Editorial: Save our springs

Published: Sunday, December 1, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, November 29, 2013 at 11:49 p.m.

North Florida's natural springs have long showed signs of distress.

White Springs, a tourist attraction for Hamilton County as far back as the 1830s, went dry more than two decades ago.

In Alachua County, Poe Springs started turning green about 15 years ago and last year stopped flowing for the first time in living memory.

The Sun's ongoing series, "Fragile Springs," includes numerous other examples showing our springs are in serious trouble. Yet some experts, mainly from the water management districts, make the tired case that diminished flow from the springs and related problems are simply due to a lack of rainfall.

It seems clear that they and other environmental regulators in the state will blindly continue allowing people to pump water from and dump nutrients into the ground until it's too late. It's going to require public pressure to save our springs. The steps are going to be difficult and fought by well-funded interests.

Agricultural interests will fight changes to the way they irrigate and fertilize crops and dispose of waste from livestock. Utilities will fight restrictions on their permits to pump massive amounts of groundwater.

In the end, we're all at fault for the sorry state of our springs. Most of us have acted like having lush green lawns are our birthright. We drink milk from the region's dairies without giving thought to whether it's a good idea to locate such operations above the area's limestone terrain.

We've watched some of the region's biggest tourist attractions, such as Silver Springs in Marion County and Ginnie Springs in Gilchrist County, decrease in flow and increase in nutrient-fueled algae. Yet most of us quietly sit back as our regulators allow massive amounts of groundwater to be pumped at the same time more waste is produced.

The latest egregious example, Adena Springs Ranch in Marion County, is seeking permission to pump 5.3 million gallons of groundwater per day for 30,000 head of cattle that will each produce about 150 pounds of manure per day.

Gainesville Regional Utilities is seeking a 20-year groundwater permit to pump an average of 30 million gallons per day. The utility has taken some steps to curb local water use, but not enough. Local efforts must also be made to limit fertilizer use and encourage native landscaping.

On the state level, springs legislation being considered for the next session can't be the toothless funding of endless studies. Changes must be made in the water-permitting process to better protect both water quality and quantity. Dairies, septic tanks and wastewater treatment plants must be held to higher standards.

Thankfully, The Sun's series comes as public advocacy and information efforts are already underway. Now those efforts need to be translated into a lobbying campaign that overcomes legislative reluctance.

Perhaps lawmakers won't be convinced by the fact that this region's natural jewels are being destroyed. Perhaps even the economic argument that springs drive tourism isn't enough.

But it should be harder to dismiss the argument that the springs reveal the damage being done to the aquifer that feeds them. Unless we come to grips with the fact that we're draining and polluting our drinking water supply, then there's no hope for us or our springs.

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