Gainesville’s first environmental book club makes a splash for water preservation

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Ethan LeBlanc, 20, wakes up every day looking forward to taking in the views of one of the clearest springs in Florida. 

For the past two years, he has been up at 5:20 a.m. preparing for his daily 50-minute commute to Ginnie Springs from his home in Gainesville. He said his love for the springs motivated him to work as the shift supervisor and rentals manager at the Ginnie Springs Outdoors store. 

With every visitor who arrives, worries pop up in his mind: overuse of water bottles and water consumption. Despite not being allowed to measure the springs’ water levels, LeBlanc said he has noticed a slight decrease in his two years at the springs. 

LeBlanc said he felt guilty that he did not know how to stand up for environmental justice causes and worried that some day it would be too late. Now, he has found a way to stand up for the environment.

This January, Our Santa Fe River, an all-volunteer, nonprofit organization, assembled an environmental book club to bring together North Florida residents, like LeBlanc, who are concerned about water pollution and access. This is the first environmental-focused book club in Gainesville and aims to advocate for environmental causes through reading and open discussions.

The idea is the brainchild of  David Vaina, one of the 10 Our Santa Fe River board members. He started this initiative hoping to educate others about the health of the Santa Fe River and the springs that feed it.

The Santa Fe River faces challenges that are both qualitative and quantitative, Vaina said. Among the most pressing challenges is pollution, largely from big agriculture, but also from golf courses and people fertilizing their lawns. These types of land use cause a lot of nitrogen overload, which harms water quality due to the rapid growth of algae that aquatic organisms are unable to handle. In addition, there is also a decrease in the water oxygen levels. 

As the area grows, more people are using water, Vaina said. The organization advocates for water conservation at an individual and larger scale, such as in cities, counties and big farms.

Possessing information on how to keep the river safe is not only vital for the sake of the river but also for members who make up the book club, Vaina said.

Merrillee Malwitz-Jipson, one of the Our Santa Fe River founding board members, owns a canoe and kayak rental service and a local restaurant, Rum 138, on the Santa Fe River. Malwitz-Jipson views the environmental book club initiative as a place for like-minded individuals to gather and spread awareness about the environment.

“We’re just trying to connect with other people that are of the same mindset that value interesting opportunities to read books … that we can actually also benefit from in our work lives and home places,” Malwitz-Jipson said.

The book club’s first meeting took place Jan. 16 in the outdoor section of the First Magnitude Brewing Company near downtown Gainesville. The group discussed “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants” by Robin Wall Kimmerer.

About 20 people were present at the initial meeting. Moderator Sarah Younger, chair of The Suwannee-St. Johns Group Sierra Club, a nonprofit organization that influences public policy and protects the state’s natural resources, took two months to reflect and prepare for the discussion.

“The vast amount of water in our planet is not even drinkable, so we have to be aware of our freshwater systems, and our present administration of water management seems to not understand our water limits,” Younger said. “We do not realize how good we have it in comparison to other countries.”

In 2021, the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute also released the results of a three-year study of the Santa Fe River and springs that showed an alarming increase in nitrogen pollution and a decrease in its flow compared to previous years.

Organizations like the environmental book club that gather around topics like water issues are valuable because people can have conversations and figure out ways that they can change their behavior to protect the environment, said Stacie Greco, the water conservation coordinator at the Alachua County Environmental Protection Department. 

“As we have more and more people and we use more and more water, every drop we use is a drop that doesn’t make it to recharge our springs,” Greco said. 

Vaina said he aspires for the book club to involve more Gainesville residents and University of Florida students with the work that Our Santa Fe River does to help the environment.

“We want the river to be around for a long time, so we want people to remember that the river is in trouble, and it needs some work around it,” Vaina said.

The next environmental book club meeting will take place Feb. 20 from 2 to 3 p.m. at the First Magnitude Brewing Company. The discussion will cover “A Sand County Almanac” by Aldo Leopold. The club’s meetings schedule will be published on Our Santa Fe River’s Facebook page.

About Denisse Flores Lopez

Denisse is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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