Bob Knight: Unseen forces are slowly destroying springs

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The Gainesville Sun has published the following opinion piece by Dr. Bob Knight, who is advisor to OSFR.

Bob Knight: Unseen forces are slowly destroying springs

By Bob Knight / Special to The Sun

Posted May 24, 2018 at 2:00 PMUpdated May 24, 2018 at 2:35 PM

The fable of the boiled frog is a time-worn metaphor for a loss we don’t notice until it is too late.

For example, if the hundreds of thousands of wells in North Florida were all pumping full-throttle this weekend, thousands of visitors planning to celebrate the Memorial Day holiday at the Santa Fe River and its 36 artesian springs would be horrified to find a stagnant linear cesspool instead of a clear flowing river, and cloudy, tannic-stained water and filamentous algae instead of sky-blue and crystal-clear springs. But since the amount of water in the Floridan Aquifer has been reduced by one new well at a time, few people have noticed that the Santa Fe River and springs are slowly drying up.

The Santa Fe River serves as the geographical boundary between Alachua, Bradford, Columbia, Gilchrist, Suwannee and Union counties, and stretches 75 miles from Lake Santa Fe on the east to the west where it becomes the largest tributary to the Suwannee River.

The Santa Fe is the only true river in Alachua County. It is not tapped as a water supply for any municipality and, unlike the Suwannee and other Florida rivers, it does not receive a single point discharge from any wastewater pipe. As rivers go, the Santa Fe is as close to pristine as any.

Long-term data indicate that more than 60 percent of the flow at the mouth of the Santa Fe River was historically derived from spring flow. Historic flows in the river from the 1920s until 1960 averaged over 1 billion gallons per day. Average flows in the river over the past two decades have declined by 30 to 40 percent. Much of this lost flow is the clear groundwater that used to gush forth from the numerous springs that feed the river.

The springs along the Santa Fe and the river itself serve as the outdoor recreational destination for about 1 million visitors each year. High Springs serves as the de facto “Gateway to the Springs,” welcoming, nourishing and outfitting those visitors with food, kayaks, paddleboards, canoes, tubes, scuba gear and advice on where to go and what to see.

Interview a few thousand of those adventurers and you will find folks from Gainesville, Jacksonville, Tallahassee, Orlando, Miami, the entire southeastern U.S. and more than 60 foreign nations. These ecotourists visit North Florida because there is no other destination in the world with the same density of springs and access to unpolluted water for aquatic adventure.

The two largest regional groundwater users impacting the Santa Fe springs are Gainesville and Jacksonville. With groundwater extraction permits of 30 and 150 million gallons per day, respectively, Gainesville Regional Utilities and Jacksonville Electric Authority divert nearly half of the former flow of the springs along the Santa Fe River.

These permits are not only depleting the springs now, but also authorize increased future pumping one third higher than current rates. The combined impact of these two massive groundwater withdrawals on the Santa Fe springs could be measurably reduced by more enlightened water management by public officials.

To eliminate its current practice of discharging freshwater to tide, Jacksonville should recycle and recharge highly treated wastewater to the Floridan Aquifer in western Duval County. Gainesville and Jacksonville both need to place a moratorium on all irrigation wells installed to circumvent paying public utility water rates.

In addition to the insatiable thirst of North Florida’s expanding urban population, there are hundreds of wells drilled each year to extract more groundwater for agriculture. There is no cap on the number of new wells that will ultimately be installed. And yet, like the proverbial silent frog patiently sitting in the warming water, we are hardly aware of the unseen forces that are destroying the Santa Fe springs wonderland.

New farms, new lawns, new breweries and new malls all require water. The inevitable source of that “new” water is the Santa Fe River and springs.

If you enjoy the rivers and springs and you do not make a conscious effort to help change the broken political system that refuses to protect those environments, then you should be looking for a new place to entertain yourself in the future. Perhaps man-made Disney Springs near Orlando? Too bad they don’t allow swimming, snorkeling, tubing, cave diving or family cookouts.

Bob Knight is director of the Florida Springs Institute with offices in the North Florida Springs Environmental Center in High Springs.

2 Comments

  1. We are hard wired to respond to crisis; we are not as adept at responding to slow creeping potential problems. It takes political will to overcome that shortsightedness, something that we have not seen in many decades. But we must acknowledge that we are creating a crisis for our grandchildren.

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