Springs’ Cloudy Future

Large amounts of pumping and livestock pollution are choking what used to be Florida’s gems


John Moran is known for his love of natural Florida expressed in his stunningly beautiful photographs.

When Moran moved to Gainesville in 1973 to attend the University of Florida, he began "seeking out these pools of stunning blue wonders that are the springs of Florida."

Moran wrote about them for his exhibit of photos, "Springs Eternal: Florida's Fragile Fountains of Youth." The exhibit, currently running at UF's Florida Museum of Natural History, features 88 photos of Florida springs by Moran, including a 20-foot-by-60 foot photograph of two manatees.

Over the years, Moran has seen the 
dark side that a growing Florida has had on its springs.

"And yet 500 years after the arrival of Ponce de Leon on his mythical search, our real magic fountains are imperiled by pollution, neglect and the groundwater demands of a thirsty state," Moran wrote.

"Once a source of awe, our springs are a source of deep concern, their future unclear."

Moran has stunned environmentalists with a lecture, during which he shows his before and after pictures of Florida springs. The before pictures depict awe-inspiring beauty, while the after pictures display the same springs years later, degraded and clogged with green slime.

Silver Springs, known for its glass-bottom boats and the movies and television shows filmed there, just east of Ocala on S.R. 40, has become the poster child for what is wrong with most Florida springs.

Fish have vanished; algae cover much of the springs floor. Water flowing into the spring has been diminished, while nitrate levels have soared. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection has called for a 79 percent reduction in nitrate concentrations in Silver Springs and Silver River.

A 2004 study showed the majority of nitrogen loading to Silver Springs came from livestock waste and commercial fertilizer.

In its present state, Silver Springs is dying, and its future could depend on decisions by water regulators in Palatka, who will soon determine whether to allow a cattle ranch near the historic springs to withdraw more than 5.3 million gallons of water a day to raise 15,000 cattle.

Lack of clean water flowing into the area, overuse of resources, bacteria, algae, excessive fertilizer use and inadequate treatment of human and animal waste are the roots of the problems at many of Florida's 1,000 springs, said St. Johns Riverkeeper Lisa Rinaman, who heads the nonprofit agency to protect the St. Johns River.

"Our springs are the canary in the coalmine to our aquifer," Rinaman said, adding that the health of Florida's springs is "a window to our aquifer and we should all be concerned."

She estimated that two-thirds of the springs here are polluted with nitrates, and have problems with water flow caused by too many water permits.

"If we pump too much water, we have no springs. If we pollute the water, no one can use them," said Jim Stevenson, former chairman of the Florida Springs Task Force.

Near Silver Springs, Adena Springs Ranch wants to open a cattle ranch and a slaughterhouse. It first asked for more than 20 million gallons of water a day, then cut it to 13.2 — now it's seeking 5.3 million gallons per day.

"It is ludicrous to remove that much water from the springhead of Silver Springs," Stevenson said.

Rinaman also worries about the gallons of urine and tons of feces produced by 15,000 head of cattle. According to the USDA, the average head of beef produces 59.1 pounds of manure each day, meaning 15,000 head would be producing more than 885,000 pounds of manure each day.

Honey Rand, communications coordinator for the proposed ranch, issued a statement saying, "Adena Springs Ranch has been moving diligently through the permitting process. Our permit has had an unprecedented review, and we've made substantial changes. Our goal remains what it always has been: to create jobs, create a superior product and protect the environment at the same time. We continue to work with the District and are committed to bringing the process to a successful conclusion."

Teresa Monson, a spokesperson for St. Johns River Water Management District, said that in late 2012, the district began a Spring Protection Initiative that combines regulatory programs, water supply planning, science and projects to reduce nitrate loading and protect spring flows.

Among the facts discussed by district staff are that springs flows are tied to rainfall, water quality has degraded in recent years, submerged aquatic vegetation may be slowing water flow into Silver River, and significant reductions in nitrates will be needed to restore healthy springs.

Robert Knight, president of Gainesville-based Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute, a nonprofit that is also fighting the Adena Springs Ranch permit, said Silver Springs is on life support.

"Silver Springs is not healthy, and its vital signs are not improving," Knight wrote in a Dec. 30, 2012, Ocala Star Banner op-ed.

"Average flows at Silver Springs during the past decade are reduced 32 percent, compared to the average of the previous 70 years, and down 50 percent during the past years," he wrote. "The once-clear water, verdant plant community and abundant fish populations of Silver Springs are now all visibly degraded and disappointing to any visitor who remembers the way the springs once were."

Bringing more pollution to Silver Springs to "subsidize a billionaire cattle rancher" is disturbing, Rinaman said. She was referring to Frank Stronach, who lives in Canada and Austria. He recently donated $1.5 million to the University of Florida to establish the Frank Stronach Plant Science Center at UF's research farm in Citra.

Monson said the Adena Springs Ranch request is making its way through a process that has been going on since last year. The developer has been asked several times for additional information.

"The political reality is monumental. A lot of people are making a profit using that water and using that much fertilizer," Knight said.

"What we are seeing is an acceleration of the problems," said Knight, who added that he plans to draft legislation requiring people using large amounts of water and fertilizer to pay an aquifer protection fee and use that money to protect water supplies.

"It has a snowball's chance in hell," he said, about the approval of such legislation by the Florida Legislature.Over the last few years, many of Florida's best-known springs have dried up and are no longer producing clear waters.

Cynthia Barnett, author of two books on water, "Blue Revolution" and "Mirage," and Stevenson prepared a list of springs that have dried up.

Fenholloway Springs and Hampton Springs in Taylor County have dried up because of paper mill withdrawals. Kissingen Springs in Polk County and White Springs in Hamilton County have gone dry because of phosphate mining and urban use in Duval County and agricultural use in Georgia.

Union County's Worthington Springs has gone dry from pumping. Suwannee Springs in Suwannee County and Jefferson County's Buzzard Spring have stopped flowing.

Before the springs stopped flowing, many of the areas had hotels and health spas that now sit empty.

"All these ex-tourist destinations are gone," said Rinaman.

Stevenson said there are only two pristine springs remaining in Florida — Gainer Springs and Cypress Springs — both in the Panhandle.

"There is no agriculture, and few people, in their springheads," he said.

Stevenson said it's possible to save Florida springs, and he mentioned the $10 million appropriated by the Legislature as a good start.

"It requires state and local agencies working together to accomplish it," he said.

"Spring protection is complicated, which means that there are lots of influential foes," Stevenson explained. "Our leaders like the simple solution that can be completed within a four-year political cycle."

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