Madness in the Spring

I visited De Leon Springs in western Volusia County for the first time recently and, as with most ventures into “Old Florida,” was struck by the uncomfortably close quarters between “nature” and “nurture.” Whether it’s the DMZ that separates the Everglades from the patios of Pembroke Pines, or the sprawl of suburban bungalows that border the manatee haven of Blue Springs, the proximity of Florida’s vaunted natural environment to its suburban contours is the very model of uneasy coexistence. Perhaps that’s why you hear the term “Old Florida” used interchangeably to refer to the state’s exquisite environmental treasures and the 1960s-era development that snuffed it out.

De Leon Springs encapsulates this fraught relationship, starting with the park’s entrance sign, a painting of Ponce de Leon with a bathing beauty on his arm and the words, “Nature’s Cameraland.”

The park itself is a tribute to good intentions, and is in some ways a refreshing throwback to a simpler time. The natural springs has been transformed as it would never be today, shaped into a large, circular, concrete-rimmed pool, and surrounded by a manicured green lawn. A 500-year-old cypress tree, dubbed Old Methuselah, towers a short distance away, off an asphalt nature trail. Oh, and if you’re craving pancakes? The “Old Sugar Mill” restaurant is on site, where pitchers of batter are sold for customers to self-cook on tableside griddles.

For the record, De Leon Springs is a swell family outing — weird, fun, beautiful. But it typifies a kind of natural encroachment that is anachronistic and vaguely unsettling. The magnificent thing has not been destroyed, but it has been changed, even harmed, as it’s celebrated. The same might be said of downtown Jacksonville’s imposing Treaty Oak (the salvation of which is a proud piece of local lore, but which is narrowly hemmed in by an unsightly parking garage), or of local beaches where driving is still permitted.

History matters in Florida, of course, and precedent. Even when there’s little question that tradition has done harm, undoing it is a long slog (witness Rodman Dam).

Pending threats are a different matter. After years of fierce drought and over-pumping of groundwater, some of the state’s springs are at 50 percent flow and exponentially more vulnerable to pollution. This is particularly true around Silver Springs, another great natural attraction imperiled by those who claim to love it. Already, the springs are polluted with fertilizers that breed algae, and the fear that the crystal clear water might turn into slime flows is very real. That fear has been compounded by a proposed permit to withdraw 13.3 million gallons of water a day for a 30,000-head cattle farm and slaughterhouse operation just a couple miles from the springs.

The proposed consumptive use permit — enough to service the entire town of Ocala — was sailing through the St. Johns River Water Management District until community outrage coalesced. Progress on the permit has slowed, but stopping it is another matter. The ranch has promised some 150 jobs, and Marion County officials are fairly salivating at the prospect. Which is proof, if such were needed, that county commissioners make lousy environmental stewards.

Destroying an iconic natural springs system in a vacation destination like Florida seems shortsighted, at best. But the permit isn’t just a recreational concern. The springs are a window into the Floridan Aquifer, which is where 90 percent of the state’s drinking water comes from, and which (water planners assure us) will already fall far short of servicing future demands. Like a lot of Florida’s “wild” places, Silver Springs has endured a heavy human footprint. But a tipping point has been reached. Any more pressure, and it will be crushed.

The Adena Ranch permit is the focus of a discussion in Jacksonville this week hosted by the St. Johns Riverkeeper and featuring Dr. Robert L. Knight of the Florida Springs Institute, who has studied Silver Springs since 1979. The discussion is held on May 15 at 6 p.m., at Hyatt Regency Riverfront, downtown. Admission is free. For more information, go to stjohnsriverkeeper.

Anne Schind

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