Don’t Leave Florida’s Springs Out to Dry

Aerial view of glass bottom boats at Silver Springs. Harley Means/FDEP
Once upon a time, in a swampy, far away land, there were crystal clear natural springs that mesmerized visitors traveling to Florida from miles and miles away. Before the wonderful world of Disney was constructed atop the headwaters of the Everglades ecosystem, natural wonders like Silver Springs were among Florida’s most popular tourist attractions. Children would peer wide-eyed through Silver Springs’ glass-bottomed boats into a magical underwater world. These springs were renowned for their beauty and the brilliant display of nature they offer – complete with alligators, turtles, birds, and even manatees!

I will never forget the only way to truly cool off after a grueling track practice in Florida’s unrelenting summer heat – floating down Itchetucknee Springs in a gigantic inner tube. I was captivated by being able to see through the crystal clear water to the river’s startlingly white floor, dotted with grasses and small fish. It’s easy to understand why people flocked to these cool, beautiful spring waters.

Florida has roughly 700 springs, which may be the largest concentration of freshwater springs in the world. And when I say springs, I don’t mean the geothermal hot springs found in other areas of the United States. Florida springs remain relatively cool because, instead of coming from deep below the earth, the water pools where the layer of shallow limestone that stores Florida’s groundwater rises very close to the surface.

These precious springs — springs that have been an integral part of Florida’s history and geology — are in danger.

A Silent Danger

Though at a cursory glance, Florida’s springs remain beautiful and unharmed, a closer look reveals just how endangered these natural wonders are.

Boston Public Library/Flickr
Boston Public Library/Flickr
Silver Springs in Central Florida was one of the state’s most popular tourist destinations, and its crystal clear water made it a popular place to film Hollywood television shows and movies like Tarzan and Creature of the Black Lagoon. Places like Silver Springs, however, are slowly succumbing to the pressures of drought, development, and excessive groundwater pumping. Nutrients from agricultural pollution have fed algal growth, covering the typically white bottom with slimy, green algae.

The degradation of water quality in Florida’s springs is costly to native fish, wildlife, and plants. According to a recent editorial, roughly 92% of fish biomass in Silver Springs and the Silver River has disappeared, nitrate-nitrogen concentrations are over 25 times higher than historical records, and algae coats the spring and river floor. Silver Springs has long been an important source of freshwater for the St. Johns River watershed and still attracts over 800,000 visitors annually, so the spring’s degradation has far-reaching consequences both ecologically and economically.

Saving the Springs

Floating down Ichetucknee Springs. Jking89/Flickr
The plight of Silver Springs is indicative of a larger problem facing the state as nutrient pollution and overuse degrade and deplete the quality and quantity of Florida’s waters. Damage to these beautiful and unique springs may become irreversible unless the State of Florida takes action to stop pollution and implement effective restoration plans to heal our sick springs.

Earlier this year, the Legislature approved $70 million in Everglades cleanup money, $15.5 million of which is for springs projects. Despite this step in the right direction, there are still gaping holes in the way Florida manages its precious water resources. One is the lack of balanced representation in guiding state water resource decisions. For the first time in nearly three decades, none of Florida’s water management agencies has a board member who can be called an environmentalist.

For the sake of our springs and our wildlife, we need to hold Florida’s legislature and water resource agencies accountable to restore Florida’s natural springs to the clean, healthy waters they once were.