Before Disney World and Sea World, visitors flocked to Florida for a different kind of tourist experience. But as the state’s springs face pollution and over pumping, that legacy is fading along with the local economies that depend on it.
Each summer, visitors flood Wakulla Springs State park to swim through the deep cool water, spot the manatees and watch the Anhinga fish. But Luis Poppelreiter, who drove with his family from Panama City Beach, said the park has changed over the years.
“You could see everything crystal clear. The whole bottom was clear. All the plant life was flowing waving. Now it’s covered in algae, so you don’t get to see any of that,” Poppelreiter said.
And Florida Spring Institute President Bob Knight said pollution combined with decreased flows from people pumping too much water out of aquifers, is posing a serious threat to what he calls the first tourist attraction of Florida—springs.
“When you reduce flow in a river you reduce the productivity of everything in it. You reduce the productivity of the plants and the fish and all the wildlife that depend on the river. You reduce the ability of the river to support recreation and aesthetic properties,” Knight said.
Knight said under state law, there’s supposed to be a limit on how much water people can pump out of the underground aquifers and rivers. They’re called minimum flow standards.
“I guess the way to explain it to someone is this is like the minimum standards to graduate from high school. If you have anything less than this minimum flow this river does not pass muster and it needs to be fixed. It needs to have remediation. It needs to be recovered. It’s sort of a bad target. It’d be much better to set adequate flow and reserve flow for these rivers,” Knight said.
In addition to setting minimum flow standards, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection is also working on limits for nutrients in the water. Deputy Director for Water Policy and Ecosystem Restoration Drew Bartlett says his department is working with farmers to help them use water more efficiently.
“You can stand in your yard with a hose and just spray the hose. Or you can lay down a soaker hose that drips water at the roots and it gets right to the roots and so you’re not putting excess water out there that the plants aren’t even taking advantage of,” Bartlett said.
Bartlett said the state incentivizes farmers to use water more efficiently. But Bob Knight, with the Spring Institute, says some of those efforts are hurting more than they’re helping. On the road to Ginnie Springs, he points out such a farm.
“I would estimate somewhere between 50 and 70 percent of the fertilizer is going into the ground and that water is heading right for Ginnie Springs. And that water that’s come out of the sprinkler is water that would have come out of Ginnie Springs,” Knight said.
Knight says the farmer is pumping that water straight out of the underground aquifer, which means he’s not paying for it, and doesn’t have a big incentive to make sure it doesn’t go to waste. And the fertilizer Knight’s talking about is one of the biggest culprits for the nitrogen that’s causing pollution and algae growth in many springs. Ginnie Springs owner Mark Wray said he’s worried about the herbicides that could be coming to his springs too.
Wray said his water used to be crystal clear. The bottom was covered in eelgrass with a sugar white sand path down the middle.
“If you look at this thing right now, it’s still very beautiful. But, what’s missing, is all the plant life is gone. And I could say basically, but it’s pretty much all. And what’s taken its place is all this green algae and brown algae you see on the bottom,” Wray said.
Without healthy vegetation, Wray said his spring is in trouble.
“You know, this is mother nature. We need the grasses for the turtles to eat and we need it for the fish and lots of other organisms,” Wray said.
Wray said while his visitors might be happy not have grass to tangle their tubes in, they won’t be happy when there are no fish or animals to enjoy, which he says would also mean bad news for his business. Wray suspects the loss of vegetation is probably linked with the use of herbicides in nearby fields. But Tom Frick, the Director of the DEP’s Environmental Assessment and Restoration division says he doesn’t think the concentration of herbicides in the water is a big problem.
“So, you’re looking at very, very low concentrations. And we just don’t’ see that problem in our springs across the state because there’s literally hundreds of millions of gallons of water that are coming out daily out of these systems,” Frick said.
Meanwhile, Altamonte Springs Republican Senator David Simmons is working with a group of lawmakers to draft a bill for the coming session that would put standards and timelines in place for protection and restoration efforts that have sometimes been sluggish.
“We’re trying to come up with a feasible, reasonable solution. One solution however, is not acceptable. And that is to do nothing,” Simmons said.
Meanwhile, Knight said he hopes Simmons’ bill gets serious consideration. But he worries about the impact a pushback from big industries like utilities and agriculture could have.
“Everything is so taboo these days. There’s always some interest group against you,” Knight said.
But Knight said even though sometimes he feels like Don Quixote tilting at windmills, he’s not giving up. He says eventually, he has to win. He has the high ground.