Yet another depressing description of our water managers’ failures.
Even so, the missing piece in the county’s wetlands protection plan, “the elephant in the living room,” is a lack of regulation for agricultural uses. “In the Santa Fe River, the biggest (nitrogen) load is still agriculture.” “Best management practices are not working.”
Read the original article here in the Gainesville Sun.
Comments by OSFR historian Jim Tatum.
-A river is like a life: once taken, it cannot be brought back-
Cover Story: Alachua County’s watersheds are in trouble
By RON CUNNINGHAM
In 1883, Carl Webber stepped off the train onto the streets of Gainesville and quickly deemed it a veritable “Eden of the South,” blessed with “the best of water; good society; a liberal, free-minded people; and the highest educational advantages.”
He was especially taken by the beautiful little creek that ran through the heart of the city.
“An excellent branch of water,” Webber wrote of Sweetwater, which “will doubtless be utilized some day as a natural sewerage or for a water supply.”
Webber was prophetic, because the ironically named Sweetwater would become the convenient funnel through which Gainesville deposited its wastewater directly into Paynes Prairie, and thence into the aquifer via Alachua Sink.
One hundred and thirty five years later, residents have fallen in love with the primitive beauty of the 125-acre Sweetwater Wetlands Park, one of Gainesville’s newest recreational amenities.
But in a very real sense the park, aka the Payne’s Prairie Sheetflow Restoration Project, is a $28 million atonement for the decades in which the prairie was Gainesville’s open sewer. It exists to filter Sweetwater’s nutrient-laden water before it can get into the aquifer.
The lesson of Sweetwater Wetlands Park — not to mention Gainesville’s $60 million Depot Park, another water treatment facility disguised as a playground — is simply this: “It’s much more expensive to clean up after you already have the problem,” said Chris Bird, environmental protection director for Alachua County. “Good-news projects like Sweetwater and Depot parks are steps in the right direction, but they are really retrofit projects trying to fix 100 years of urban development.”
Bird keeps on display a colorful map of Alachua County’s watersheds. He calls the creeks, rivers, lakes, springsheds and wetlands detailed on the map the county’s natural “kidneys.” And a close examination of the map makes one thing clear: Alachua County is about two-thirds kidney.
Moreover, from the much-abused Santa Fe River on our northern border, to the creeks that spread through Gainesville like veins, to the diminished fishing grounds of Newnan’s, Orange and Lochloosa lakes, it is apparent that the county’s kidneys are in trouble.
“If you really look at the condition of our lakes and creeks, the trend is that they are still deteriorating,” Bird said.
Chain of lakes
Newnan’s, for instance, is the most eutrophic lake in Florida, thanks largely to drainage projects that began with the development of the airport and continued throughout east Gainesville — the cumulative effect being to expose Newnan’s to rich natural deposits of phosphorous that lie just beneath the surface.
“We’ve completely altered the entire drainage basin of Newnan’s Lake in a generation,” said Robert Hutchinson, the county commissioner who spends a great deal of time cruising that dark lake in his pontoon boat. “We went from a relatively clear lake in the 1950s to what it is today, basically an algae soup.”
Because they are all connected, Orange and Lochloosa lakes suffer, albeit to different degrees, from the same phosphate overloads as Newnan’s. And water quality in those designated Outstanding Florida Waters have been in decline since at least 1985, according to state environmental officials.
Nonetheless, because Lochloosa is downstream and largely free of urban development along its shoreline, its water remains relatively cleaner and clearer than in Newnan’s.
“I believe Lake Lochloosa is a future water supply for Alachua County, our best possible reservoir,” Hutchinson said. “We would be much better off buying that watershed and protecting it for future drinking water.”
At the heart of the problems plaguing Newnan’s, Orange and Lochloosa is the fact that much of the eastern half of the county is, for all practical purposes, one large, interconnected series of wetlands. That’s why proposals by the Weyerhaeuser Company, formerly Plum Creek, to develop more than 52,000 acres of land in the area, creating the equivalent of a new small city, have been so controversial.
“Where does your sewage go for a city of 25,000?” Hutchinson poses. “There’s only two ways, Lochloosa Creek or deep well injunction … toilet to tap.”
River under siege
Meanwhile, at the upper end of the county, the spring-fed Santa Fe River has been estimated to have a $20 million annual economic impact on the region, thanks to the tubers, divers and kayakers who flock there. But in recent years the Santa Fe has lost up to 40 percent of its historic flows, largely due to increased groundwater pumping, and nitrate-nitrogen concentrations have increased by as much as 3,000 percent, mostly due to agricultural and dairy runoff in the region — this according to the Florida Springs Institute.
“Today’s intensive agricultural practices can only be continued by sustainable ‘mining’ of the remaining Floridan Aquifer system,” the Institute warns. “Only significant reductions in groundwater pumping and the use of agricultural fertilizers and pesticides will save the river.”
Much of the water coming out of the aquifer is for irrigation, and not just farming, but to keep residential lawns green. To help ease overpumping, the county has adopted more stringent landscape irrigation design codes. But none of the municipalities have opted to enforce the county standards.
“In Alachua County, for every gallon of water used for discretionary landscape irrigation, effectively one less gallon of water will replenish the springs on the Santa Fe River,” Bird said.
The ‘dirty mop’
Further south lies another stressed waterway, Hogtown Creek and its tributaries. Gainesville is a city of creeks, and about two-thirds of the city is drained by Hogtown.
In 1966 and again in 1977, large deposits of pine tar wastes were released from the Cabot-Koppers hazardous waste site into Hogtown. Cabot-Koppers, along with gasoline leakage from deteriorating underground tanks and frequent spills from the sewage pipes that criss-cross the creeks, were for years large contributors of Hogtown’s pollution.
“After a major storm event the smell of creosote would be really strong,” recalls Ewan Thompson, who since 1989 has lived on seven acres of land on Hogtown, just downstream from Springstead Creek, which drains the Cabot-Koppers Superfund site. “We would see white sand bars mixed with black stuff.”
Better on-site drainage controls at Cabot-Koppers and tougher state regulations requiring double-walled gasoline tanks have eliminated much of the contamination. And although sewage spills still occasionally occur, Bird says GRU has been more diligent about preventing them.
“We’ve done a good job at dealing with point source pollution,” Hutchinson said. “The smell of gasoline in the creek near the Gainesville mall was so strong it almost gagged you. But what we haven’t done is address non-point source pollution.”
Which is to say, all of the junk and gunk that the rest of us deposit into our creeks.
Now the chief concern in the creeks are high levels of fecal coliform bacteria, much of it a result of pet owners who neglect to pick up after their dogs. Add to that leaking septic tanks; runoff from the overuse of lawn pesticides and fertilizers; and all of the other oils, chemicals and detritus that gets swept into the creeks after every rainstorm.
Bird compares it to wringing out a giant mop: All of the dirty water ends up in the creeks.
Hogtown Creek is still popular with waders and shark-teeth hunters. But if you ask him for his advice, Bird says, “You’re better off staying out of creeks.”
Looking for solutions
Earlier this year, the county commission voted to extend its wetlands protection ordinance to incorporated as well as unincorporated areas, despite resistance from some of the small cities.
“The best bang for the buck is to just stay out of the wetlands in the first place,” Bird said.
The challenge is to keep new development out of the flood plains and create or preserve natural stormwater catch basins that can slow stormwater surges long enough to filter out the pollutants. “The practice in Florida has been to get rid of water as fast as you can,” he said.
Even so, the missing piece in the county’s wetlands protection plan, “the elephant in the living room,” is a lack of regulation for agricultural uses. “In the Santa Fe River, the biggest (nitrogen) load is still agriculture,” he said. “Best management practices are not working.”