Worry and Hope for North Florida’s Springs

By Elizabeth Wirick

When Tom Morris was a child, one of his favorite swimming holes was Troy Springs along the Suwannee River.

“It was a blue jewel,” says Morris of Karst Environmental Services, a High Springs company specializing in water and biological resource projects in Florida’s spring country. There was a pure-white sand bottom, and a beautiful rock ledge.

But today, the ledge “has so much algae on it that it’s bubbling up like a lava lamp. It was pretty grotesque. It made me feel sick, because it used to be beautiful.”

Falmouth Springs in Live Oak was another blue jewel of his boyhood. “That was a great swimming hole,” Morris remembers. “It flowed almost all the time. Glass-smooth surface, white sand, clear rocks.”

Now, Falmouth is covered with algae. “It looks pretty miserable, there are several instances where it quit flowing all together,” says Morris. “Even when it’s flowing there’s big streamers of green algae, that didn’t use to be there.”

Florida has relatively rich water resources, with about 54 inches of rainfall a year and a prolific aquifer that feeds an estimated 1,000 springs in central and north Florida. But in recent decades, the blue-gem springs have grown tarnished – both water quality and quantity are in decline. Water flow in an era of groundwater pumping, fertilizers and wastes from animals and humans alike all come into play.

Water scientists from state agencies, the University of Florida and other campuses, and NGOs are tackling the problems with various initiatives, such as UF’s $3 million Collaborative Research Initiative on Sustainability and Protection of Springs, launched in partnership with the St. Johns River Water Management District. They are investigating the most feasible and cost-effective ways to reduce nitrate loading; asking whether that alone will save the springs; and digging further into the causes of excess algae in the springs. For example, what impact does the speed of water – the velocity – which declines with groundwater over-pumping, have on algae? How about the snails that graze on algae? Scientists are also looking at the effectiveness of “Best Management Practices “also so known as” BMP’s” by Florida’s agricultural industry to reduce fertilizer use in springsheds.

The future of the springs hinges on change more widespread than any one scientific initiative or industry. Wendy Graham is the Carl S. Swisher Eminent Scholar in Water Resources in UF’s Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering and director of the UF Water Institute. She stresses that from BMPs to the way we live with water, “it’s going to take a big change” to ensure the health of the springs. “It’s not a small tweak to get from where we are to where we need to go.”

Live Oak resident Mickey Jones, a registered cave diver who works as a manager for engineering projects and design in other parts of the world, argues that science and technology exist to help us take better care of our natural waters — from upgrading leaking septic tanks to more sophisticated water-recycling systems — but society isn’t willing to pay. He also observes the extent to which Florida stakeholders fight over water issues rather than working together to create the type of change Graham envisions.

“It’s all about, ‘how does this effect me’,” Jones says. “What we should be saying is, how this affects your children, grandchildren, your neighbors and future prosperity.”

“It’s a big challenge,” says Graham. “And we need to get busy.”

Troy Springs, off the Suwannee River near the North Florida town of Branford, is one of Florida’s first magnitude springs, and long a favorite for its 70 feet of blue water. In recent years, this blue gem has grown tarnished. Currently, swimming and diving activities are shuttered at Troy “due to brown-out conditions and visibility of less than four feet.” (Photos by Jennifer Adler)

About Project Blue Ether

WUFT News is publishing this multi-week series on water by University of Florida students, led by award-winning environmental journalist and author Cynthia Barnett, who is a visiting professor at the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications.