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'Clock is Ticking' for Silver Springs, Environmentalists Warn

One of Florida’s most popular natural attractions is disappearing. That’s the alarm environmentalists are sounding about Silver Springs in Ocala.

Silver Springs has been attracting swimmers, kayakers, nature enthusiasts and other tourists since the mid-1800s. But the once-bubbling springs don't bubble anymore, and  Charles Lee, Outreach Director for Audubon Florida, says he knows why.

“Well, that hasn’t been there for better than ten years now. You look at the spring, and it looks like a glassy, flat surface of water because of the significantly reduced amount of flow out of Silver Springs," he says.

Dr. Robert Knight, who directs the nonprofit Florida Springs Institute, has been documenting that significantly reduced flow. Knight’s data show the spring has lost roughly 2/3 of its flow since the 1980s. Lee says, judging by the rate of decline in flow just over the past year, “The spring would run out of water and go dry in 20 months. If you take the rate of decline, which is more conservative, over the last 12 years, and multiply that out into the future, the spring would go dry in another 12 years. So, the clock is ticking for Silver Springs. We are about to lose it," he says.

People who haven’t visited Silver Springs might recognize the area from its many appearances on TV and movie screens. It was the filming location for classics like the original "Tarzan" films and the black-and-white horror gem "Creature from the Black Lagoon. "

Today, the state of Florida owns the land the springs are on and leases it to an entertainment company that runs a multi-million dollar theme park and the always popular glass-bottom boat tours. But Lee says the spring and all of the tourism dollars are in danger of drying up because of two things: a long-term decrease in rainfall across the state and increased groundwater pumping for human use.

“A spring will flow as long as there is water in the aquifer at a higher level above the orifice of the spring that pushes the water out," he says.

So, when a businessman recently applied for a permit to pump millions of water per day for a nearby cattle ranch in McCoy, Fla., environmentalists rallied against the proposal. Supporters of the cattle operation have touted it as a job creator for North Central Florida. But, former U.S. Sen. and Florida Gov. Bob Graham, who leads the Florida Conservation Coalition, disagrees.

“I think it’s exactly the opposite, that the whole economy of Florida today and in the future depends on our wise use of water," he says. "And that if we allow some of our major sources of it to be destroyed, those will be the defeats from which we can never recover.”

In May, Dr. Knight, of the Springs Institute, sent his alarming findings about Silver Springs in a letter to the directors of the two adjacent water management districts, and to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. He urged immediate action, including an all-out moratorium on granting large-scale water-pumping permits. The St. Johns River Water Management District is reviewing the cattle ranch permit application, and district spokesman Hank Largin says Knight’s letter definitely raised some eyebrows.

“Dr. Knight made some very good points in his letter, and he had some suggestions that we wanted to follow up on," he says.

So, the directors of the St. Johns River and Southwest Florida Water Management Districts, and DEP leaders, met with Knight to discuss the situation. Next, they are going to meet and share their own data about Silver Springs with each other.

“We want to get all the science on the same page," Largin says.

He says they’ll be inviting public input on the issue at future meetings. But, for the time being, the districts do not plan moratoria on water use permits. He says they evaluate each pumping application according to standards set by the Florida Legislature. But Charles Lee, of Audubon Florida, says those standards don’t reflect the new rainfall levels.

“So when they run the models that determine how much can be 'safely' withdrawn from the aquifer, they’re running those models on the basis of outdated information that says we’re getting a lot more rain than we really are," he says.

Jim Stevenson, a retired senior biologist with the Department of Environmental Protection, says governments aren’t the only ones who affect spring levels and quality. He says springs all over Florida aren’t crystal clear anymore because of residents’ everyday actions.

“Stop fertilizing," he says.  "It’s amazing how much fertilizer we use on our lawns that’s totally unnecessary, and it goes down into the groundwater as a nitrate and out to our springs and it creates serious problems with algae and hydrilla.”

Audubon’s Charles Lee says, at Silver Springs, the algae is so bad, the springs' namesake silver sand is now Army green. But if water regulators don’t change their use-permit guidelines soon, he fears, there won’t be any spring left to clean up.

The St. Johns River and Southwest Florida Water Management Districts and DEP leaders are meeting on July 19 to discuss the issue, and the cattle ranch water permit application is still being reviewed.