll and Carol Allen endure a chilly morning to enjoy the beautiful morning light near the headwaters of the Silver River in Silver Springs Florida in this January 13, 2011 file photo. The steamy scene occurs because the spring-fed river is a constant 72 degrees while Thursday's air was in the mid 20's.

Alan Youngblood/Staff photographer
Published: Monday, October 21, 2013 at 5:27 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, October 21, 2013 at 5:27 p.m.

Decades after lawmakers decreed that state water managers must determine the potential point of no return for Florida’s waterways, the state’s biggest spring gets its turn.

The St. Johns River Water Management District Governing Board voted last week to launch the process of establishing minimum flows and levels, or MFLs, for Silver Springs and the Silver River, which flows from the springs.

The process is expected to be completed next year, and when finished, St. Johns’ governors will have identified the threshold at which the springs and the river will suffer significant harm.

But some observers question whether the decision will offer any real protection to an already threatened icon.

MFLs help water managers decide when withdrawals in the watershed are excessive and need to be curtailed in order to the protect the waterway.

The process, district officials said, will also involve developing a strategy to help keep the waterway above its flow level, or enable it to rebound if it is already below that point.

Such steps could include a combination of heightening conservation efforts, finding alternative water supply sources and changing regulations.

“This marks the beginning of the rule-making process, but it is the culmination of years of scientific work by District staff,” Hal Wilkening, the district’s director of strategic deliverables, said in a statement.

Silver Springs and the river will be two of 16 waterways that the board will set MFLs for in 2014, St. Johns officials said.

The district’s pursuit of MFLs for Silver Springs and the Silver River comes 41 years after the Legislature passed the landmark water-management law directing that those levels be set for all of Florida’s surface waters, including springs.

Silver Springs also gets its review 21 years after St. Johns made its first MFL designations.

According to district staff, 123 waterways across St. Johns’ 18-county jurisdiction have gone through the MFL process since 1992.

That came about largely because of a lawsuit brought by a group in Putnam County who maintained, according to court records, that St. Johns had “ignored” the 1972 mandate, and as a result, local lakes and springs had dried up, or were close to doing so.

An appellate court sided with the group in a 1993 ruling, saying it was “undisputed” that the district had set MFLs for just two waterways in 20 years.

The district countered that the law allowed it to move at its own discretion — an argument the court rejected.

A settlement of that lawsuit led St. Johns to launch the MFL process for 46 lakes and springs between 1995 and 1999, a district report indicates.

And St. Johns begins the process for Silver Springs 17 years after Gov. Lawton Chiles issued an executive order directing water managers to develop the MFL priority list based on “the importance of the waters to the state or region, and the existence of, or potential for, significant harm.”

At the time that order was issued, according to St. Johns’ data, Silver Springs output was hovering near its historic norm, with fluctuations both well above and well below that mark in the ensuing years.

District officials first added Silver Springs to the priority list in 2001, with the process to be finished by 2004, according to a report St. Johns published last month.

That was delayed, however, and in 2003, when St. Johns released an update to its long-range water-supply assessment study, Silver Springs and the Silver River were supposed to make the MFL priority list by 2006.

That, too, was delayed.

In the report released last month, district officials explained that Silver Springs and Silver River were “re-prioritized” several times so water managers and the U.S. Geological Survey could work together to clarify the discharge data for the river.

Silver Springs is actually a system of 30 separate springs and 69 vents.

The two agencies apparently were trying to reconcile data recorded at the springs historic measuring site — about three-quarters of a mile downstream from the springhead — and the mouth of the river some five miles away.

St. Johns also wanted to coordinate with the Southwest Florida Water Management District, or Swiftmud, on drawing up MFLs for Silver Springs and Rainbow Springs, which is under Swiftmud.

Developing MFLs is welcome news to many who worry about Silver Springs, whose output has been dropping in recent years, relative to its historic level.

In November 2012, St. Johns released a report that indicated Silver Springs’ flow rate was on a clear downward trend.

For instance, the volume recorded in 2010 was less than 500 cubic feet per second in 2010, well below the historic average of 709 cubic feet per second, based on readings made annually since 1947.

Bob Knight, founder of the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute in Gainesville, said MFLs will accomplish little in protecting the healthy flow of water at Silver Springs.

Knight pointed out that St. Johns attributes most of the reduced volume to a combination of less rainfall and a proliferation of aquatic plant growth that clogs the river’s plumbing system and causes pooled surface water atop the springs from allowing the output to reach the surface.

Rather, Knight said in an email, the district is sidestepping evidence that shows the flow reduction is tied to groundwater pumping in the watershed.

“The district is desperately trying to deny the visible evidence that they have (issued) and continue to issue permits for groundwater pumping that are contributing to the significant impairment of Silver and other springs in north and central Florida.”

Andy Kesselring, president of the Silver Springs Alliance, said his group is still trying to understand St. Johns’ findings and its concepts for the springs.

At this point, he described his members — Knight is on the board of the alliance as well — as “happy” that St. Johns has taken this step, but also concerned that more protection might be needed.

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