Independent Researchers Fight to Save Florida’s Springs

As the sunlight fades over Adventure Outpost, a small shop along Highway 441, Lars Anderson returns his paddles, kayaks and canoes to their proper place after leading travelers down the Santa Fe River.

Anderson, who wears a brimmed hat and speaks with a Florida accent, says he spent his childhood in Gainesville and explored the springs whenever he could. These days, he leads tours along 60 different waterways in North Central Florida, and he gives three to four tours in a typical week.

“I just want people to have a great time with nature,” he says. When Anderson isn’t managing his shop, leading tours or writing travel guides, he studies conservation issues affecting the springs. “The future looks pretty grim with Rick Scott and the likes,” he says, closing his shop for the night. “There are people [in power] who want to ignore science in favor of their own short-sighted agendas.”

Anderson, who serves on the advisory board of the Florida Springs Institute, does whatever he can to educate others. Working groups throughout the state have gathered a solid collection of data, which indicates over-pumping, nitrate pollution, and irresponsible land use. They’ve also presented solutions. The next step is action, which at this point is lacking.

“With legislators standing in the way, people are sitting at these working groups, coming out with all this great research,” he says. “But the solid action is up against a brick wall. We’ve reached a low point in recent decades.”

Since 2001, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) spent up to $2.4 million each year on its Florida Springs Initiative program, which sought to identify problems facing the springs and solve them through research, education, outreach and restoration. The initiative also funded working groups, which brought together shareholders to better understand the issues associated with individual springs.

This year in July, state administrators abruptly ended funding for the Florida Springs Initiative. As a result, four of the most established working groups, which focused on Silver, Rainbow, Wakulla and Ichetucknee Springs, have been discontinued. A three-year contract to maintain the working groups and write restoration plans for each of the four springs has been prematurely terminated.

Florida’s leaders spent up to $24 million to keep the Florida Springs Initiative running throughout its ten-year existence. Comparatively, Florida has at least 900 artesian springs, known for their clarity and vibrant color, which contribute more than $300 million to the state economy each year through recreation and eco-tourism.

A small group of springs in central Florida, which includes Ginnie Springs, the most popular freshwater diving spot in the world, generates $10 million a year for surrounding communities. One local dive shop saw visitors from 46 different countries. Ichetucknee Springs, which includes a famous pool where children get baptized, generates $23 million in visitor spending each year, including $5 million in wages for local workers.

“We won’t have a strong economy if we have a weak environment, and that’s been proven throughout Florida’s history,” said Bob Knight, 63, director of the Florida Springs Institute. Knight began studying Florida’s springs more than 30 years ago. He worked under the mentorship of the late Howard T. Odum, the world’s first ecologist to document the flow of energy through aquatic ecosystems. His famous study, published in 1957, focused on Silver Springs.

Knight continued Odum’s work for decades, documenting changes over time in multiple springs throughout Florida. Silver Springs, the largest spring in the country, lost 30 percent of its output since 2001. Ichetucknee and Rainbow Springs lost 15 percent each, and countless others are close to drying out completely. Almost every spring in Florida connects to the Floridan aquifer, where the state gets 60 percent of its usable water.

“We need to reduce the amount of water we’re pumping out of the aquifer,” Knight said. “Water management districts are beginning to recognize this, but they’re still giving out permits for additional groundwater withdrawals. They’re handing them out like candy.”

Where does all the water go? Over 1,500 golf courses exist in Florida, more than in any other state, and the number is growing each year. Combine that with about 3 million suburban lawns, which soak up nearly half of the public water supply. Then there’s industrial agriculture, which the Florida DEP lists as the second most prominent force depleting the aquifer.

Laws exist limiting the amount of permits granted by water management districts based on the concept of minimum flow levels, defined as the amount of water that can be drawn from the aquifer without significantly harming springs and other natural bodies of water. Determining minimum flow levels is a scientific process, but the issue has been politicized, which opens the floodgates for reckless behavior.

“It is likely that [almost] every major artesian spring in Florida… experiences declining flows as a result of human consumptive uses,” Knight wrote in 2008. “By the time flow reductions become obvious in springs, they are often so great that significant ecological values and functions have already been lost.”

To make matters worse, the statewide use of nitrogen fertilizers causes nitrates to enter the groundwater, contaminating the aquifer and spreading outward into the springs. Knight said Ginnie Springs is an exceptional example, with a nitrate concentration 30 times higher than what should naturally occur.

Nitrate pollution triggers the growth of filamentous algae, otherwise known as “noxious algae,” which clouds the water, blocks sunlight, and decimates native plant life. As a result, all the animals higher up in the food chain — fish, turtles, birds, and otters, to name a few — begin to die off as well.

In regions of North Central Florida where artesian springs are common, groundwater nitrate concentrations have increased from natural levels of 0.02 parts per million to widespread concentrations of more than 1.0 parts per million (that’s 50 times higher), according to estimates from 2008. Knight pointed out that 50 percent of the biomass in Silver Springs has already been overtaken by noxious algae.

“The leaders of Florida are in denial that there’s a problem,” he said. “They say they’re dealing with it, but they just give out more permits. And the permits go against current laws, but nobody is challenging them. Because what you have to challenge is a very rich machine that is benefiting from these groundwater withdrawals and pollution. You have people that are benefiting at the expense of the whole public, and the public is not organized, aware, or well-funded enough to do anything about it.”

Knight wrote in 2008 that the Florida Springs Initiative had “contributed to a much better understanding of the springs and the problems they face” but that current levels of funding were “inadequate to turn the tide away from continuing degradation.” Two years later, instead of increasing efforts to protect the springs, state administrators slashed them from the budget completely.

“It sounds like the sky is falling and, you know, it actually is,” Knight said. “We really do have springs that are drying up. There are holes in the ground where there used to be flowing springs.”

In the face of recent setbacks, Knight is taking matters into his own hands. He started the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute last year, which aims to expand on the work of the Florida Springs Initiative, with or without state funding. Knight is both director and founder, and he’s in the process of gathering staff. Since the 1950s, Odum imagined a research center in Silver Springs, but nothing ever came of it in his lifetime. “It’s sort of a dream Dr. Odum had. We had it together, and I’m starting it now.”

An egret swipes a fish out of the water at Ichetucknee Springs (photo by Henry Taksier). All ecological and economic facts in this story, unless otherwise cited, are based on the most recent estimates from the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute.