If you think springs are back to normal, you're not paying attention


Published: Sunday, May 25, 2014 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, May 23, 2014 at 2:36 p.m.

It's Memorial Day weekend and all's right with our little green corner of the world.

The A/Cs are clicking on for the duration. The love bugs have yet to descend on us like a biblical plague. And the tubers are lining up in eager anticipation of that long, slow, amnesia-inducing summer drift down the cool, clear Ichetucknee.

Summertime and the living is easy. It has ever been thus.

Only my friend John Moran, nature photographer extraordinaire turned springs crusader, reminds me that it has not always been thus. It was just two years ago this week that the Ichetucknee looked like pea soup and the Santa Fe River was choked by thick algae-induced blooms that resembled nothing so much as the green slime in the "Ghostbuster" movies.

Gad, what a horrible summer that was. You remember the photos John and Leslie Gamble took. Thick wedges of algae hanging off their canoe paddles. The river looking like death itself.

Oh, it was the drought, to be sure. But then tropical storm Beryl put an end to the summer of our discontent, the green slime was flushed and the river and springs got back to "normal."

Funny thing, though.

We've had droughts before. Florida is known for prolonged wet-dry cycles. Years when lakes would vanish, years when rivers would flood.

But what I recall from droughts past is the spring-fed Santa Fe losing its tannic tinge and turning nearly crystal clear, not slime green.

So what's changed? Two things, really. For one, years of over-pumping has robbed the Floridan aquifer of its ability to feed the Santa Fe during the dry times with vigorous spring boils. And with reduced flows, all of the nutrient-laden junk we pour into the river — fertilizers and pesticides, livestock and human wastes — creates the perfect environment for toxic algae blooms.

And by the way, if you really think everything's back to "normal," you're not paying attention.

"I was on the Ichetucknee last week and the eel grass is covered with algae," Lu Merritt, of the Ichetucknee Alliance, told me.

Welcome to the new normal.

Call it a case of willful mass amnesia. We have simply chosen to forget about what was killing, not just the Santa Fe and Itchetucknee, but so many of Florida's rivers and springs during that summer of our discontent.

It was absolutely predictable that the Legislature would take no action on a much-touted springs bill this session past. With all of the big guns slicing it to pieces — cities and counties and utilities, Big Ag, the Chamber of Commerce and the Associated Industries — the bill never had a chance.

And, really, why bother? Lawmakers know there are no negative consequences for inaction. You can get thrown out of office for being "anti-jobs," but being "pro-pollution" gets you fat campaign donations.

I love what David Childs, attorney for the water and wastewater utilities lobby, told the online news service Florida Current, after the death of the springs legislation.

"There is a shared commitment to springs protection," Childs assured. "Be it the environmental community, business community, local government, etc., just because a particular piece of legislation dealing with springs failed to pass, it doesn't follow that there is a lack of commitment to springs protection."

Message: We care. No, really.

In the meantime it's water-wasting business as usual. The Suwannee River Water Management District, after years of delay, has finally set minimum flow levels (MFLs) for the Santa Fe River that basically guarantees plenty of water for all except, perversely, the river itself. The MFLs are a joke, which is why the Itchetucknee Alliance, the Florida Wildlife Federation and Earthjustice have filed an administrative challenge.

"The current rule is based on the false premise that everyone who now holds a consumptive use permit is not part of the problem," Alliance President John Jopling said recently.

Which, when you think about it, is pretty much what Childs said when he dismissed the death of the springs bill as a trivial matter indeed.

Hey, we're not part of the problem. None of us are.

Oh, and did I mention that it's summertime and the living is easy? How about a nice amnesia-inducing float down the Itchetucknee?

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun.

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