Lars Andersen makes his living on North Florida’s waters.
As the owner and lead tour guide for Adventure Outpost, he knows their histories and intimately understands their geographies.
But he is worried.
Just last summer, he watched his business suffer as water levels on the Santa Fe River dropped and smothering algae blanketed its surface. The Outpost’s canoes and kayaks could not enter the river at their usual locations, and customers were deterred by the appearance of the algae and the accompanying health warnings.
“It’s pretty awful, really, what’s going on,” Andersen said. “It’s just trying to make people feel it themselves and understand the importance of it, but that’s hard to do.”
Other, less visible concerns include high levels of nutrients, fecal matter and chemical waste entering the water, as well as the risk of overpumping the Floridan aquifer system.
The problems that Alachua County’s bodies of water are facing are not unique, but they are important. The water eventually sinks back down into the Floridan aquifer, the underwater store that supplies much of the state’s water, including its drinking water.
“One law isn’t really going to help”
Experts say people need to use less water and take precautions to reduce polluted stormwater runoff — changes that the county government encourages through education but has trouble enforcing legally.
Stormwater runoff carries many pollutants with it when it seeps back into the aquifer, sharing a pollutant cocktail with the main source of tap water. The water is cleaned before it reaches faucets, but people could see their water bills rise if water treatment becomes more costly.
Robert “Hutch” Hutchinson, an Alachua County commissioner, is among those who making a priority of improving the quality and quantity of local waters.
Having grown up in Gainesville, he has seen the environmental impact over the years.
“Newnans Lake has gone from clear 50 years ago, when I was a kid living on it, to the most eutrophic lake in the state of Florida,” Hutchinson said. “You can stick a canoe paddle in the water, and it will stand up, the algae is so thick.”
High chlorophyll concentrations and high nutrient levels contribute to warm month algae growth, which covers the water’s surface with a slimy carpet of sick-green.
Hutchinson said he would like to see future subdivisions in the county built with infrastructures that would capture runoff and treat it before it begins its journey into the aquifer.
At other sites, projects are in motion to improve the runoff situation. The Paynes Prairie Sheetflow Restoration Project, for example, will treat runoff before it makes it to the Alachua Sink, which has high nitrogen levels.
The results of decades of water pollution are increasingly evident in Florida’s springs, which are filled with water straight from the aquifer and provide a gauge of its health.
Boulware and Glen are among the springs that show the impact of nutrients entering the aquifer. Historically, springs, which are fed directly from the aquifer, have had very low nitrate levels, said Jennifer Mitchell, senior environmental specialist at the Alachua County Environmental Protection Department.
But recently, Boulware and Glen springs have had high levels of nitrate and algae growth, which can harm the natural ecosystem.
The county EPD said residents help reduce the pollutants entering the aquifer by cleaning up their pets’ waste, making sure not to use more fertilizer than necessary and checking the condition of their septic tank, if they have one.
“We take a very education-based approach,” Mitchell said. “Because it’s really a problem that one person isn’t going to be able to solve, and one law isn’t really going to help. It’s going to be everybody doing their share.”
Pollution and aquifer strain
Advocates, such as Andersen, the Adventure Outpost guide, find that while awareness is growing among people who care about the environment, it can be hard to persuade people to change their habits.
Andersen grew up in Gainesville. As a child, he played in the springs and took their beautiful, clear water for granted. But in 1967, when about 1 million pounds of thick, black creosote darkened the light, tannin-stained waters of Hogtown Creek, it left an impression on him.
The creosote, waste from tar distillation, ended up in the creek when a private investor took over the Cabot Carbon site and released the waste into a drainage ditch. At the time, Andersen couldn’t go near the water because the smell of the creosote was so pungent.
Today, he said, if you dig a few inches into the bottom of the creek, you will get a whiff of the remaining creosote that has settled under the sand.
The Cabot Carbon site is part of the toxic Cabot-Koppers Superfund site, which continues to pollute soil and water in Gainesville.
Overabundant nutrients and chemicals aren’t the only dangers to Alachua’s waters. Drought has been a major cause of low water levels in past years, which cannot be directly controlled.
People are concerned, however, about the possibility of draining too much of the aquifer’s water, especially as water levels are affected by drought.
Hutchinson said it is not clear whether Floridians are in immediate danger of using too much of the aquifer’s water, but that precautions should be taken to avoid doing so. Springs throughout the state are drying up or experiencing reduced flow, indicating a likely strain on the aquifer.
“At some point, we’ll get to where we are overpumping if we don’t change what we are doing,” he said.
Water use education deemed crucial
The county’s water education efforts also promote less water use.
Residential water use mostly goes toward outdoor activities like watering lawns, with flushing toilets and washing clothes as runners-up, according to a 1999 survey by the Awwa Research Foundation, which is now the Water Research Foundation.
The county EPD encourages residents to minimize their water use by watering their lawns less often; installing low-flow appliances; checking sinks and plumbing for leaks; and replacing thirsty lawns with drought-resistant, native plants.
Gainesville Regional Utilities, which serves Gainesville and much of Alachua County, is also making an effort to conserve water. The company has committed to receiving the same base allocation of water as it does currently for the next 20 years, despite a growing population. GRU predicts this plan will work if individuals continue to reduce their water consumption and if the company increases its use of reclaimed water.
Meanwhile, Florida Leaders Organized for Water is advancing legislation called the Floridan Aquifer System Sustainability Act of 2013. This would allow researchers to gather and analyze existing and new data on the aquifer for a clearer picture of its health. It would also allow the creation of a statewide system of sustainable solutions, rather than the current patchwork approach.
Andersen said water initiatives should be carried out at the state level because water boundaries pay no attention to county lines, making it difficult for one county to do all that is needed. But recently the state government has left some advocates feeling abandoned.
“Legislature has proven time and time again that they don’t care about water issues,” Hutchinson said. “We’re sort of in political denial that we should be doing anything about it.”
During Gov. Rick Scott’s term, budget cuts have affected water management districts and the state Department of Environmental Protection, lessening the resources available to monitor bodies of water and improve their health.
During Gov. Rick Scott’s term, budget cuts have affected water management districts and the state Department of Environmental Protection, and clean water standards have weakened.
The state government also restrains the ability of county governments to make changes that benefit local bodies of water. The state’s uniform building code prevents the county from requiring the low-flow appliances and advanced septic tanks that it encourages people to invest in. And the state’s control over agricultural practices prevents the county from regulating the amount of fertilizer used or how much irrigation can occur — areas that the state only regulates loosely, Hutchinson said.
Despite the restraints, Andersen said he doesn’t think the county has done as much as it could to help the water in the past. He hopes the current county commission, which seems more concerned about the environment, will do more.
In January, construction started on a county-supported project to build a pipeline to reroute Waldo’s sewage, which had been pumped into the Santa Fe River without being properly treated, to Gainesville’s wastewater treatment plant.
Hutchinson would also like to see better handling of stormwater runoff, incentives for developers who agree to voluntary water conservation and quality standards, and local sustainability innovations.
In the meantime, advocates consider education crucial. The challenge, Hutchinson said, is getting people to understand the problems when so many are disconnected from the natural world around them.
“The people who are concerned are becoming much more aware and much more active and involved, but the vast majority of people are staring at their iPhones,” he said. “Kids can name more Pokémon characters than actual living things in their own backyard.”