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Fragile Springs

Exploring Florida's natural resources

Clear, temperate water flows through limestone channels beneath North Central Florida, rising to the surface to form scores of springs that sustained early natives, amazed European explorers and delight us today – but this may only be a memory in a generation or two.

The threats are well known: diminishing flows and pollution, largely from nitrates found in fertilizers and animal waste. Our elders who grew up in this region can see how these natural wonders have degraded. Our leaders seem to lack the political will to restore our springs while there is still time.

Over more than six months, the staff of The Ocala Star-Banner and The Gainesville Sun has documented the state of our springs, examined the threats and investigated solutions. We present this work in stories, photographs and videos here.

Alan Youngblood / + Caption

Our bubbling natural waters are under attack

On U.S. 27 in Lafayette County between Branford and Mayo, numerous signs point the way and the distance to Troy and Convict springs, two bubbling holes where the chilled water provides adventure for scuba divers and a refreshing dip for everyone.

Brad McClenny

Sprinklers spray a black sludge substance on corn crops at a dairy near Fort White on June 14, 2013.

That stretch of U.S. 27 is also dairy alley — Lafayette County is one of Florida’s biggest milk producers. People making their way to the cavernous blue springs can see — and smell — brown goop shooting out of large, powerful sprinklers.

Scientists with the state Department of Environmental Protection, the Suwannee River Water Management District, the University of Florida and other agencies have blamed cow manure, the nutrient-rich waste, as a primary culprit, along with fertilizer overuse, in the degradation of the region’s springs.

Springs and the aquifer from which their water boils up are under severe stress, and water experts say the consequences could be considerable to the economy, the cost of water and the health of springs that have been drawing humans to the natural fountains for eons.

“I think we are trying to do the right thing, but it is a complicated problem,” said groundwater hydrologist Wendy Graham, director of the University of Florida Water Institute. “Engineering fixes aren’t going to be enough. We’ll have to get farmers to change, homeowners to change. Everybody will have to change their practices.”

Scientists say it is not too late, that the aquifer can be replenished and that the nutrients from agriculture fertilizer, sewage, manure, sprayfields and lush green lawns can be cut.

But the potential solutions are costly and politically difficult — a tax on fertilizer, stricter regulations on fertilizer use, mandated reduction of water usage, alternative sources of water, limits on the amount of water that utilities can draw from the aquifer, engineered projects to channel stormwater to sinkholes for direct infusion of the aquifer.

Among the skeptics is Jim Stevenson, who is the former chief biologist for the Florida Park Service and former chairman of the Florida Springs Task Force.

Springs and the aquifer from which their water boils up are under severe stress, and the consequences could be considerable.

“The political will has not been there,” Stevenson said. “Like in so many other issues, the bottom line is money. The farmer, the businessman — they don’t want to pay more money to correct their own waste. If each business, if each agency, just took care of their own waste, the problem would be solved.”

At a very basic level, the two main threats to the springs are excess pumping of groundwater and excess nutrients from the land that flush into the aquifer or directly into the springs.

Like the old spiritual song “Dem Dry Bones,” the components that make up a spring system — the aquifer, sinkholes, rivers — are as connected as legs and hips and necks and heads.

And they are going dry.

Water heavy in sulfur that used to bubble up from White Springs and flow into the Suwannee River not far downstream from its origin in Georgia made the spring and its namesake town in Hamilton County one of Florida’s first tourist attractions.

People bathed in the spring to soothe their bones. An elaborate structure on which visitors lounged and promenaded was built around it.

Video: Aerial view of White Springs

Brad McClenny

The Spring House over White Springs is flooded by the swollen Suwannee River at the Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park in White Spring, Sept. 13, 2013.

The springhouse is now within the Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park. An estimated 47 million gallons of water a day used to flow from it, but the spring itself is now all but dry — and many residents along with some water scientists have said Jacksonville is to blame.

Utilities along the coast have sucked more and more water out of the aquifer to quench development. Data show declining groundwater levels in a plume from Jacksonville southwest.

A graphic projection of future water use in a report by the St. Johns River Water Management District had been dubbed the “Big Blue Amoeba” — a blob depicting depleted groundwater from the coast to inland areas.

The report predicts that by 2030, growth in the Jacksonville area will cause a drop in groundwater in parts of Alachua, Bradford, Putnam and other counties.

Water consumption from utilities in St. Johns County is projected to increase 600 percent from 1995 to 2030. In 2011, the county used an estimated 60.47 million gallons of freshwater a day. Clay is projected to increase 233 percent. In 2011, it used an estimated 24.89 million gallons of freshwater a day.

Meanwhile, Gainesville's water consumption averages about 26 million gallons a day, according to Gainesville Regional Utilities, which pumps from the Floridan aquifer at its Murphree Wellfield on Northeast 53rd Avenue. Consumption is projected to increase to 29.6 million gallons a day by 2030.

Al Canepa, assistant director of the St. Johns district’s Division of Water Resources, said the projections for Duval, Clay and St. Johns counties might be overstated because the recession slowed development.

Brad McClenny

Dr. Ann Shortelle, the executive director of the Suwannee River Water Management District, takes photos as she canoes on the Santa Fe River during an educational paddling tour for Florida legislators and their staff put on by the Suwannee River Water Management District near High Springs, June 13, 2013.

Canepa is heading the district’s effort with the Suwannee district to develop a joint regional water supply plan aimed at ensuring enough water exists to maintain ecosystems such as springs by setting the minimum water flows and levels needed by the rivers and springs.

The regional groundwater model should be done in mid-2014, he said.

At some point, it’s likely that alternative sources of water — desalination of salt water, for instance — will have to be developed for human use even with increased water conservation and greater recharge through engineering.

“The fundamental purpose of the water supply plan is to look at your supply, your current use, projected use and can that be met sustainably without any significant environmental impact to groundwater. If the answer is no, part of the plan is to identify other sources of water,” Canepa said. “There is a sustainable limit, and it is going to be different from place to place. There is a point where, if you withdraw more water, you are going to cause impacts that you don’t want to have.”

It’s not just utilities that are tapping the groundwater. Agriculture is already a major user, and more water is sought.

In Marion County, a permit application to use an average of 5.3 million gallons a day by the Adena Springs Ranch — a grass-fed cattle operation — has been debated for several years.

Environmentalists have said taking that much water out of the aquifer will deplete not only groundwater but also nearby Silver Springs. The St. Johns district has requested more information about the project before deciding on the permit.

Alan Youngblood

Algae is seen underwater at Troy Springs in Branford, Fla., on April 3, 2012.

Meanwhile, nitrate levels in many springs are rising. Fertilizer and waste from people and animals are the cause.

When farmers use more fertilizer than crops can absorb, the excess can make its way into groundwater. Manure from dairies and chicken farms can seep down. Dairies and chicken operations generally try to contain and then dispose of manure through sprayfields or other measures.

But the quest for green lawns also plays a role, as does human waste from faulty septic systems and from sprayfields of utilities.

A dye study by the state DEP several years ago showed the labyrinthine connection between Rose Sink south of Lake City and Ichetucknee Springs about six miles away. The city of Lake City’s sprayfield is adjacent to Rose Sink.

The Florida Department of Environmental Regulation will give $3.9 million to the Suwannee district’s Ichetucknee Springshed Water Quality Improvement project, which is designed to achieve an 85 percent drop in the amount of wastewater nutrients the city of Lake City discharges into the river, according to a district news release.

Lake City’s sprayfield will be turned into wetlands, which will help reduce nitrogen loading and improve the water quality of the Ichetucknee River and its springs.

So why are nitrates bad? In levels 10 milligrams per liter, they can cause health problems in people — infants below the age of 6 months can die. In levels of .35 milligrams per liter, they can cause health problems in springs.

Too much algae grows, killing off the eel grass and tape grass that are the habitat from which life springs in the springs. If the grass goes, the fish go. So do turtles, otters and other life in and along the water. The algae can cause skin rashes to swimmers.

Brad McClenny

Floating algae at Manatee Springs State Park in Chiefland on July 10, 2013.

Scientists including Graham and Stevenson say nitrates can be reduced through better treatment of waste and through the use of less fertilizer.

“The average cow, I’m told, produces 128 pounds of waste per day. That waste has to go somewhere, and it’s soaking down into the ground to the aquifer and then flowing to the springs,” Stevenson said. “Dealing with human waste is one of the top priorities, and that includes septic tanks. Fertilizer is a huge problem.”

But nitrates might not be the only problem.

Visualize an aquarium without snails and sucker fish. It quickly becomes a mess of algae.

Alexander Spring in the Ocala National Forest is among the state’s lowest in nitrates. Yet it is also filled with algae.

Matt Cohen, a professor at the University of Florida School of Forest Resources and Conservation, has been working on a hypothesis involving oxygen and the grazing of algae by snails.

Heavy pumping has lowered the water table, potentially robbing the springs of shallow water that is more rich in oxygen. The lack of oxygen is at least one factor leading to a reduction of snails.

Fewer or less healthy snails reduce grazing pressure on algae, allowing it to reach nuisance levels. So even a spring with low nitrate levels is in danger of being overrun by algae when snails are reduced. Meanwhile, springs with high nitrates can have a healthy grazer population and little algae.

More research is being done, but the connections between oxygen, water levels, snails and algae show how complicated the aquifer/springs systems are — and how difficult it will be to improve the ecological health of the springs.

Alan Youngblood

Instructor Mike Thompson, looks over Catfish Hotel with his students Elugina Vega and his son Emanuel Vega, 14, after a training dive at Manatee Springs State Park in Cheifland, Fla., on July 17, 2013.

Incidentally, preliminary data from Cohen and others suggest that simply putting snails back in a spring with the stringy lyngbya algae won’t work. They won’t eat it once it’s established.

“All scientific stories are incomplete. There is no way we know the whole story. There may be a very important link between the nutrient enrichment and the ecological changes in the springs, but our data suggest that can’t be the whole story,” Cohen said. “What we have essentially come to conclude is that the things that eat algae are probably as or more important than nutrients in terms of regulating how much algae grows in a particular place.”

Regardless of the volume of algae in a spring, the nitrate volume of .35 milligrams per liter is the standard needed for springs to be a class-3 water under the state’s water classification system. Class 3 is water safe for swimming, boating and fishing.

Graham said few springs meet that classification. She said changes in agriculture, residential and other practices could reduce nutrients, but she questions whether .35 milligrams is attainable.

If it is to be attainable, she said, the way of life for North Central Floridians will have to change substantially.

“I really think our desires for cheap food, clean water, green lawns and low taxes are not going together very well. We have to think as a society about how do we balance our needs and our wants and our pocketbooks,” Graham said. “I do think the public is concerned. Whether they know what it takes to get where they want to go, I’m not sure about that.”

Alan Youngblood / + Caption

Diving into history of Florida's springs

Throughout this year, the state of Florida has been celebrating the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Juan Ponce de Leon, the Spanish explorer credited with discovering and christening the state.

George Barker

This is an 1886 photo by George Barker from the Library of Congress. Title: "Steamboat approaching dock, view from the Morgan house, Silver Springs, Florida."

As Florida has marked the occasion, it’s also become fashionable among the history-minded set to point out that the legendary quest tied to de Leon’s expedition — the hunt for a fountain of youth — was an utter fable.

Sources as varied as the website, the Smithsonian Institute’s magazine and the Florida Historical Society have written that de Leon was here for other reasons.

“What Ponce is really looking for is islands that will become part of what he hopes will be a profitable new governorship,” J. Michael Francis, a de Leon scholar at the St. Petersburg campus of the University of South Florida, told “From everything I can gather, he was not at all interested or believed that he would find some kind of miraculous spring or lake or body of water.”

The myth, however, is so enduring that up in Holmes County sits the town of Ponce de Leon, a burg of 556 people that is home to Ponce de Leon Springs — a source of fresh water and recreation for European settlers since at least the 1820s, for Native Americans long before that and even for today’s visitors to the namesake state park at the site.

De Leon’s intentions aside, tying his name to a spring pumping out 14 million gallons of water daily helps make clear that the history of Florida is closely associated to the history and usage of these unique waterways.

Pumping to feed a thirsty populace has depleted the flow of many springs, while pollution has robbed them of their clarity.

Harley Means, assistant state geologist for the Florida Geological Survey’s geological investigative section, said most Florida springs developed 20 million to 25 million years ago.

They are, essentially, large sinkholes.

Millions of years ago, once the seas had sufficiently receded to expose the Florida peninsula to rainfall, the slightly acidic rainwater ate away at the limestone landscape, Means said.

The voids created by that action subsequently reached a depth where the groundwater beneath pushed through the earth’s surface.

Almost all of the state’s springs are located north of Interstate 4, Means said, because that part of Florida is richest in the karst terrain that holds limestone.

And the history of the springs continues to evolve, Means noted.

Much like new sinkholes continue to open, the chasms from which existing springs sprang continue to grow with each new rain.

“It’s imperceptible on a human scale, but in geologic time, it’s a constant process,” Means said.

Alan Youngblood

This is an undated photo of Ross Allen feeding a large alligator at the Silver Springs Attraction. Allen had the Ross Allen Reptile Institute at the Silver Springs attraction in the 1950's and 1960's where he milked rattle snakes for their venom and did reptile shows for tourists along with reptile and alligator research.

What also has been constant, for at least the last 12,000 years, is human reliance on the springs, said Scott Mitchell, executive director of the Silver River Museum in Silver Springs.

Archeologists have uncovered tools and weapons around springs across North Florida that date to the end of the last Ice Age, he said.

“As long as there have been people in Florida, they’ve been hanging around the springs,” Mitchell said.

“Springs have always been magnets for human habitation. If you live out in the woods and have to make a living, they are the place to be.”

Freshwater springs, he pointed out, were not just a source of water for the earliest Floridians, but also food and transportation.

Besides tools weapons and pottery, scientists have found remains of turtles, alligators, white-tail deer, otters and other critters that pre-historic people captured and ate as the animals ventured near the water, Mitchell said.

And in an distant age when wetlands were a lot wetter, Native Americans in dug-out canoes could travel far from home by launching from a springhead, Mitchell noted.

“From Silver Springs you could float down to Orlando or up to Jacksonville, and never have to get out of the boat,” he said.

The arrival of the Spaniards continued the process. Mitchell said 16th-century Spanish missionaries following in de Leon’s wake migrated to the areas inhabited by the Native Americans for the same reasons the Indians lived there.

Bruce Mozert

Florida's American Heritage River Images from the St. Johns Region, underwater promo shot at Silver Springs.

Dale Cox, a retired journalist writing at the website, notes that the most significant historical feature at Ichetucknee Springs, for example, is the Mission San Martin de Timucua, founded in 1608.

That mission, Cox writes, like others in Florida was home to Catholic friars sent to convert Native Americans to Christianity. The sites included a church, cemetery and a home for the priest.

“Springs were very clearly draws for early settlers and explorers,” Cox said in an email. “Almost all Florida springs, including Silver there in Ocala, are associated with a wide variety of prehistoric and historic sites.”

The march of time, and of new settlers to the Sunshine State, eventually meant tourists.

And springs were — and still are — a key destination.

Silver Springs is often credited as Florida’s first major tourist attraction, drawing as many as 50,000 visitors a year by the 1870s.

The journalist Edward King, who in 1874 published an account of his tour through the defeated Confederacy, called attention to Silver Springs during a steamboat journey down the Ocklawaha River.

“Silver Springs is certainly one of the wonders of the world,” King wrote. “The tradition that it is the ‘Fountain of Youth,’ of which the aborigines spoke so enthusiastically to Ponce de Leon, seems firmly founded.”

The city of White Springs, however, disputes Silver Springs’ claim to be Florida’s first tourist trap.

Bruce Ackerman

A historic photo of the Miss Paradise Park Pageant from the 1950s is shown at the Marion County Black History Museum in the Howard Academy in Ocala, Fla. on Aug. 15, 2013. Eddie Vereen managed the all-black park adjacent to Silver Springs beginning in 1949, when it was opened.

The Library of Congress has in its collection a picture of a four-story bathhouse built in the early 20th century around White Springs, in Hamilton County near the Georgia state line.

The caption for the artwork recalls that the spring was “recognized for its medicinal qualities by Indians, settlers and subsequent developers of this locale.” The building featured examination and treatment rooms, a concessions area and dressing rooms.

On its website, the city of White Springs maintains that the “healing powers” of the spring water, which was bordered by rocks covered with sulfur crystals, attracted visitors from as far away as Philadelphia as early as 1832.

That, in essence, made White Springs the first tourist destination in Florida, city officials claim.

Today, White Springs is more renowned as the home of the Stephen Foster Memorial Musuem and the annual Florida Folk Festival. That’s because the springs went dry in 1990.

Today, although tourists — divers, canoeists, swimmers and tubers — are still a key audience, it is the state of Florida that’s doing the beckoning.

Many of Florida’s best known springs — including in this region Rainbow, Ichetucknee, Manatee and Peacock — are in state hands, incorporated into the state park system.

The state has been acquiring them since 1949 and now owns 17 major springs, the Tampa bay Times reported last year.

Courtesy of Silver Springs

This is an undated souvenier photo piece, probably from the 1950's or 1960's, from the Jungle Cruise at the Silver Springs attractions.

Silver Springs joined them as part of the park system on Oct. 1.

Florida’s environmental regulators are doing so because the future of the state’s springs does not appear as glorious as their past.

Pumping to feed a thirsty populace has depleted the flow of many springs, while pollution has robbed them of their clarity.

In 2000, a special task force appointed by then-Gov. Jeb Bush noted that threatened springs were places where children were baptized, where towns were born and tourists came for healing.

Preserving them was vital for ecological and economic reasons, the panel concluded, in recommending a series of steps to reverse their decline.

“Each is a special place to someone, and each has a story,” the report said of Florida’s springs. “The implementation of the recommendations contained in this report will help ensure that Florida’s ‘bowls of liquid light’ will sparkle for the grandchildren of the children who play in Florida’s springs today.”

Alan Youngblood / + Caption

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Stories, photos, driving directions and more.

Alexander Springs

Before the invention of beach towels, cars or even paved roads, the prehistoric Florida culture known as the Timucuans nestled into the Alexander Springs area, in the southern part of the Ocala National Forest. The Timucuans used the waterway for survival.

Before the invention of beach towels, cars or even paved roads, the prehistoric Florida culture known as the Timucuans nestled into the Alexander Springs area, in the southern part of the Ocala National Forest. The Timucuans used the waterway for survival.

One thousand years later, the spring is still bustling with humans, but this time their needs are mostly recreational.

On a recent weekday morning, Gainesville residents Zac Williams, 49, and Mike Walsh, 25, lugged two paddles and fishing equipment from the waterway into the parking lot, past families with young children eagerly walking towards the constant 72-degree water.

Doug Engle

Sean DZ of Tampa, Fla., loads his canoe into the waters of the canoe run at Alexander Springs Saturday, Aug. 24, 2013, in the Ocala National Forest in Altoona, Fla., in Lake County.

The men had reached Alexander Springs park early that morning to canoe and fish, but didn’t catch any of the spotted sunfish, bluegill or largemouth bass that populate the fresh-water environ. Even if they did catch some bass, Willams practices catch and release.

“I like catching them, I don’t like eating them,” he said before driving out of the park.

Approximately 70 million gallons of crystal-clear water pump through the freshwater spring daily, making it an ideal place for snorkeling, scuba diving, swimming, canoeing and soaking in the natural world while camping, picnicking or hiking.

For guests looking to make more than just a day trip, Alexander Springs features a 67-unit campground that can accommodate tents and recreation vehicles up to 35 feet. Hot showers are offered, but the campground does not offer electrical, water or sewer hookups. The spring basin covers more than 29,000 square feet and can be as deep as 20 feet in the boil area, which gives an ideal habitat for rare aquatic invertebrates. It hosts the only known habitat for a species of cave crayfish and at least one species of endemic snail.

The springs starts near County Road 445 in Lake County and runs 10 miles into the St. Johns River at Stagger Mud Lake.

Gallery: Alexander Springs

Alan Youngblood

Joe Wallace and local residents explore Alexander Springs on May 11, 2013.

Alexander Springs Creek is mostly undeveloped and, unlike other springs, there are few human influences along its shoreline.

“It not only connects a rare association of sandhill, scrub, flatwoods, and swamp forests to the creek, it also attaches these ecosystems to each other, making the river corridor one of the most biologically diverse areas in the region,” said Ocala National Forest biologist Carrie Sekerak.

The biggest threat to the spring and its creek are non-native invasive fish, mollusks and vegetation that are coming from the middle of the St. Johns River basin and changing the area’s ecology.

While the park offers various modern comforts, ancient history is also highlighted by a plaque towards the side of the picnic area that asks guests to look into the forest in front of them and take a closer look at what appears to be an ordinary soil hill lush with vegetation.

The uphill gradient is identified as a midden, a remnant from Timucuan civilization.

Doug Engle

An Eastern Tiger Swallowtail rests on the muddy ground at Alexander Springs on Aug. 24, 2013.

A midden, which can be made up of snail shells, clams, fish bones, pottery fragments or a host of other items, were positioned by Native Americans around the outskirts of their villages, designed to be a garbage dump of sorts.

Just yards away from this largely unnoticed piece of history, Jennifer Fisher, 42, sat in a lawn chair next to Mariah Cross, 21.

“When I come, I’m here for a relaxed day,” Fisher said. “I’m here just to be lazy.”

The Pittman resident recalls visiting the spring once a week during the summer months for 40 years. She can recall seeing alligators in the water and her younger relatives learning to swim for the first time in the shallow, sloping watering hole. She also remembers a time when the roped-off swimming section was much smaller.

But overall, the spring has remained the same. “It’s been this way forever,” she said.

Fanning Springs

To look at Fanning Spring it is difficult to reconcile its blue-water beauty to an ugly truth — it is one of the most nutrient-rich springs in the region with a concentration of nitrates approaching unsafe levels.

To look at Fanning Spring, it is difficult to reconcile the beauty of its blue water to an ugly truth — it is one of the most nutrient-rich springs in the region, with a concentration of nitrates approaching unsafe levels.

The second-magnitude spring and its state park along the Suwannee River in Levy County draws thousands of visitors a year. They must pass informational kiosks along the walkways and boardwalks down to the spring that explain how actions on land — particularly the use of fertilizers — pollute the water.

Whether the knowledge seeps into visitors’ consciousness the way polluted water seeps into the aquifer is anyone’s guess, but water scientists say the spring surely will degrade more if steps are not taken to reduce fertilizer use or prevent the nutrients in it from reaching the water system.

Erica Brough

Flowers bloom around the walkways at Fanning Springs State Park on US 19/98 in Fanning Springs, Fla., August 9, 2012.

Nitrogen is used in fertilizer on crops. Excess nitrogen that is not taken up by the crops can make its way into the water system through runoff into surface water or by filtering into the subterranean labyrinth of limestone that forms the aquifer from which spring water boils up. Other sources of nitrates include septic tanks, sewage and manure from the many dairy or chicken operations in the region.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection said nitrate levels in Fanning approach 7 milligrams per liter. A level of .35 milligrams per liter is the state threshold for the growth of unhealthy algae, while 10 milligrams per liter is considered unsafe for drinking.

Like many other springs in the region, people have been living along Fanning for eons. Information from the Florida Park Service states that Paleo-Indian people first began drinking its water and eating its fish and animals 14,000 years ago. Several aboriginal sites have been found in the park.

White settlers eventually began moving to the region. A fort was built there in 1838 during the Second Seminole War. Later, a ferry across the Suwannee moved people and horses for years.

Erica Brough

Kyndal Brewington, right, and Cadance Atkinson, center, react to the cold water at Fanning Springs State Park on Aug. 9, 2012.

While the town of Fanning Springs did not grow much, the spring was a favorite spot to cool off for people from across the region.

“When we were kids, we’d all load into the back of the truck and go to Fanning Springs. It was fun and beautiful — just a fun place for us kids to go,” said Georgie Bethea Murphy, 79, who grew up on a Newberry farm. “It used to be free; then they started charging us kids a dime. There was really nothing else to do but go to the swimming hole.”

Murphy’s husband, Vann Murphy, is an avid fisherman who added that too much water is being pumped out of the aquifer, which is hurting the spring and river systems.

“Somebody needs to follow the money,” he said. “It seems like anybody who wants a permit (for water pumping) can get one. Florida had good water, but it’s going downhill every day.”

Fanning Spring also provides a livelihood for some businesses in the area. Fewer visitors means less income.

At the BBQ Shack across U.S. 19 from the park, many of the diners are people who are visiting the springs.

Employees say business drops when the Suwannee River floods the spring, and they say they fear the decline in water quality at the springs will drive visitors away, hurting the bottom line.

“In the summer, the people in the springs really help support us,” clerk Stacey Nygard said. “When it’s nasty, no one goes to the park. If the quality goes down more, it will have an impact on us.”

Erica Brough

Delaney Coleman of Palm Harbor snorkels at Fanning Springs State Park on Aug. 9, 2012.

DEP and the Suwannee River Water Management District are taking action to try to improve water quality at Fanning. More monitoring is occurring; a wastewater system in the park has been improved; and educational programs are underway.

Erich Marzolf, water resources division director for the Suwannee district, said efforts to get agriculture to use less fertilizer or better control nitrates will help.

Marzolf added that a better understanding of the problems in Fanning and other springs along the Suwannee, which will come in part through monitoring, will lead to more ideas for improvement.

“There are lots of places we can do things differently, and probably none of them are going to be the silver aha bullet that cures our problem,” he said. “You take a step here, a bite there. Use this tool. We need lots of different tools to address lots of little issues. We can make things better. I think that’s the first step — to turn around the progression of degradation and worry more about getting to the right target once we get on a glide path.”

Ginnie Springs

The first time Mark Wray stepped foot on the vast property known as Ginnie Springs that one day would become his own, he found a lot of garbage: cars, refrigerators, stoves.

The first time Mark Wray stepped foot on the property that contained Ginnie Springs — about 10 miles west of the town of High Springs — he found a lot of garbage: cars, refrigerators, stoves.

Gallery: Ginnie Springs

Brad McClenny

People swim in the main spring at Ginnie Springs near High Springs, July 6, 2013.

And the springs were covered in river water.

That was in 1971, when Wray’s parents had just bought the property from one of the largest landowners in Florida, named Ed C. Wright. Wray’s parents — Robert “Bob” and Barbara — were land developers in St. Petersburg, and they were looking for a weekend getaway.

It would take the Wrays a long time to transform the trash dump they found into the recreational haven the springs continue to be for many people.

“It literally took us years to remove all the garbage,” Wray said, adding that once the river water receded, they discovered the crown jewel of the property — the springs, themselves.

“They were pretty. How can they not be?” Wray said of his first look at the clear blue waters that seemed to bubble up from nowhere. He was 17 years old.

Now approaching 60, Wray is fighting to save the springs from demise due to environmental damage. The primary culprits, he says, are the property’s surrounding farms, which are contaminating the water with just enough fertilizers to kill the springs’ natural vegetation, which in turn wipes out the native fish and other wildlife.

Farm chemicals also have raised the springs’ nitrate levels to unhealthy levels, Wray said.

According to the DEP’s Florida Springs Task Force Report, “Agricultural operations and residential and urban development within the spring recharge basin have probably contributed to the trend,” adding that these could have a “serious impact” on the quality of the springs’ water.

High nitrate levels are not unique to the Ginnie Springs Group, which includes eight springs, but it might be more immediate, since two farms are just 1,500 feet from Ginnie.

"They’re gonna have to do a better job because at the end of the day we’re all going to be drinking this." - Mark Wray

However, Wray is quick to say he’s not “anti-ag.” “We just need to identify what things work in a karst environment,” he said. Karst geological environments are characterized by underground sinkholes, caves and conduits, creating an easy passageway for pollutants.

In August, the nitrate level in Ginnie Springs was 1.5 parts per million, which is four times the standard level of .35 for waters in the Florida Outstanding Waterway that the DEP designated as the healthy standard.

Five years ago, the level in Ginnie Springs was below 0.5, and the Department of Environmental Protection has said fertilizer is the reason for the increase, Wray said.

To test that theory, he had two monitoring wells placed next to the fields near Ginnie where fertilizers are used.

During planting season, nitrate levels rise and quickly make their way to the springs.

“You can’t put a filter on 250 million gallons a day,” Wray said, referring to the amount of water the springs pump into the Santa Fe River, which is about one third of its total water capacity.

“At some point we’re going to have to take a serious look at land uses in the spring shed.”

Alan Youngblood

Divers enjoy Ginnie Springs outside the cavern in High Springs, Fla., on July 18, 2013.

Another potential culprit is Watson Dairies, Wray said, where recent nitrate levels were as high as 40 parts per million-- about four times the level considered safe for human consumption, which is 10 parts per million--according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Some of those nitrates also find their way into Ginnie, Wray said.

“When it comes here, it’s not at 40, but it’s diluted.”

“What I’m trying to do is nudge a little to get the state and the DEP to look at these things.”

The DEP has outlined a number of actions to lower the nitrate levels in its Santa Fe River Basin Management Action Plan (BMAP), including implementing nitrate monitoring wells. It also advocates improving stormwater management and increasing wastewater reuse, according to DEP spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller.

For Wray, however, “They’re gonna have to do a better job because at the end of the day we’re all going to be drinking this. We’ve got to do what’s acceptable to Mother Nature.”

Ginnie Springs was opened to the public in 1976. Wray said his family felt obliged to do so, since people were entering anyway, running around in the woods.

“It was the right thing to do,” Wray said.

The Wrays built bath houses, paved a small road, cleared trees to make room for campsites and installed a water system and electricity.

“Whenever you open a place to the public, a lot goes with it,” Wray said. “The customers have kind of driven us to where we are today.”

Brad McClenny

Florida's American Heritage River Images from the St. Johns Region, underwater promo shot at Silver Springs.

Ginnie is now open year-round, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The entrance fee is $12 a day and $20 for camping.

Over the years, Ginnie developed a reputation for being something of the party springs, where college kids went on the weekends. A decade ago, Wray said he talked to fraternities at the University of Florida and other administrators about stricter cleanup measures, and today anyone who arrives at Ginnie gets a trash bag when they enter.

There are signs all over telling people to pick up their trash, and periodic clean-up crews. But Wray has preserved the springs’ relaxed atmosphere.

“(People) want the freedom to have a beer and light a fire,” he said. “Ginnie is kind of like camping was when I was a kid.”

It’s a common destination for Boy Scouts and school field trips, and three generations of families have come through.

“I get a lot of repeat business,” Wray said. “When you live in Central Florida, this is where people go to recreate.”

Ginnie springs is also a popular destination for divers, who come from all over Florida and around the world.

Dana Cloyd and her daughter Delaney, of Brandon, went diving at Ginnie Springs for the first time in July. As newly certified divers, they’d been told that it was the place to go. Dana Cloyd said that diving into the Devil’s Ear cavern was an incredible experience. The tannic water from the Santa Fe River merging with the spring water “was like a miniature aurora borealis,” Cloyd said.

“There was an incredible array of colors. People floating above us in tubes looked like haloes.”

Cloyd added, “The water is so pristine, and to have that clouded would be a horrible thing.” While newcomers to the springs are often amazed by the “clear waters” people who have been coming to them for years recognize the demise, Wray said, adding that many of his customers ask, 'Where’s the plant life, the fish?’”

Despite the environmental challenges, Wray is determined to preserve Ginnie Springs the best he can and keep it in the family. He has sponsored several studies investigating the causes of the springs’ demise.

Brad McClenny

People snorkel in the water of the Devil Spring System at Ginnie Springs on Sept. 14, 2013.

Wray made his permanent home at the springs in 1985, taking over management in 1990.

His two daughters, now 19 and 23, grew up at the springs, riding horses through the park and hosting friends’ birthday parties on the grounds.

Wray’s mother, Barbara, who turns 80 this year, still lives in a house next to the springs. Wray and his dog Wrav — his “shadow,” he said — monitor the grounds on a golf cart.

“We are not anywhere remotely interested in selling it to the state of Florida,” he added, despite many large offers.

“You’ve gotta have some place to call home.”

Ichetucknee Springs

At the foot of the Ichetucknee River is a sweep of yellow “swamp marigolds” that begin a 6-mile journey down a body of water that still mesmerizes newcomers for its plant and wildlife diversity.

At the foot of the Ichetucknee River is a sweep of yellow “swamp marigolds” that begin a 6-mile journey down a body of water that still mesmerizes newcomers for its plant and wildlife diversity.

But people who grew up paddling down the river remember when it was filled with so much vegetation that it was hard to paddle through the waters.

“The Ichetucknee I remember was algae-free and covered with eel-grass, and species of fish and snails that are gone now,” said John Jopling, president of the Ichetucknee Alliance, a group of about 150 residents who advocate and educate about the Ichetucknee.

“The sad part is the Ichetucknee is still in relatively good shape compared to our other springs.”

Gallery: Ichetucknee Springs

Brad McClenny

Jeff West, left, pastor of missions and evangelism at The Family Church in Gainesville, prepares to baptize Gerry Petrone in the Head Spring of the Ichetucknee River on June 22, 2013.

Eight named springs feed the river, with other smaller ones that are unnamed. The main spring, known as both the Head Springs and the Ichetucknee Springs, is where the water’s journey to the river beings.

And traveling down river is eye-opening to the sort of degradation increased nitrate levels and overpumping have caused to the spring waters and the ecosystem they support.

Ginger Morgan, the park biologist at Ichetucknee Springs State Park, points out algae on the grasses — a brown scum that makes the grass look coated in rust and gives the once cobalt blue waters a green tint.

“There comes a point when there’s so much algae it actually suffocates the plant. It can’t photosynthesize,” she said.

She also pointed out the abundant cattails on the water’s edge. “Some people say it’s an indication of increased nitrate levels. We’re seeing much more,” she said, adding that other plants have dwindled.

“Hopefully through the years we’ll see more diversity.”

While Jopling said the water is “still relatively clean from a human standpoint,” the nitrate levels far exceed the recommended level of .35 for waters in the Florida Outstanding Waterway.

Ultimately, that spoilage will catch up to our drinking water, he said.

“It is not just a matter of environmentalists trying to protect natural river,” Jopling said. “When the Ichetucknee is ruined, the water we drank is ruined. These springs are literally just spigots” from the same water source — the Floridan aquifer.

Brad McClenny

A man floats in the clear waters of the Head Spring of the Ichetucknee River at Ichetucknee State Park on June 22, 2013.

The group’s on-the-ground mission is two-fold, Jopling explained: to push the Suwannee River Water Management District to conserve water and cut down on agricultural permits that are largely responsible for overuse of water and nitrate contamination.

They also are especially keen on cutting down on nitrate contamination in areas without overlying soil on the limestone — in other words, where the fertilizers go directly into the aquifer.

One measure of the overuse of water is the river’s minimum flow level, which is about 300 cubic feet per second. Jopling said the goal is to raise that to its historic level of 350 cubic feet per second.

The low flow level feeds into the nitrate problem, Jopling continued.

“When you’ve got less water flowing, and the same amount of nitrates flowing into it, you have a more intense nitrate level,” he said.

Agricultural activity is probably the main source of nitrate contamination but not the only one, said Jim Stevenson, whom Jopling refers to as “the grandfather of the springs issues.”

Stevenson was chief naturalist for the Florida state parks when the state bought the Ichetucknee State Park in 1970.

“It was my responsibility to look after their health. I’ve been trying to protect it from various threats ever since,” Stevenson said. He is now an adviser to the Ichetucknee Alliance and on the board of directors of the Florida Springs Institute.

He said the first threat to the river was too many tubers, since tubing is the classic way to travel the river. A University of Florida study showed that the river has a carrying capacity of 3,000 tubers.

Brad McClenny

People get on their tubes at a dock on the Ichetucknee River at Ichetucknee State Park in High Springs on June 22, 2013.

“If tubers would stay in their tubes, there would be no problem,” Stevenson said. “In shallow parts, they get out and walk, and that tears aquatic plants from the river.”

Stevenson said that enforcing the carrying capacity “has been a success story.”

He added that there’s still a lot to do to protect the river and springs, though.

“Research is showing that the area around Jacksonville is more or less siphoning water away from the Ichetucknee,” he said. “This doesn’t let Lake City off the hook.

“Every time someone turns on a faucet in Lake City, they are using water that was on its way to the Ichetucknee.”

While people can’t exactly stop flushing their toilets, and agriculture will persist, there are other measures that can be enforced to lower nitrate levels, such as keeping cows away from streams and not depositing waste in creeks, Jopling said.

Educating farmers and the public is also important.

“Some people will voluntarily make changes in their behavior. Others will not — that’s why we need regulations, to require people to do the right thing,” Stevenson said.

“If the public doesn’t start raising cane, it’s not going to happen. It’s going to require the public getting angry.”

Juniper Springs

A little sign at the head of the path to the water says pretty much what one needs to know about what awaits: “Be lazy in Juniper Springs.”

A little sign at the head of the path to the water says pretty much what one needs to know about what awaits: “Be lazy in Juniper Springs.”
Tucked away on the north side of State Road 40 about 30 miles east of Ocala, Juniper Springs is an inviting site to those looking for a way to beat the heat in relative seclusion.

The U.S. Forest Service bills Juniper Springs as one of its “jewels” of the Ocala National Forest — along with Alexander,Salt and Silver Glen springs.

The crystal-clear water percolating from the springs is the heart of the Juniper Springs Recreation Area, part of a surrounding wilderness preserve owned by the federal government that spans some 14,283 acres.

One of Florida’s larger freshwater springs, Juniper pumps about 13 million gallons a day from a moderate size pool, which doubles as a popular swimming hole reminiscent of old Florida.

On a recent weekday, about a dozen bathers were taking the entrance sign’s advice, lounging lazily along the banks of the springhead or taking a refreshing plunge off a concrete overhang a few feet above the water.

Elaine Brake, a concession manager at the site, said the light turnout was expected since children returned to school.

During hot summer days, and at times on weekends, however, the overhang is full of people waiting to dive into the water that perpetually measures 72 degrees, she said.

The crowd can be a mix of tourists and locals, she added, and a few snowbirds will brave the water in the wintertime, since it is warmer than where they came from.

Doug Engle

A snapping turtle comes up for air while patroling the waters of Fern Hammock Springs at Juniper Springs Aug. 24, 2013.

“Some people try to swim all year round,” she said.

The U.S. Forest Service bills Juniper Springs as one of its “jewels” of the Ocala National Forest — along with Alexander, Salt and Silver Glen springs.

It is also one of the oldest recreation areas in the federal inventory.

While Mother Nature formed the springs eons ago, it took President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps to lay the foundation for the facility that exists today.

Besides the water, the main feature at the site is a historic millhouse, with a still-churning water wheel that was built in 1935.

That wheel, the Forest Service says, not only helped regulate the flow of water coming from the springhead, which becomes a seven-mile long creek known as Juniper Springs Run, but also helped generate electricity for an area that was lacking it in the middle of the Depression.

The closest power plant at the time was in Altoona, about 19 miles away.

Gallery: Juniper Springs

Doug Engle

Swimmer Robert Murphy of Palm Coast, Fla., does a back flip into the waters of the swim area at Juniper Spring Aug. 24, 2013.

The Forest Service also asserts that the “semi-tropical” landscape, rich in sabal palms, scrub pines and live oaks, is also one of the most unique mixes of vegetation among federal recreation areas. Federal foresters refer to it as an “oasis” unlike any other in the United States.

The run emitted by the springs features several boils that can be viewed from vistas spaced intermittently along a three-quarter mile boardwalk.

But the path also reminds visitors that they are in the wild, with several “no wading” signs posted because of the possible presence of alligators.

In the most recent issue of Scouting magazine, outdoors writer Larry Rice notes of Juniper Springs, “The setting is unlike any other in North America.”

“Here, there are springs — large and small, gushing out of cracks in the earth — as well as pine flatwoods, hardwood swamps, shallow lakes, grassy prairies, oak scrub, sinkholes and sawgrass marsh that represent what North Central Florida looked like before the arrival of Disney World.”

Manatee Springs

Deep in a sprawling nature park east of the Suwannee River, Manatee Springs boils up from an underwater cave vent.

Deep in a sprawling park east of the Suwannee River, Manatee Springs boils up. The first-magnitude spring sends out an estimated 117 million of gallons of fresh water each day, making it one of the largest in the state.

And one of the most polluted.

The spring has a higher level of nitrate pollution than 95 percent of the water bodies in the state, according to a state Department of Environmental Protection environmental profile.

The pollution has taken its toll. Gone is the natural vegetation such as the thick beds of eel grass that used to wave in the current. In its place grows filamentous algae, sucking the dissolved oxygen out of the water and harming the fish habitat.

Brad McClenny

People in the spring head of Manatee Springs at Manatee Springs State Park on July 10, 2013.

It hasn’t always been this way.

In the 1770s, famed naturalist William Bartram came to the spring during his travels through Florida. In his writings, Bartram described the “lucid sea green colour, in some measure owing to the reflection of the leaves above.” He recounted the powerful boil of the spring and sighting a manatee skeleton.

In Levy County, it is still the local swimming hole. For cave divers around the world, it is an invitation to explore a five-mile system of underwater caverns — accessed from spots such as Catfish Hotel sink, where a bright green blanket of duckweed covers the clear water below.

On a recent morning, deer scampered along the road that winds through the park and past the campground to the spring. Mullet jumped and slapped the surface, sending out circular ripples. Swimmers in snorkel masks and fins glided face down across the surface of the main spring pool.

On a deck overlooking the swim area, Gainesville artist Margaret Tolbert sat capturing on canvas the cypress swamp the spring flows through.

Tolbert has been coming to the spring for 20 years, drawn by the “explosion” of activity beneath the placid surface.

Gallery: Manatee Springs

Alan Youngblood

Swimmers enjoy the main spring at Manatee Springs State Park in Cheifland, Fla., on July 17, 2013.

“It’s like this turquoise, yellow,” she said. “It’s like somebody left the light on underneath.”

Looking down into the spring, Tolbert points out the effects of the pollution, the strands of algae “waving like locks of hair” in the current.

Agriculture is the primary land use in the Manatee Springs watershed, and fertilizer is the single leading culprit in the build-up of nitrate levels, according to the basin management action plan for the Suwannee River. Septic tanks and animal waste from cattle or poultry also play a factor.

The DEP considers 0.35 milligrams/liter of nitrate to be the maximum threshold for the Suwannee River and its springs before there is environmental impact such as algae blooms and the loss of native aquatic plants. Records for Manatee Springs show levels exceeding 2 mg/L in 2011.

Like other springs and rivers with elevated pollution levels, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection seeks to clean up Manatee Springs as part of a basin management action plan. Manatee Springs will be included in the plan that is currently being developed for the Suwannee River basin. The state plan looks to reduce nitrate levels through agricultural uses, adopting best management practices that focus on reducing the use of fertilizer. The plan also seeks for local governments to put in place lawn watering and fertilizer ordinances for residential and business properties.

Brad McClenny

Trash in the spring run at Manatee Springs State Park in Chiefland, Fla., on July 10, 2013.

The plan states that, even if all steps are followed, it still would take the Suwannee River and the springs that feed it “several decades” for nitrates to drop to their target levels.

Annette Long, with the environmental group Save Our Suwannee, and her husband, Mark Long, are avid cave divers. They were married here at the pavillion overlooking Catfish Hotel sink, the gateway to the underwater cave system they’ve explored here. They live near the park’s main entrance.

Annette Long said she loves the park for the cave diving, the winding nature trail system and the turkey, deer and foxes she sees on visits here.

But Long said she also has seen fewer and fewer species of fish over the years as the spring grew more polluted.

Jane Nogaki, who lives near Fanning Springs, first came here about 30 years ago.

“This is the first springs I ever came to when I moved to this area,” Nogaki said, overlooking the swimming area. “I brought my kids here. We would come in July. The cold water felt so good in the heat. It seemed so beautiful to me.”

While the spring is still scenic, the days of varied species of fish weaving through the bed of eel grass on the spring floor are long gone, she said.

Peacock Springs

Pete Butt loved scuba diving in quarries in Wisconsin -- just something about rock and walls in water. So when Butt first plunged into Peacock Springs around 1980 ...

Pete Butt loved scuba diving in quarries in Wisconsin -- just something about rock and walls in water.
So when Butt first plunged into Peacock Springs around 1980 ...

“It was like, wow,” Butt said. “Peacock and Orange Grove just blew my mind. I loved diving in rock and structure. With Peacock, it wasn’t a quarry -- Mother Nature did this. It’s like Middle Earth. It’s a fantasy land.”

Today the springs -- two second-magnitude and one third-magnitude -- and sinkholes and karst windows that make up the Peacock Springs system along the Suwannee River in southern Suwannee County are still a wondrous waterworld. But like many other regional springs, they are degrading. Nitrates are the primary concern.

Brad McClenny

Peacock Spring at Wes Skiles Peacock Springs State Park, in Live Oak Saturday, Nov. 23 2013.

Butt is a project manager for Karst Environmental Services of High Springs, a hydrogeological consulting firm founded by the late Wes Skiles.

Skiles helped map Peacock and other springs, and his stunning photos have appeared in National Geographic and many other publications.

He was so associated with Peacock that the Florida Park Service christened the park encompassing the Peacock system the Wes Skiles Peacock Springs State Park.

Peacock differs from many other springs in the region because of the breadth of its geology -- collapsed limestone conduits to the aquifer known as karst windows, a slough that intermittently connects the springs, siphons that drain surface water, sinkholes and chimney-like funnels into the subterranean realm.

The main Peacock is three separate springs that are sometimes connected by surface water. Orange Grove sink is a large karst window.

And the surface openings are doors to 5.3 miles of water passageways that link to other springs and sinkholes in the area.

The National Speleological Society ranks the Peacock system as the 24th-longest underwater labyrinth in the world.

While the park occasionally draws people who merely want to escape the heat in the cool water, it is primarily a mecca for cave diving -- the highly specialized branch of diving that requires extensive training.

Alan Youngblood

Swamp lillies bloom along the trail to Peacock Springs in the Peacock Springs Recreation area near Branford, Fl. on Tuesday April 30, 2004. There is an extensive cave system in the springs in the state recreation area that attract cave divers from around the world.

The springs draw divers from across the globe, instructors hold classes there, and amenities at the park cater to divers, such as wooden shelves on which divers can easily unload their tanks from their backs.

Cathy Lesh, owner of the Dive Outpost two miles from the park, has made a living off Peacock since 1995.

When Lesh started diving in the Peacock system, she said the experience was intimidating.

“The first time I went in Peacock, it scared me. I wasn’t particularly comfortable. It’s very silty. The floors have feet of silt. If you stuck your hand in it, it would go up to your shoulder, and if that gets disturbed, there goes your visibility,” Lesh said.

“You have to be a very controlled diver. You have to not be a panicky diver because when things start to go wrong, not just one thing happens. You see evidence when you swim through Peacock -- claw marks, fin marks. You know a snow angel? We call them silt angels. You’ll see evidence of people laying -- imprints of the tanks.”

The Dive Outpost is a shop and lodging facility that is a United Nations of cave divers. One recent afternoon, enthusiasts from Finland were lounging on sofas in the shop.

Lesh said divers come from all over because of the extensive nature of the cave system at Peacock and because the current is light, especially compared with other area springs such as Ginnie.

And another draw for some people? The water is relatively warm at about 72 degrees. Russians Igor Zorin of Moscow and Nadya Chemeris and Vasily Yaroshenko of Siberia found the water and the air balmy compared with their diving haunts back home. Water temperatures there are about 35 degrees, and air temperatures are often around zero during winter, when water clarity is at its best.

“They are very nice underwater caves. That’s why we came here,” said Zorin, making his fourth trip to Peacock. “Nice caves, nice people. Russia has cold water caves. We like this very much.”

Brad McClenny

Algae grow in cloud like clumps on the floor of Peacock Spring at Wes Skiles Peacock Springs State Park, in Live Oak on Saturday, Nov. 23, 2013.

Chemeris and Yaroshenko were making their first trip.

“It’s nice warm water,” Chemeris said through Zorin.

But like other springs, a green coating of algae is increasing in Peacock, a sign the springs are under stress.

Lesh said when she first started diving in the springs, she believed it would be about 10 years before any decline started. Instead, it happened more quickly. Now, the blue springs are turning green.

“It’s probably been about a decade where Peacock used to have the traditional, beautiful blue basin with the rocks and the natural plants. Now everything is coated with that really fine, hairy algae,” she said.

“The animals -- the mullet and the turtles -- work really hard to eat it, but they get overcome. When the water levels are low, it’s heart-breaking. It’s very sad to see.”

Poe Springs

For Verna Steele, Poe Springs reflects 91 years of memories. She spent afternoons swimming there with friends after school and falling into it once as a toddler. For her, Poe Springs has always been a part of life in High Springs.

For Verna Steele, Poe Springs reflects 91 years of memories — but her most recent ones are of stagnant waters, not the cool, ever-flowing spring she spent afternoons swimming in after school.

Brad McClenny

People leave their kayak in the cypress knees at the end of the spring run near the Santa Fe River at Poe Springs in High Springs, Sept. 14, 2013.

To her, Poe Springs has always been a part of life in High Springs, the hometown in which she has spent much of her life.

“That’s where I learned to swim when I was 3 years old,” she joked one afternoon as she and her daughter sat on a dock at Poe Springs Park, watching the Santa Fe River flow by as summer storm clouds crept closer. More than 80 years ago, she was toddling on the stairs that descended into the cool water and fell face-first into the spring.

“I would say 90 percent of her memories are about this river,” said her daughter Linda Maney, who is in her 60s.

When Steele was growing up, Poe Springs truly was the local watering hole. If you wanted to swim, that was where you went.

When the spring stopped flowing last year and the Santa Fe River’s water line dropped precariously low, it was painful for Steele and her daughter to see.

“It broke our hearts that our river was dry,” said Maney, who had her camera in hand as usual while she and her mother relaxed by the river one afternoon in August. She has countless photos of the river and its springs in good times and in bad.

Poe Springs has seen better days, although it has rebounded mostly from its bout with stagnation during last year’s drought, Alachua County Environmental Protection Director Chris Bird said.

The spring used to be crystal clear, but its waters are greener now. Water quality has been a concern for Poe Springs for many years, but water flow is quickly becoming another big issue.

The problems Poe Springs faces are too dangerous to ignore because they are symptoms of a larger disease afflicting the state’s water system.

There was no record of the flow ever stopping before last year, Bird said. With no flow, it isn’t safe to swim because bacteria builds up.

“It becomes like a swimming pool without chlorine,” he said.

It was a problem that couldn’t be ignored. “You know, that was a real wake-up call,” he said.

Poe Springs distinguishes itself from nearby springs such as Ginnie or Blue Springs because it is free to use. Poe Springs is one of just three designated public bathing areas in Alachua County, and it and Rum Island are the only public springs on the Santa Fe River.

Poe has a distinct family feel and is more of a day-trip destination than a camping ground like Ginnie Springs.

It was closed for months while the county repaired the steps that lead into the water, but it’s open now, although it doesn’t look like it did in its glory days.

“The clarity’s not back, and the flow is not back to where it was,” Bird said.

At least its water temperature, a cool 72 degrees Fahrenheit, is still refreshing. That’s what draws people to area springs in the summer months.

“It’s sort of our summer oasis,” he said.

Poe Springs’ problems with flow and water quality aren’t unique. Many other springs in North Florida face the same threats, and these issues intersect in complicated but important ways.

Brad McClenny

People snorkel at the end of the spring run near the Santa Fe River at Poe Springs on Sept. 14, 2013.

Nitrogen in the water can cause algae if it is above a certain threshold, Bird said. Losing water flow can, in turn, lead to higher nitrogen levels, especially if the water from the aquifer is coming from farming regions.

Groundwater pumping from Jacksonville and Gainesville Regional Utilities also pose a threat. When Poe Springs stopped flowing last year, it wasn’t just because of the drought. Groundwater pumping played a part in it, too.

Groundwater pumping keeps going up, while rainfall levels fluctuate, meaning they can’t make up for all of the water being taken from the aquifer.

“There’s no doubt that’s affecting the spring flows,” Bird said.

The springs need saving now, not later. Even in a rainfall-rich season, Poe Springs and its brethren continue to suffer.

“They’re either getting stressed out by a diversion of water through groundwater pumping or they’re getting hammered by nitrogen pollution,” he said.

The problems Poe Springs faces are too dangerous to ignore because they are symptoms of a larger disease afflicting the state’s water system.

“They’re the canary in the coal mine,” he said. “The springs are sort of the early warning sign that our whole water system is in trouble.”

Brad McClenny

Jaylon Oliver, 12, is pushed out of the water of Poe Springs by his friend Adrian Howard, 11, right, while they enjoy the Labor Day weekend at Poe Springs Park, Sept. 1, 2013.

Merrillee Malwitz-Jipson, president of Our Santa Fe River, said her organization focuses on educating the public as well as government officials about the river, its springs and what they can do to help lessen the stress on these precious resources.

She and other advocates go to government meetings to try to explain to officials how important the springs are to the community, not just as sources of recreation but as huge economic drivers. They are inherently tied to residents’ quality of life, she said.

Everyone used to think the state had this endless supply of water, and it’s become clear that isn’t true, she said, especially last year when the flow of Poe Springs faltered.

The people of North Florida have to figure out how to use less water. So much is used to irrigate lawns, pressure-wash houses and wash cars, she said.

“I’m just as likely as anybody else not to make the connective dots because nobody told me,” Malwitz-Jipson said. “Nobody said to me, ‘You know what, that water that you’re using — that would be better off in our springshed.’”

Helping people connect those dots by educating them about water use and its impact on springs such as Poe is how the community can start to make things better, she said, and that education needs to start with children.

“You can be complacent and you can sit back, or you can be proactive, and you can start educating yourself and changing your ways — and that’s the only thing that’s going to work,” she said.

If everyone can pitch in and change the way they behave as a society, she said she thinks they might be able to turn things around for the springs.

“Maybe. I hope,” she said. “Otherwise, I’m spinning my wheels.”

Despite the troubles Poe Springs faces, it still can draw a crowd on the weekends. One afternoon over the Labor Day weekend, parents helped young children dog-paddle through the water while a pair of families each celebrated a birthday, stringing up balloons and “Happy Birthday” banners underneath the roof of a picnic pavilion.

In the spring, a pair of preteens egged each other on and splashed around. “Earthquake!” one boy yelled as he smacked the water hard, sending up a spray.

One couple swam slowly through the cool green water, which looks almost black where the floor of the spring drops deeper into the ground. A father propelled his young son across the water, making motor noises as they went.

Another little boy clasped to a woman’s hip in the shallows refused her offer to help him swim. “I don’t wanna!” he wailed. She relayed the message to his mother, who stood on the concrete steps leading into the spring, and headed for dry land.

At the top of the steps, sisters Nancy Davis and Carol Goodbred lounged on beach chairs. The sisters, both in their mid-50s, live in Alachua and were born and raised in Gainesville. They remember floating down the Ichetucknee River when they were growing up, and Davis did the same with her son when he was younger.

They usually go to Rum Island but decided to visit Poe Springs for the first time in years after their brother recommended it. They said they prefer Poe to more college-age and diver-oriented destinations such as Ginnie Springs.

“This is more laid back. This is more our style right here,” said Goodbred, sporting a black-and-white polka-dotted swimsuit with a pair of rainbow-colored sunglasses hanging from the fabric. “Real family-oriented.”

Growing up around here, they understand how important the springs are to the area. “It’s our heritage,” she said.

But they know that heritage isn’t managing as well today as when they were younger.

“We’re used to the springs being blue-clear, and they’re not anymore,” Davis said as she surveyed the green waters of Poe Springs. “We took it for granted.”

Rainbow Springs

Whether you come from across the street or from half-way around the world, people seem to return to Rainbow Springs, lured by its calming beauty, beckoned by its prism-hued waters.

Whether you come from across the street or from half-way around the world, people seem to return to Rainbow Springs, lured by its calming beauty, beckoned by its prism-hued waters.

Photo gallery: Rainbow Springs

Alan Youngblood

Sightseers enjoy Rainbow Springs in Dunnellon, Fla., on August 22, 2013.

“I have been coming here for 18 years,” said Veronica Beverlee, who lives only footsteps away in the Rainbow’s End Estates subdivision. “I used to swim there when it was not a park.”

Beverlee no longer swims in the glistening waters of Rainbow Springs. But she and her dog, Buffy, stroll daily through the Rainbow Springs State Park, where the springs’ headwaters bubble up, giving rise to the Rainbow River. She stops to greet another “regular,” Alan Ellaway, who runs behind the butterfly garden at the park each morning. Both have seen deer and turkey and other wildlife at the park.

The springs are central to the park, which lies about 4 miles north of Dunnellon. It is a popular destination, particularly on weekends and holidays, when people from near and far gather to enjoy the springs’ refreshing gifts by swimming, canoeing and kayaking in the kaleidoscopic waters that feed the river.

Over the centuries, Rainbow Springs has had many lives. Archeological evidence indicates that more than 10,000 years ago, the springs, once known as Blue Springs, were an important source of clean water, food and tool making for prehistoric people.

“Our research would indicate that Native Americans used that area long before Europeans arrived,” said Martha Robinson, communications manager for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s Florida Park Service.

"It's the most beautiful place on the earth, beautiful," Herman Gutierrez said. "My wife and I come here to this place every single day for 15 years."

“All of our springs have that same characteristic. Native Americans, obviously, lived around these fresh water sources using them for fishing and to travel from place-to-place.”

The fourth largest of Florida’s 33 first-magnitude springs, Rainbow Springs spews about 443 million gallons of fresh water a day. Like other Florida springs, the Rainbow’s waters gush up from the Floridan Aquifer deep below the earth’s surface. The water pressure builds up underground, forcing the water through cracks in the limestone to the surface.

However, Rainbow Springs does not have one cavernous opening from which water emerges. Instead, a collection of springs or vents — at least 11 of them named at the headsprings — feed the Rainbow River.

Justin Han, his round Harry Potter-fashioned glasses spotted with water droplets, his wet hair dripping, had been swimming recently at Rainbow Springs with his mother, sister and four young friends.

Han, 11, came to Florida with his family from Seoul, South Korea, to visit friends and to learn English during the summer.

He was most impressed with the crystalline water and said he had never seen anything like it.

“We came here weeks ago but my family said this is a good place to go, so we came again,” he said.

Alan Youngblood

Victor Voras and his mom Kelly Voras enjoy a shallow spot on the Rainbow River in Dunnellon, Fla., on August 22, 2013

Before the state bought the land surrounding Rainbow Springs in the 1990s, the springs were part of the privately owned Rainbow Springs tourist attraction.

From 1934 to 1974, tens of thousands of visitors attended each year. The attraction featured mermaid shows and manmade waterfalls in addition to the Leaf Ride, which was a monorail system that transported visitors through the park at tree level. Visitors also could board submarine boats, go down stairs into the hull, which was submerged, and peer out through portholes at the underwater life.

But falling attendance, the opening of the Magic Kingdom theme park in Walt Disney World in 1971, and the construction of Interstate 75 that pulled tourist traffic further east forced the attraction to close in 1974.

The state, after being petitioned by concerned citizens, bought 595 acres surrounding Rainbow Springs in 1990. Two years later, the state purchased a private, adjacent campground adding another 310 acres to its holdings and, ultimately, opened the park in 1995.

Alan Youngblood

A long nose gar relaxes under the overhang of trees in the headwater of the Rainbow River on July 18, 2007.

Amy Zavoina and her three daughters visited the park for the first time from Palm Harbor the same day the Hans had returned.

“We have beautiful pictures, underwater pictures,” Zavoina said. “The visibility was incredible. We saw fish. We saw turtles.”

What Zavoina’s pictures will not show is that Rainbow Springs, with more than 100 times the natural level of nitrates that contribute to the overgrowth of algae, is troubled.

Managing increased nitrates from fertilizers and animal and human wastes can be a challenge, made more difficult by a slight decrease in the flow from the springs. Adding to the threat is the heavy use of the Rainbow River by tubers, swimmers, divers, boaters and fishermen. Overuse can harm aquatic plants and increase the turbidity and damage habitat for the fish and wildlife that live in Rainbow Springs.

But help may be on the way. In February, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection adopted restoration goals for Rainbow Springs and the Rainbow River.

Seemingly oblivious to those problems, Herman Gutierrez and his wife, Alicia, who live in Citrus Springs, only saw the beauty one recent morning as they sat on a bench to rest surrounded by gardens of azaleas and other ornamental plants and native species lovingly attended to by the park’s many volunteers.

As they relaxed in the cool morning air, adults toting coolers, trailed by youngsters juggling water noodles and beach towels, paraded past.

“It’s the most beautiful place on the earth, beautiful,” Herman Gutierrez said. “My wife and I come here to this place every single day for 15 years.”

Salt Springs

With the warm sun on their backs, snorkelers Leah Sammel and Karen Lovett peered into the clear blue waters of Salt Springs and discovered just what they had come to find.

With the warm sun on their backs, snorkelers Leah Sammel and Karen Lovett peered into the clear blue waters of Salt Springs and discovered just what they had come to find.

“Pretty fishes, cooters (turtles) and no cellphones,” Lovett said.

The two women from Gainesville were at Salt Springs on a summer Tuesday, along with a handful of other swimmers and snorkelers, and a lone juvenile alligator lurking in a patch of vegetation.

The "salt" in Salt Springs stems from a slightly salty taste to the water, derived from magnesium, potassium and sodium.

The “salt” in Salt Springs stems from a slightly salty taste to the water, derived from magnesium, potassium and sodium. Some people believe the waters have healing powers; others just like to swim in the cool, clear waters, so perfect for cooling off on a hot summer day.

The four “boils” of the headwaters issue more than 50 million gallons of water a day, which flow down the spring run into the nearby and massive Lake George. The spring is classified as second magnitude.

The springhead is surrounded on three sides by a concrete wall. The bottom is limestone and sand, with spates of vegetation. The depth ranges from 20 feet or so at the spring vents to a few feet in most areas. The springs were formed thousands of years ago, when most of Florida was underwater.

Salt Springs and its sister spring, Silver Glen, 8 miles to the south, are two of the most popular attractions in the Ocala National Forest. Access to both springs is easy from State Road 19, north of State Road 40, about 35 miles east of Ocala. Silver Glen Springs is a first-magnitude spring.

Salt Springs is populated by a variety of fish, such as mullet, large mouth and sunshine bass, tilapia and others. Their scales glint in the sunlight, reflected underwater in flashes of brilliant color, bringing delight to snorkelers. Turtles swim along peacefully, seemingly unfazed by the humans floating overhead. Even blue crabs can be found in these fair waters.

Gallery: Salt Springs

Alan Youngblood

The swim area at the Salt Springs recreation area in Salt Springs, Fla., on Aug. 6, 2013.

The recreation area at Salt Springs is run by American Land & Leisure, and the amenities include camping for recreational vehicles and tents. Bill Harnage is the area manager. He said the company is making some improvements at Salt Springs to make the attraction “as safe as possible.”

Some evidence of the work in progress included workers cleaning up debris and mud from a ferocious thunderstorm, and repairing the damages of a long string of summer rainstorms. Some safety initiatives are done on an as-needed basis, such as the removal of the baby gator, meaning the day-use area was closed for a short time until the reptile was gone and swimmers and snorkelers could frolic without worry.

Outside the springhead, anglers can try their luck in the 5-mile Salt Springs Run, and there are plenty of other recreational activities in the area as well, such as bird watching, hiking and pleasure boating.

Mike Gosse, U.S. Forest Service deputy district ranger for the Ocala National Forest, said the four major springs in the forest — Silver Glen Springs, Salt Springs, Juniper Springs and Alexander Springs — provide a unique and diverse habitat, and unique recreational opportunities.

To the east of Salt Springs is Lake Kerr, which also offers plenty of opportunities for water recreation.

According to an online history of Salt Springs, the king of Spain granted the property around the springs to family members, who did not want it. In the late 1800s, brothers Walter and Columbus Townsend, who were in the turpentine business, bought some of the property and made use of it to ship their goods down the spring run into Lake George and then north up the St. Johns River.

Jacqui Janetzko

Bob Grim enjoys the warm sun while swimming at Salt Springs Recreation Area on April 9, 2013.

In November 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt set aside the scrubland surrounding the springs as the Ocala National Forest.

In the 1920s, Columbus Townsend bought out his brother’s interest and sold the property to the Ray family of Ocala. The U.S. government bought the springs from the Ray family in 1979, along with approximately 10 acres of the Hernandez grant, for more than $12 million.

Daniel Morgan was a Marion County commissioner who also owned a turpentine business. On the south side of Lake Kerr in the early 1900s, he built a massive home that later was moved to a location near the Salt Springs headwaters, where it remains today. There is a plan afoot to turn it into a bed and breakfast.

In the meantime, the main attraction of Salt Springs continues to be the 72 degree waters and abundant wildlife.

“I just love to come here and float face-down in the water, enjoying the sun, with no cellphones ringing and no kids calling my name,” Lovett said with a smile.

Santa Fe River

For nearly 28 years, Naked Ed has watched over Lily Springs from his dockside perch just off the Santa Fe River not far from Rum Island.

For nearly 28 years, Naked Ed has watched over Lily Springs from his dockside perch just off the Santa Fe River not far from Rum Island.
He began his springside vigil in December 1985, skinny-dipping and cleaning up the trash littered around the small spring.

Ed, whose proper name is Ed Watts but has gone by Naked Ed for years, still spends most days there, although he has a home near O’Leno State Park he can retire to in the evenings.

The 63-year-old Lake City native has become a local legend over the years, filling countless photo albums with pictures of college students and couples who’ve stopped by for a swim and a photo opportunity with him.

Brad McClenny

Ed Watts, known as "Naked Ed," at Lily Springs on Sept. 6, 2013. Ed has lived at the spring on and off for several years.

Kayakers might see him sitting on the dock in a loincloth, or nothing at all, enjoying a strawberry cigar. Or he might be hidden away in his small, makeshift hut, made of wooden boards and covered with tarps, overlooking Lily Springs on one side and the Santa Fe River on the other.

Pulling an album from a light-blue suitcase on the dock one afternoon, he recounted memories of the visitors memorialized in the images.

Sometimes, Ed and his new acquaintances are clad in loincloths, which he keeps around for such occasions. Other times, they’re as naked as Ed usually is. But in every photograph, they’re smiling.

The only things Ed has more of than photos documenting his years as Lily Springs’ self-appointed caretaker are stories.

One flows right into the next with Ed, from amusing anecdotes about first-time skinny-dippers to a warmly remembered memory of a little girl who secretly picked up her father’s cigarette butts and put them into a trash bag while they relaxed at Lily Springs.

He’ll tell you about the Santa Fe too, and how the spring that has become as much a home to him as — if not more than — the house he actually lives in has changed over the years.

The Santa Fe River’s water level is about two feet lower than it was when he first came to Lily Springs in 1985, although the summer rains this year raised it higher than usual. The spring water used to stay real clear, but it’s not as easy to see down to the bottom now, he said.

Ask him what he sees as the main problem affecting the river, and he’ll tell you point-blank: “Man himself.”

Ask him what he sees as the main problem affecting the river, and he’ll tell you point-blank: “Man himself.”

People throw trash into the springs along the Santa Fe River all the time, often without a real awareness of the impact their actions have, he said. He gets that. Once upon a time, he used to drop his cigarette butts on the ground without realizing that counted as littering.

He said he worries the damage being done to the river and its springs might never be reversed.

Current Problems, a nonprofit that hosts cleanups of local rivers and creeks, was established in 1993 as a targeted effort to clean up the Santa Fe.

Two decades later, the fight to keep the river clean continues.

Executive Director Fritzi Olson said volunteers who paddle down the river collecting trash today might gather 100 pounds of waste, whereas when the organization began they might have nabbed 1,000 pounds or more off the surface of the river and its banks.

Current Problems organizes maintenance cleanups focused on surface-level trash to ensure the problem doesn’t get out of hand again, but it’s the trash beneath the water line that poses a bigger problem.

Brad McClenny

Trash and debris collect around a fallen tree in the Santa Fe River near High Springs, Thursday June 13, 2013.

Over the past few years, the organization has set up cleanups in which cave divers collect trash from the riverbed that volunteers floating downstream in canoes can’t grab.

A recent riverbed cleanup in November spanning less than a mile of the Santa Fe River removed more than 1,500 pounds of trash — almost twice as much as the organization collected in the same section of the river a year ago.

“Usually when we have cleanups that are that big or productive, there’s a lot of heavy stuff — a lot of tires or God only knows what, you know,” Olson said. “But with this particular cleanup, it was almost all bottles and cans, so it was a huge amount of trash to get that much weight.”

Current Problems has collected about 35,000 pounds of trash from all of the rivers and creeks at which it has hosted cleanups, including the Santa Fe.

Some people toss trash into the river carelessly, she said, while others do it intentionally.

Some people just don’t care.

Brad McClenny

A foam collects on the Santa Fe River at Rum Island Park near High Spring on Sept. 2, 2013.

Bob Knight, executive director of the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute, shares Naked Ed’s concern for the seemingly bleak future of the Santa Fe River.

“There’s just a disaster playing out on the Santa Fe River right now,” he said.

The river’s water quality problems date back to the 1970s. Even when the state declared it an Outstanding Florida Water in 1985, meaning it is worthy of special protection, the river’s condition continued to worsen, Knight said.

More than 70 years ago, the Santa Fe River springshed, which supplies water to the river’s springs, encompassed an estimated 1,775 square miles, according to the Springs Institute’s report on the Santa Fe River Springs Restoration Action Plan.

By 2008, that figure had declined to 1,114 square miles, representing a 37 percent reduction in size because of groundwater pumping from agricultural, municipal and private wells within the springshed, which includes all or part of Gainesville, High Springs, Keystone Heights, Lake Butler and other municipal areas. The action plan notes, however, that there is some uncertainty associated with that calculation because of the varying data and methods used to estimate springsheds.

Brad McClenny

A group of UF students with the Outdoor Recreation Club load into their canoes as they start a trip at the Santa Fe River near the boat launch in High Springs on June 29, 2013.

Nitrate concentrations in the Lower Santa Fe have risen steadily since at least the 1960s from a predevelopment concentration of about 0.05 milligrams per liter to 0.7 mg/L today. The problem was significant enough to warrant the Lower Santa Fe’s addition to the state’s “Impaired Waters List” in 2008.

The river’s elevated nitrate concentrations are responsible for a higher frequency of algal blooms, and this problem also has surfaced in its springs. Some Santa Fe River Springs have seen an increase in average nitrate concentrations of more than 3,000 percent over the past two decades.

The state developed a Basin Management Action Plan for the river in early 2012 that laid out steps to reduce nutrient concentrations in the river by 35 percent.

However, Knight said the state’s BMAP plan doesn’t deal effectively with nitrate pollution from agriculture. Farmers typically put 200 pounds of nitrogen into the ground each year through fertilizer.

“A water permit is essentially a permit to pollute,” he said, since a farmer that receives a consumptive-use permit for his or her operation will use fertilizer to grow crops.

Considering the problems affecting the Santa Fe River and its springs, it sounds like a doomsday scenario — and probably is, Knight said. But he noted there are ways to improve the situation if the government is willing to implement them.

“There are simple things you can do as solutions, but they’re politically impossible,” he said.

The cheapest solution is always to prevent the problem in the first place, but the Santa Fe River and other Florida waters are well past that point.

“Going from here, we’ve got to stop the bleeding first,” he said.

Brad McClenny

Students fool around while tubing on the Santa Fe River near Ginnie Springs in High Springs, Thursday June 14, 2013.

Erich Marzolf, director of water resources for the Suwannee River Water Management District, said the water management district has asked the state Department of Environmental Protection to adopt the minimum flow levels for the river so it will apply not only within its boundaries but also in the St. Johns River Water Management District since the Santa Fe River system is affected by what’s going on within the St. Johns district’s jurisdiction as well.

“The MFL is to address the significant harm that’s been determined as a result of consumptive use of water,” he said.

Alachua County Environmental Protection Director Chris Bird said he is encouraged by the work the Suwannee district is doing to develop MFLs and a recovery plan for the river. It is the first time the Suwannee district has ever declared a body of water to be in a recovery stage.

Groundwater pumping is a huge problem for the Lower Santa Fe River, which is in deficit mode because it is short 30 million gallons of water a day, Bird said. What happens to the Santa Fe River affects its springs, and the reverse is also true.

The river is unique because it has a cluster of springs that, together, make up a huge amount of water flow, he said. This sets it apart from areas that have only one major spring, such as Rainbow or Silver Springs.

The Santa Fe River and its springs are codependent. The river couldn’t exist without the spring flow, and the river in turn has a significant impact on its springs.

Despite its troubles, the river and its springs continue to provide a fun escape for area residents looking to get away from the daily grind for an afternoon.

Rum Island, a small spring that sits along the river, is a particularly popular getaway spot.

Cameron Chrest and his cousin Roy Carlisle live just a few minutes from Rum Island and come out whenever they get some free time.

Brad McClenny

Devonte Garmen swings from a rope over the Santa Fe River at Rum Island Park near High Spring on Sept. 2, 2013.

“I know this place like the back of my heart,” Chrest, 21, said.

Carlisle, 24, considers Rum Island a big family spot. But on a recent Sunday afternoon, he and his cousin came there not to spend time with their family but to escape family drama at home.

“He had drama going on; I had drama going on,” Chrest said.

Carlisle walked next door to where Chrest lives and told him to just forget about it all. “Let’s go to the river,” he told Chrest. So they did.

They stood on one of the wooden platforms overlooking the spring, watching everyone else enjoy a day on the river. A little girl in a Disney Princess swimsuit was chucking rocks into the spring before she suddenly sprung to her feet and pranced into the water, a smile on her face.

Along the river’s edge not too far from the spring, three boys gripped each other’s hands and braced against a tree so another could grab hold of a rope dangling over the river and pull it to shore. One of the boys, curly-haired and blond, pressed his bare feet to the bark of the tree and walked up the trunk a little ways before sending himself swinging out over the water. He dropped into the river with a splash just as the swing reached its apex.

Chrest and Carlisle come to Rum Island to relax, sometimes bringing Chrest’s son, Cayden James.

“As soon as he sees the river, he just starts screaming,” Chrest said.

Silver Glen Springs

Having a front row seat to the beauty of Silver Glen Springs could mean you are snorkeling or swimming in the aqua-hued shallows, or are lounging on a lawn chair on the deck of a houseboat, anchored in the spring run that flows into Lake George.

Having a front row seat to the beauty of Silver Glen Springs could mean you are snorkeling or swimming in the aqua-hued shallows, or are lounging on a lawn chair on the deck of a houseboat, anchored in the spring run that flows into Lake George.

Photo gallery: Silver Glen Springs

Alan Youngblood

A ball of striped bass live in the natural well at Silver Glen Springs in Salt Springs, Fla., on Wednesday Sept. 4, 2013.

The springs, with one main “boil” that fronts an elaborate cave system, sits on the edge of the Big Scrub area of the Ocala National Forest. Lake George, into which it empties, is the largest of the St. Johns River Chain of Lakes.

Silver Glen is classified as a first-magnitude spring; its sister spring, Salt Springs, 8 miles to the north, is second magnitude. Access to both springs is easy from State Road 19, north of State Road 40, about 35 miles east of Ocala.

Bill Harnage, the area manager for American Land & Leisure, which manages the day use activities at both springs, surveyed Silver Glen on a bright summer morning and stated: “This is my office. Fantastic, isn’t it?”

Harnage, a native of St. Augustine, pointed out several facets of Silver Glen Springs, such as the sand boils located down a winding path across which nonpoisonous snakes slithered as if they owned the walkway. The sand boils feature shallow pools in which can be seen bubbling piles of sand, pushed upward by the waters from below. They “percolate,” some small, others quite large.

A raised boardwalk keeps onlookers from encroaching on the delicate balance of nature below.

“It’s like quicksand,” Harnage said.

Another area secured from trespass by park users is a deep spring just off the main headwaters. In the deep blue cylindrical hole, fat mullet and bass look layered on top of each other in concentric rings.

Alan Youngblood

Families enjoy themselves in the swim area at Silver Glen Springs recreation area near Salt Springs, Fla., on Tuesday Aug. 6, 2013. The Ocala National Forest recreation area offers day use and swimming and is a popular sopt off Lake George for boaters.

Day visitor Mike Hanson, also of St. Augustine, spent a summer day swimming and picnicking at Silver Glen Springs with his family. He said they try to visit at least once each summer and particularly enjoy the snorkeling and wildlife.

“I saw big blue crabs and turtles; stuff like that,” said Emily Hanson, 11, clearly enamored with the outing.

Beyond the shallow plain at the east end of the head spring, several boats bobbed at anchor. Some people lounged on their vessels while others de-boarded to walk or float into the springs area. On summer weekends, this area becomes particularly congested. The vessels are allowed to anchor for a set amount of time, including overnight, but then must move on.

Hiking opportunities in the area include the three-quarter-mile Springs Boil Trail and the 2-mile Lake George Trail, which offers three overlooks of the lake.

Canoe rentals are available at the day-use area and canoes may be launched from the area, but there is no springs access for motorized vessels.

The main boil at the springs is quite deep and opens into a cavern. In early August, a man died there while free-diving. The 23-year-old Altamonte Springs man’s body was found by members of the Marion County Sheriff’s Office Underwater Recovery Team in 30 feet of water, in an area of limited visibility in a cavern 20 to 25 yards from the main boil area.

Lee Ferinden

Ramey Metcalf, 4, looks for creatures to catch in a quiet little cove at Silver Glen Springs Recreation Area on Sept. 6, 2009 in Fort McCoy, Fla. The last weekend of summer drew a large crowd to the springs. By midday, an estimated 500 people had entered the park.

The man, who had visited Silver Glen Springs on previous occasions, was wearing a mask, snorkel and fins, and was using a flashlight.

“He wasn’t doing anything illegally,” Harnage said. “It was just an unfortunate accident.”

Scuba diver Eric Hutcheson started mapping underwater cave systems more than 20 years ago, which launched a career shooting cave diving segments for television networks. It was Silver Glen that rekindled his romance with diving after a life-threatening motorcycle accident derailed his career for more than a decade.

Now, Hutcheson is back where he began, embarking on a two-year project for the Florida Forestry Service to map the Silver Glen caves that gush as much as 65 million gallons of water a day into Lake George. Currently, no scuba divers except Hutcheson and divers who are helping him are allowed to dive in the spring.

Mike Gosse, U.S. Forest Service deputy district ranger for the Ocala National Forest, said the four major springs in the forest — Silver Glen Springs, Salt Springs, Juniper Springs and Alexander Springs — provide a unique and diverse habitat for many species of animals, fish and plants.

“Some are even endangered, like the manatee that visit the springs in the winter. You have raccoons, snakes, eagles, herons and egrets that frequent these waterways,” Gosse said. “They just provide a very unique ecosystem not found in a lot of other parts of the country.”

Gosse said the springs also provide unique recreational opportunities and give people the chance “to see a live hydrological process, with the water recharging from the aquifer.”

Silver Springs

By September of each year, David Rossiter comes back to his Ocala home and leaves Denver behind until the next summer.

By September of each year, David Rossiter comes back to his Ocala home and leaves Denver behind until the next summer. The arrival means every week he will ease his 21-foot-long bay boat onto one of the area rivers.

Photo gallery: Silver Springs

Alan Youngblood

Dr. Joe Wallace swims over the I-Spy statues in the main spring at Silver Springs on the Silver River in Silver Spring, FL on Wednesday September 4, 2013.

For the next few months, it will mean trips up the five-mile Silver River to its headwaters, which gush about 500 million gallons a day of clear water from sandy springs beneath.

Main Spring, Blue Grotto and The Abyss make up the bulk the spring, in addition to other smaller springs during the first half mile of the river before the scenic waterway empties into the Ocklawaha River and in turn into the St. Johns River.

Rossiter began such journeys on the Silver River about five years ago.

“I’d been coming to Ocala since 2005 … and I had heard about it, and I said I’ve got to see this Silver River,” the 70-year-old Rossiter recalled. “The first time I did, I was just astonished. It was tremendously beautiful.

“Now I take friends and family out on the river. They’ve heard of it, but also had never been out on it in a boat … And like me they’re always astonished how beautiful it is. They can’t believe what a beautiful resource we have.”

The Silver Spring is about six miles east of Ocala and has been a beautiful resource for centuries.

Timucuan Indians lived along the springs beginning in the early 1500s until they clashed with the invading Spanish explorers. Driven out, they were later succeeded by Seminole Indians, before the Indians met with the same fate after conflicts with the U.S. government and Florida settlers.

The Silver Spring is about six miles east of Ocala has been a beautiful resource for centuries.

By the 1850s, boats carried supplies to the growing town of Ocala. And when steamships arrived, so did tourists to see the pristine springs.

Before Disney took up in Orlando, the springs were an attraction that saw thousands of people a day.

It was one of Florida’s first tourist attractions, and from the beginning glass-bottom boats were a popular ride. They are still a staple of the current 240-acre amusement park around the springs. But due to diminishing park attendance, its operators leasing the land handed the property back to Florida. The plan is to return much of the park back to its natural state, but keep it open to the public with minimal intrusion.

But for now, when Rossiter enters the water, eel grass that carpets much of the river will bend to the river’s flow and the hull of his boat as it always has. He will bask in the sun and admire the cypress trees and oaks along the banks at least a dozen times this season. People in kayaks and canoes will paddle their way downstream, sometimes just a foot or so above the river’s bottom.

Alan Youngblood

A small gator waits along the river as the Silver Springs attraction opens as a Florida State Park in Silver Springs, Fla., on Oct. 1, 2013.

Water birds, fish and turtles will make haste to get from their path. The occasional obstinate alligator along the banks or resting on a fallen tree will stay put, refusing to give up the rays of the warming sun.

But as beautiful at the springs and river are, Rossiter sees the grass under the water covering more ground every year and algae attaching to the vegetation. That is due to the increasing nitrates in the water due to Marion County’s overuse of fertilizer, 100,000 septic tanks and aging wastewater treatment plants. The springs’ flows have also shriveled about a third from their historic levels, many say because of overpumping.

“It’s a conundrum,” Rossiter said, adding that he also fertilizes his lawn, though minimally, and irrigates it, though minimally.

“To see the gradual deterioration is bothersome,” he said. “But it’s going to continue, I’m afraid. It’s a classic story in Florida. Florida is full of these stories.”

Brad McClenny / + Caption

Life in the springs requires a delicate balance

OOne Sunday morning in early September, a bevy of turtles swam and sunned themselves on the banks of the Santa Fe River near Blue Springs.
Some turtles floated in the springs itself, a quintessential swimming hole known for its crystal-blue water.

Brad McClenny

A foursome of Suwannee cooters sit on a half submerged log at Blue Springs near High Springs on Aug. 20, 2013.

Jerry Johnston, a turtle expert and biology professor at Santa Fe College, was at the springs that morning with a small group of volunteers for his annual “turtle dive” to collect as many turtles as possible to track where they congregate.

The volunteers — a mix of students, biologists and interested residents — scooped up turtles one by one, hugging them against their chests before carrying the turtles to the shore for marking.

This year, the turtle count was a record high: 497. Last year, the divers caught about 30 turtles.

“It is something that has never been seen before,” Johnston said. “It’s a combination of things happening in the river and things happening in Blue Springs.”

The main reason the turtles are there is because they had to look elsewhere for food after the river darkened due to the influx of water from Tropical Storm Debby.

In Blue Springs, they found abundant food in the form of hydrilla, a non-native grass that grows when water has high levels of nitrates, Johnston explained. The nitrate level of Blue Springs is 2.2 parts per milliliter, which is nearly seven times the healthy standard of 0.35 for waters in the Florida Outstanding Waterway set by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Too much nitrate can set off an explosion of algea growth that robs the water of oxygen as it decays ­— resulting in a dead zone.

The turtles are telling part of an ecological story that spreads far beyond the waters of Blue Springs. High nitrate levels permeate most of the springs in North Central Florida, and hydrilla, like algae, is just one sign of it. “If you don’t have hydrilla, the high nitrates will trigger massive rates of algae, which is what we see in a lot of our springs,” Johnston explained.

Brad McClenny

Volunteers gather turtles during a research project run by Jerry Johnston, a biology professor at Santa Fe College who focuses his research on turtles, at Blue Spring on Sept. 8, 2013. Johnston and the volunteers counted nearly 500 turtles of several varieties in the day-long project. The research showed an unusually large amount of turtles living in the spring.

Most of the turtles that were caught at the springs are Suwannee Cooters, a rare species but one that dominates in North Central Florida.

“Between Tallahassee and Tampa, the population of Suwannee Cooter turtles on the Santa Fe River is the largest in the world,” Johnston said.

The Suwannee Cooters are vegetarians, so they eat only plants like hydrilla.

“The whole story is about something very primal,” Johnston said. “If you’re a turtle, you go where the food is.”

Johnston said that they are studying the hypothesis that the turtles coordinate their migration by talking to each other underwater.

By the time they hit the springs, they are ready not only to feed but to nest.

“Blue Springs function as a nursery,” Johnston said. “The hatchlings will stay in the springs, where they have lots of hiding places in the vegetation and tons of food.”

The turtles are also good for the springs because they eat the hydrilla, which crowds out other native plants and is on the federal noxious weeds list.

“That’s why the people at Blue love the turtles. (The turtles are) helping them manage the springs,” Johnston said.

At the same time, the turtles are “tightly tied to the springs because of the plant life there.”

That’s another reason to save the springs, Johnston said.

“Each turtle is slightly different than the next. If you take away the springs, you have fewer available life stories.”

Brad McClenny

A volunteer looks over the turtles as they wait in a large tub to be inspected and counted during a research project run by Jerry Johnston at Blue Spring, near High Springs, on Sept. 8, 2013.

The springs and the Santa Fe River combined contain 11 different turtle species, which only a handful of places in the world can claim, Johnston continued. By comparison, the Amazon River has 12 species.

Johnston considers preserving turtle diversity also something of an evolutionary duty.

“When you look at an individual turtle on a log, I like to look at it as a lottery winner. It’s a success story,” Johnston said. “He probably had about 1,000 brothers and sisters die at the egg stage or during the first two years of life. They have no defense: When they are eggs, raccoons and crows dig up the nest and eat them. As hatchlings, fish, birds and snapping turtles eat them.”

So making it as a turtle in life is no small feat — but without the springs, Johnston fears their demise.

“The turtles are the ambassadors of the river and springs.”

The turtles are on the surface of a deeper problem that starts in cities such as Jacksonville, where utilities have over-pumped the water supply, and includes farms surrounding the springs and individuals who excessively water their lawns. All are using water from the Floridan aquifer, a mother vessel 100,000 square miles long that “is being tapped by miles and miles of wells, small and large,” as Bob Knight describes it.

Knight is the founding director of the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute and a lifelong advocate of springs conservation. As a 5-year-old visiting his grandparents in Florida, Knight recalls being entranced by the springs in clear-bottomed boats. He returned as an adult to study the area’s springs, naming his institute after Odum, his mentor and the man who wrote the first monograph of Silver Springs in 1956.

Knight wrote a 50-year retrospective of the springs and is dedicating his time now to saving the springs.

Video: High-speed trip down Blue Springs

Brad McClenny

Patrons jump off the dock into the spring head at Blue Springs near High Springs on Aug. 20, 2013.

“I’m focused on trying to stop the damage,” he said. “The springs are going down at an unbelievable pace.”

Todd Kincaid, the founding director of “GeoHydros,” a geological modeling company, said, “There is less water in the aquifer than people thought. As a consequence, we are running out. You really have to know your water budget. It’s like a bank account.” Being in “water debt” eventually catches up to you, and that’s part of the problem.

Another related issue is that there have been faulty modeling systems for measuring water flow, Kincaid continued.

The models presumed geology based on sand instead of karst limestone.

“The caves dominate the groundwater exchange path … the old models assumed that the rock was sand, and no caves,” he said.

Conduits in the karst geology mean that pockets of water escape to the springs more quickly than previously thought, and are able to contaminate them more rapidly. And the Santa Fe River, in particular, has a uniquely rocky bottom. Kincaid is at the forefront of working on models that take this geology into account.

Meanwhile, Knight and other activists are pushing water districts to curtail permits, mainly to farmers who are contributing to the problem of over-usage of water, and putting nitrates into the springs through fertilizers and other chemicals.

The nitrates are largely what’s believed to be causing the degradation of plant life and some wildlife such as fish and snails in the springs.

Knight has a single-minded devotion to saving the springs “because I love the springs,” he said. “I think it’s a very important part of our lives. They are degrading right before our eyes.”

There’s an economic argument for saving the springs, too, he said, calling the springs “a renewable recreational resource.”

“Florida’s economy is based on its natural environment,” Knight continued.

“If you’re killing the environment, you’re killing the golden goose that makes the economy grow.”

Alan Youngblood / + Caption

Disagreements flow over springs' woes, future

Robert Knight’s prediction for many of the springs in this region is bleak.
To glimpse their future, the environmental scientist said, just take stock of the springs’ problems today: too much groundwater pumping and too much polluting nitrates.

Brad McClenny

A woman collects empty beer cans that were scattered around the spring after they fell out of a raft at Ginnie Springs near High Springs, July 6, 2013.

Those problems of today will likely be the problems of tomorrow.

So what, exactly, is to come? It’s not pretty, Knight said.

In a decade or two, some area springs will be reduced to little more than standing pools of water, backwash from the rivers they once fed, Knight and some other scientists think.

Other springs will become flowing green stews of algae feeding off polluting nitrates from over fertilizing, too many septic tanks and aging wastewater treatment plants.

Knight is director of the nonprofit Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute and president of Wetland Solutions Inc. in Gainesville.

Other scientists and government agencies disagree with his bleak prognosis, saying there is still hope that the springs can be coaxed into better health in the long run.

They say that most of the flow problem can be attributed to the recent droughts, not overpumping.

And excess nitrates in the waters can also be reduced — if everyone rallies.

The two sides are feuding camps that often disagree not only on the springs’ futures, but even what caused their current problems.

If you don’t know which side to believe, Knight said, visit Poe Springs in Alachua County.

“I’ve been going to Poe for 30 years. I took my kids there. I raised my kids there when they were babies … That was our family recreational spring. That water was blue-back then,” Knight recalled.

“Then, 15 years ago, it started turning green. That’s a sign you’re getting tannic water (from the river) into the aquifer. That means you’re losing pressure in the aquifer and tannic water is coming in to the aquifer somewhere upstream and mixing.”

Overall, the small spring’s flow has diminished 30 percent during the past 40 years and is now down to about 50 cubic feet per second, records show.

Last year, just before Memorial Day, the spring stopped flowing entirely for the first time in living memory.

“That’s the future,” Knight said, sitting in his Wetlands Solutions office.

Brad McClenny

The tannic waters of the Santa Fe River meet the clear waters of the Devil Spring System in the mixing zone at Ginnie Springs near High Springs, Sept. 14, 2013.

One culprit, Knight said, is overpumping by nearby Gainesville and the rest of Alachua County. Also siphoning groundwater in its own backyard — but affecting Poe Springs’ recharge area — is JEA utilities in Jacksonville.

Knight said people shouldn’t believe claims that drought brought on Poe’s problems, or that heavy rain can save the future. In fact, rainfall since 1900 has been relatively steady in the Santa Fe springs’ recharge areas, data show. Even in the past six years, annual Marion County rainfall has been similar to historical levels, according to the National Weather Service.

Meanwhile, the amount of groundwater pumped from the aquifer is daunting. Alachua County pumped about 55 million gallons per day of ground water in 2010. Duval County (Jacksonville) pumped about 155 million gallons per day, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Pumping is up in both counties from five years before.

“For the short term, it doesn’t look good for (Poe) Springs and the rest of the other springs (along the Santa Fe),” said Chris Bird, head of the Alachua County Environmental Protection Department. “If we don’t do something about groundwater pumping, (Knight’s prediction) is the future.”

If Poe is to be turned around, Alachua County’s net pumping will have to be reversed, he said. Residents will have to conserve and stop growing lawns that need irrigation. And farmers, who account for about half the water use, will have to switch to growing crops that need less water — even if they need financial help to do it.

Poe is an extreme case, Knight concedes, but it’s the canary in the coal mine — an ominous bellwether of what future challenges vex all the other springs.

The next spring Knight sees as most vulnerable to losing flow is Ginnie Springs in Gilchrist County, west of Poe Springs.

The two are among many springs feeding the Santa Fe River, which has seen its flow diminish. Ginnie’s nitrate level is also about four times higher that recent state limits, mostly due to area fertilizer use.

Eric Marzolf of the Suwannee River Water Management District said Poe’s and Ginnie’s futures aren’t as grim as Knight suggests.

Brad McClenny

A sign that says "Danger Pesticides Keep Out" as sprinklers spray a black sludge substance on corn crops at a dairy near Fort White, Fla., on June 14, 2013.

While their flows have shrunk, he said, that is a function of diminished rainfall, not overpumping.

Groundwater pumping is “tiny in relation to the (reduction in) rainfall,” he said. And when the rainfall increases, so will the flows.

As for Ginnie’s problematic nitrogen levels, Marzolf said that can be turned around in the future. He said farmers will have to be encouraged to use less fertilizer or switch to crops that need less to grow — something Florida is already working on.

Best Management Practices, a voluntary guide many farmers use to protect the environment while growing crops, may have to be updated to be more efficient, he said. And there will have to be regulations requiring septic tanks be checked every few years to make sure they are working properly — a move that will also cut nitrogen levels if implemented.

Also useful for anyone looking to the future of the springs system is a glance at the popular Silver Springs. Studies show it suffers from the same kinds of problems as other springs and risks a similar future, including losing its flow entirely.

Last year, Charles Lee of Audubon of Florida predicted that if groundwater pumping continues in areas affecting Silver Springs, the first-order magnitude spring could go dry in a dozen years.

Marion County pumped more than 69 million gallons per day of ground water in 2010, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. That was up from 55.6 million gallons in 2005.

That level of pumping can’t continue without consequences, Knight said. Silver Springs’ flow has decreased 32 percent since the 1930s, and it will continue to get smaller, Knight predicts.

“If we have a couple of years of drought combined with our over pumping, then [Silver Spring] could literally stop flowing in the next 20 years,” Knight said.

Even if pumping remains the same, the flow will decline, he warned. That’s because the amount of water recharging Silver Spring isn’t keeping up with what is being pumped out of the groundwater now. That means the aquifer that feeds the spring is shrinking and the spring’s flow will continue to decline.

Like Lee, Knight thinks Silver Springs could end up like Poe Springs.

“If we have a couple of years of drought combined with our overpumping, then the spring could literally stop flowing in the next 20 years,” Knight said. “It could even be sooner than that.”

Silver Springs also has to contend with rising nitrate levels. That is mostly due to fertilizer seeping into the aquifer and waste from septic tanks, studies show. There are as many as 100,000 septic tanks in Marion County, many in the Silver River recharge area.

There are consequences because of that, too. The nitrogen level in Silver Springs has risen to more than three times the goal set this year by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection for the unwanted nutrient.

In the future, to meet FDEP nitrate goals for springs, fertilizer use alone would have to be reduced about 80 percent in springs-sensitive recharge areas.

Knight said he doesn’t see that happening soon.

While people talk about the need to make due with less water and generate less polluting nitrogen, the trend is sometimes anything but.

The latest heavyweight water user in line at the spigot is Adena Springs Ranch in northwest Marion. Owners are asking the St. Johns River Water Management District for permission to pump an average of 5.3 million gallons of groundwater per day if they need it for their future 30,000 head of cattle. The ranch includes at least 25,000 acres. Pumping in some cases could reach 20 million gallons per day.

Brad McClenny

A foam collects on the Santa Fe River at Rum Island Park near High Spring, Fla., on Sept. 2, 2013.

Meanwhile, the ranch will produce tons of manure. An adult cow produces about 150 pounds of manure per day.

Knight warns the ranch will result in millions of gallons taken from Silver Springs — flow it can’t afford to lose. The manure will cause the nitrogen trend in Silver Springs to keep going up.

Adena engineers predict the Silver River’s flow to drop only a fraction of an inch if the permit is granted. They say the manure will be spread on pasture land and not harm the aquifer.

Casey Fitzgerald, St. Johns River Water Management District’s bureau chief for project management, sees a bright future for Silver Springs.

Like other springs in the area, most of Silver Springs’ reduced flow is attributable not to pumping, but to reduced rainfall, he said.

Pumping accounts for only about 4 percent of the spring’s diminished flow, he said.

“It’s climatically driven. We’ve been in an extended drought,” Fitzgerald said.

As for Silver Springs’ future, Fitzgerald predicts the flow will return to traditional levels, just as it will for other area springs, when rainfall gets back to normal.

And to help, Fitzgerald predicts his water district will keep permitted groundwater pumping to today’s levels overall, but require current and future water applicants to use the resource more conservatively.

He also predicts Silver Springs will meet FDEP’s new 0.35 mg/l nitrogen limit for springs during the next 20 years.

In 25 years, “I think we should have Silver Springs looking very similar to the way it did historically,” he said.

Alan Youngblood

The condition of the upper Silver River near the Silver Springs nature park on July 25, 2012. Years of drought, nitrate pollution have reduced the flow and spawned lots of green and brown algae growth, compromising water clarity and quality.

To hear Florida’s water districts tell it, more rain will cure a lot of the springs’ ills.

Chris Anastasiou of the Southwest Florida Water Management District said that only about 1 percent of the Rainbow Springs’ 19 percent flow reduction is due to pumping. The rest is lack of rainfall. He predicts Rainbow’s flow won’t shrink much more if current rainfall holds steady.

But Knight estimates the Rainbow’s flow has declined 25 percent since the 1960s, of which 14 percent is due to pumping and 11 percent to less rainfall.

In other words, the spring’s discharge was 700 cubic feet per second during the 1960s, with about 50 inches of rain. The same amount of rainfall only generated 600 cubic feet per second between 2000-2012, his studies show.

As for that spring’s future, based on current trends, Knight predicts Rainbow’s flow will shrink another 100 cubic feet per second during the next 20 years.

Fertilizer will also continue to be a problem for Rainbow Springs, he said. Most of the nitrogen in the Rainbow Springs comes from fertilizer, studies show. About half comes from agricultural use; the rest is residential.

The nitrogen level has gone from 1 mg/l to over 2 mg/l in the past 10 years.

“How can you make a prediction that something is going to change when it’s going up like that?” Knight said. “It’s going to keep going up during the next 25 years and be about 3 mg/l.”

Brad McClenny

Quint Wharton, a hydrologic technician with the USGS, replaces a staff gauge, which measures the water depth, at Manatee Springs State Park in Chiefland, Fla., on July 10, 2013.

But Anastasiou expects things to change for the better as state and local governments work with farmers to reduce fertilizer use and meet the new FDEP .35 mg/l goal. Residential fertilizer use, he predicts, will also decline.

But Anastasiou concedes nothing will happen soon, estimating that FDEP goal can be achieved in about 50 years.

As for Rainbow Springs’ flow, he predicts that if the water district is allowed to go forward with improvement projects and if rainfall remains about the same, Rainbow River and the spring that feeds it will improve.

But as much as environmentalists and water district officials differ in their opinions of the springs and their future, they do agree on some things.

Behavior that has contributed to some of the springs’ problems can be reversed with enough political will.

“I see a lot of room to do the right thing,” Anastasiou said.

Knight said more people are rallying to protect the springs, coming to meetings and speaking out and complaining about the water districts’ oversight. He also said that elected officials are beginning to listen. In September, Gov. Rick Scott promised $3.5 million for Silver Springs improvements, with most of that money helping to upgrade wastewater treatment plants.

Knight is also calling for a springs protection fee added to water bills that all water users pay to encourage conservation, protect the springs and buy springs-sensitive lands.

“Because until the aquifer starts coming back up,” Knight said, “we’re heading for the cliff.”

Erica Brough / + Caption

A big shift at water districts

As springs across the region struggle with declining flow and rising pollution, environmental activists worry that they have no strong voice left on the water management district boards charged with protecting the state’s springs, rivers, lakes and aquifer.

Groups such as the Florida Conservation Coalition, a partnership of several statewide environmental organizations, say they lost their last advocate in May, when Gov. Rick Scott decided not to reappoint Richard Hamann — a water and environmental law expert at the University of Florida and past president of the Florida Defenders of the Environment — to a second term on the board of the St. Johns River Water Management District.

Environmentalists say the state’s five water management district boards are now stacked with representatives of industry and business and lack members with a primary focus on environmental protection.

They argue that the makeup of the water boards, along with the budget-slashing of Scott’s first year in office and Tallahassee’s ongoing process to “streamline” water withdrawal permitting across the state, combine to hamper springs protection efforts and weaken the water management districts.

Brad McClenny

Chris Bird, left, director of Alachua County Environmental Protection, talks with Secretary Hershel Vinyard, the chief of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, before the start of an educational boat tour of the lower Santa Fe River for Florida legislators and their staff put on by the Suwannee River Water Management District near Fort White Fri., June 14, 2013.

Today, the composition of the district boards leans far more heavily toward business than 10 to 15 years ago, says Pat Harden, the vice president of the Howard T. Odum Springs Institute.

A member of the St. Johns board in the 1990s, Harden would be a rarity today — an environmental activist serving on a water management board.

A founding member of the environmental group Friends of the Wekiva River, which formed in the midst of Florida’s growth boom to advocate for the protection of the river, Harden served on the St. Johns board from 1991 to 1999, including time as chair.

“I think we had a more balanced board between people who worried about the environment and conservation and business and professionals,” Harden, now a Gainesville resident, said. The state Department of Environmental Protection “had oversight, but they let the boards do their work because the boards, by and large, had the staff with the expertise, and they knew the area.”

The tilt toward business interests has picked up steam under Gov. Rick Scott, whose term has included new directors of all five water management districts and major staff changes in the leadership of the DEP, environmentalists say.

Water management district officials say that, whether they are affiliated with an environmental group or not, board members take protection of the resource seriously.

“When you speak to our board members, you will find that, while they are businessmen and women, they are good stewards of the environment. … I think that just because someone is not president of an environmental group, it does not mean they are not an environmental steward,” Suwannee River Water Management District Executive Director Ann Shortelle said.

Hamann was appointed by former Gov. Charlie Crist in 2009. In May 2011, he was the lone board member of the St. Johns board to vote against a 20-year permit for Jacksonville’s utility that consolidated more than two dozen existing permits and eventually could allow groundwater pumping of as much as 162.5 million gallons per day.

That permit was approved over concerns that groundwater pumping in the Jacksonville area had contributed to historically low levels on the lakes in the Keystone Heights area as well as lower aquifer levels and river and spring flows in the Suwannee district’s jurisdiction.

Brad McClenny

A couple go into the water at the Rum Island spring during stop for a swim on educational paddling tour for Florida legislators and their staff put on by the Suwannee River Water Management District on the Santa Fe River near High Springs, Thurs., June 13, 2013.

Hamann, a faculty member at the Levin College of Law Center for Government Responsibility, said even when he was not on the prevailing side of a vote, it was important to have the environmentalists’ point of view represented on the board.

“I think there has been more representation from an environmental perspective in the past,” he said. “Even if you do not have a majority, I think it is good to have a voice in the discussions — and that is now lacking.”

In May, Scott have Hamann’s seat to Douglas Burnett, a consultant to defense contractors, retired major general with the Florida National Guard and a former commercial airline pilot.

Other members of the St. Johns board include the president of an Orlando environmental consulting firm for developers, the president of a transportation and civil engineering firm, a citrus industry representative, the president of a defense contractor consulting firm, the past president of a Jacksonville manufacturing industry association and executives with forestry and environmental engineering consulting firms.

Marion County’s representative is Ocala attorney Fred Roberts Jr.

The Suwannee board includes a cattle rancher, farmers, a road builder, a real estate appraiser for an agricultural credit union, an engineer and land surveyor, an attorney and an accountant.

Roberts, an Ocala native, said the St. Johns board reflects a variety of backgrounds and viewpoints.

“I feel we have a relatively diverse group from several different disciplines,” he said. “Me personally, I am a sixth-generation Floridian, and I certainly recognize first and foremost that water is a scarce resource that has to be protected. I grew up in Florida. I want to see my children grow up in Florida. I hope to see my grandchildren grow up in Florida.

“It is critical that we protect such a valuable resource. But there must be a balance between protecting that resource and making good use of that resource,” he said.

Brad McClenny

Fisherman are seen bowfishing at the mouth of the Ichetucknee River where it meets the Santa Fe River during an educational boat tour of the lower Santa Fe River for Florida legislators and their staff put on by the Suwannee River Water Management District near Fort White Fri., June 14, 2013.

Merillee Malwitz-Jipson, president of the environmental group Our Santa Fe River, said what is lacking now on the Suwannee board is an advocate to say no to new permits to pump water as springs struggle with declining flow and rising pollution.

“I think it’s heavily stacked toward agriculture and business,” Malwitz-Jipson said of the Suwannee board. “They say we can’t stop issuing permits because it’s going to stop growth.”

Suwannee board Chair Donald J. Quincey and the two Alachua County residents on the board — Kevin W. Brown and Virginia Johns, both of Alachua — could not be reached for comment.

Malwitz-Jipson wants the Suwannee district to stop issuing permits until minimum flows and levels are set for the Lower Santa Fe and Ichetucknee rivers and several priority springs along the rivers, including Poe.

That argument to turn down permits until more work was done setting minimum flows also was made by the environmental group Save Our Suwannee and member of the Bradford Soil and Water Conservation District in late 2011, when the Suwannee board unanimously approved a series of groundwater pumping permits for dairy farms that totaled about 5.5 million gallons per day.

Still, an ongoing situation in the St. Johns district has stirred up some skepticism about the effect minimum flows will have on permitting and pumping.

In the Keystone Heights area, drying Lake Geneva, Lake Brooklyn and Cowpen Lake are all below adopted minium flows and levels, and the St. Johns district is moving toward lowering the adopted levels, a process that’s not yet final.

University of Florida political science assistant professor Katrina Schwartz, who teaches a course in the politics of water, said that while the state DEP always had oversight over the water management districts, Tallahassee has been more “heavy-handed” in recent years.

In his first budget cycle after election, Scott slashed water management district budgets by a combined $700 million in 2011, leading to hundreds of layoffs.

Some of the rule changes during his tenure largely restrict water management districts from reducing allowable permitted water withdrawal levels on a permit because of changes in the economy or population growth rates. After the last legislative session, Scott signed into law a measure forbids districts from reducing groundwater pumping of a utility that builds a desalination plant.

Brad McClenny

People kayak and canoe on the Santa Fe River during an educational paddling tour for Florida legislators and their staff put on by the Suwannee River Water Management District on the Santa Fe River near High Springs, Thurs., June 13, 2013.

The state is in the process of putting in place uniform criteria that all water management districts need to follow when considering an application for a consumptive-use permit.

In written comments on that measure, the Florida Conservation Coalition said consistency in permitting is fine ­— if the goal is avoid the least-protective conditions attached to permits across the state.

Drew Bartlett, the DEP deputy secretary for Water Policy and Ecosystem Restoration, said the goal is to bring consistency across the districts with the same forms and procedures used in permitting.

Bartlett pointed to progress in establishing minimum flows of levels for the Lower Santa Fe, the Ichetucknee and primary springs in that area.

He said once those are in place, there will be a new regulatory framework and a higher bar for issuing new permits or extending permits that impact the water bodies.

He pointed to the DEP working with the Suwannee and St. Johns districts to work more closely on water supply planning in acknowledgement of the fact that groundwater pumping in one district affects aquifer levels in the other.

Bartlett, along with St. Johns and Suwannee district officials, pointed to the millions of dollars the state and districts pumped into springs restoration projects this year and the additional money expected next budget year.

Shortelle said the Suwannee district is dipping into about $3 million a year in reserves to fund retrofits and other cost-share efforts that have agriculture, the main business and water user in the district, pumping less.

She said metering requirements are on the way to find out how much water agribusiness is actually pumping, and the district has its first full-time water conservation specialist.

The results to this point are an estimated 10 million gallons per day in groundwater pumping. By comparison, permitted agricultural groundwater pumping in the district totals 348.11 million gallons per day.

Casey Fitzgerald, the head of the St. Johns district’s springs protection initiative, said a cost-share program put more than $46 million toward springs restoration projects this year. The state put in $9.3 million; the district funded $8.1 million; and local governments picked up the majority at more than $28 million. The projects included wastewater plant upgrades in Marion County to reduce the flow of nitrates into Silver Springs. Fitzgerald said that next year, the district’s funding is expected to rise to $14 million.

“It’s a pretty large elephant that’s going to take a lot of bites to consume, but we are starting to eat that elephant,” Fitzgerald said.

Still, funding is an issue. Fitzgerald said that, districtwide, 33 potential projects met the criteria for funding, while money was available for 22 of them.

Brad McClenny

Dr. Ann Shortelle, left, the executive director of the Suwannee River Water Management District, laughs with Kevin Brown, right, a board member of the SRWMD, and Virgina Sanchez, a board member of the SRWMD, after a joke by Rep. Tom Goodson, R, District 50, (not seen) during an educational boat tour of the lower Santa Fe River for Florida legislators and their staff put on by the Suwannee River Water Management District near Fort White Friday June 14, 2013.

Indeed, the water management districts had requested a combined $122 million for springs protection projects, the Tampa Bay Times reported in January.

State Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, said the water management districts do not have the funding or enforcement tools needed to make significant strides in saving the springs. Round after round of scientific studies, he said, were just delaying the necessary actions with “analysis paralysis.”

Simmons has drafted but not filed a bill that would identify 21 “outstanding” Florida springs that the state and water management districts have to protect. The bill, in its first draft, would tie not just water quantity but water quality to consumptive-use permitting. Districts could not issue new permits that reduce the flow of a spring or affect a spring polluted by nitrates. Tougher fertilizer regulations and wastewater treatment plant upgrades would be required. On lots one acre or smaller, homes on septic would, at no cost to a residential homeowner, have to hook up to municipal sewage.

The first draft of Simmons’ bill was circulated for comments and received a letter of objection signed by 30 organizations over costs and other issues. The organizations included the Associated Industries of Florida, the Florida Cattlemen’s Association, the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the Manufacturers Association of Florida and the Florida Rural Water Association.

Simmons said a second draft is being prepared.

“If we don’t do it now, I think we will be so far behind, it will be many generations before we catch up, and it will be a lot of economic pain on all of us,” Simmons said.

“People come to Florida because of our pristine water. And if someone would suggest to you we are not degrading that water now, I would suggest that person needs a reality check.”

Alan Youngblood / + Caption

Focusing on springs solutions

Fewer trees in managed forests could mean more water in the ground — potentially a lot more.
So say all 800,000 acres of pine plantations in the St. Johns River Water Management District owned by private companies such as Plum Creek and public agencies were thinned of pines and burned of understory.

The result could be hundreds of millions of gallons a day available to maintain the health of springs and rivers, to drink and to grow food, said Matt Cohen, University of Florida assistant professor of forest water resources and watershed systems.

“The interesting thing to me is that it really does generate a win-win-win,” Cohen said. “The water supply is a win, the habitat value is a win, and it’s a win if you are able to maintain forest land as opposed to something that requires much more intensive land management.”

Alan Youngblood

Water plants on the upper Silver River near the Silver Springs nature park on July 25, 2012. Years of drought and nitrate pollution have reduced the flow and spawned lots of green and brown algae growth compromising water clarity and quality.

Cohen is among the researchers who will be testing computer models that indicate vast recharge from forest thinning. Among the six test sites in the state will be land owned by the St. Johns district on Newnan’s Lake and potentially the Gainesville Regional Utilities wellfield property along Northwest 53rd Avenue.

If the results are as expected, forest thinning will join other proven methods scientists say can produce more water and cleaner water in Florida’s aquifer and springs.

Solutions exist to overpumping of the aquifer and the pollution of springs, they say. But two big gulfs need to be spanned for the solutions to be given a shot — politics and economics.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Suwannee River and St. Johns River water management districts have appropriated money to improve the health of two iconic springs — Silver in Marion County and Ichetucknee in Columbia County — by improving wastewater systems to slice the nutrients that make their way to the springs.

About $12.44 million, including $1.92 million from the St. Johns district and $1.92 million from DEP, will be used to improve treatment of wastewater for the city of Ocala’s system. About $8.2 million will be used for Marion County’s system, which includes $1.6 million from the St. Johns district and $1.5 million from DEP.

Casey Fitzgerald, who heads the spring restoration projects for the St. Johns district, said the work will significantly reduce the volume of nutrients that flows into the springs.

Ocala will go from a nitrate concentration of as much as 20 milligrams per liter down to 3 milligrams. Marion County will go from about 12 milligrams per liter to three. Marion County wastewater also will be routed to a golf course for irrigation, which will further reduce nitrogen.

Fitzgerald said the focus is on springs after the decades of effort to improve the water quality of lakes and rivers in the district.

Brad McClenny

The tannic water of the Santa Fe River bubbles from a boat engine during an educational boat tour of the lower Santa Fe River on June 14, 2013.

In addition to the improvement in utilities, Fitzgerald said extensive research will be done to identify other reasons Silver Springs is ailing and potential solutions.

“Springs are really the last and greatest challenge because it’s not as simple as with a lake. It is much more challenging to figure out all the sources and all of the different actors that are causing impairment to springs,” Fitzgerald said. “We are going to get a significant lift out of the (Ocala and Marion County) projects, but in the big scheme of things there is a lot more loading that needs to be dealt with.”

Meanwhile, DEP is giving $3.9 million to the Suwannee district’s Ichetucknee Springshed Water Quality Improvement project, which is designed to achieve an 85 percent drop in nutrients from the city of Lake City’s wastewater system that eventually flow into the Ichetucknee.

As part of the project, Lake City’s wastewater sprayfield will be turned into wetlands, which will help reduce nitrogen loading and improve the water quality of the Ichetucknee River and its springs.

Getting municipal utilities to improve their systems is one thing, especially when money to help is available.

But getting homeowners who want a perfectly green lawn or farmers who want bumper crops to change their ways might be a challenge even though it has been proven the lawns and crops can be grown just as well with less fertilizer.

Wendy Graham, a groundwater hydrologist and director of UF’s Water Institute, said research has shown that just a fraction of the fertilizer used by farmers is taken up by the plants, while a large portion of it leaches into the groundwater.

Brad McClenny

Sprinklers spray corn crops at a dairy near Fort White on Friday, June 14, 2013.

Overuse of fertilizer is a primary culprit in the increase of nutrients in the springs.

But farmers and environmental engineers who work with them say the volume of nutrients reaching the groundwater has been greatly reduced through technology and new techniques.

Del Bottcher, president of Soil and Water Engineering Technology Inc. and a former UF professor in agricultural engineering, said major dairies in the region including Alliance Dairies based in Trenton are largely meeting state requirements to contain nutrients.

When monitoring at dairies shows excess nutrients, fines are levied that hurt the dairy’s bottom line.

“Dairies are the only agricultural operation that have to operate under permit, under scrutiny, and under nutrient management programs from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection,” Bottcher said. “Monitoring is a final check to make sure everything is being managed properly. The permit also requires them to actually measure how much they are putting out on each one of them and also measure how much nutrient removal is occurring with the crop. The permit requires that you remove as many nutrients as you are putting on.”

Meanwhile, most watermelon farmers in the region now use underground drip irrigation, which reduces the amount of water used. Fertilizer is under a sheet of plastic, which prevents rain from leaching into the groundwater.

Brad McClenny / + Caption