Editorial: Make protection of Poe Springs a priority
The state of Florida should focus on protecting Poe Springs before its problems get even more difficult and expensive to fix.
Alachua County commissioners unanimously voted last week to ask the state Department of Environmental Protection to designate Poe Springs as a “priority focus area.” A 2016 state law allows such designations for places where groundwater is vulnerable to pollution that causes the impairment of springs, opening up the possibility of increased protection and restoration efforts in those areas.
Poe Springs is located on the Santa Fe River and is surrounded by a county-owned park. County officials argue that Poe Springs’ elevated nitrate levels, lack of aquatic vegetation and presence of nuisance algae are indications of it being impaired, even if it doesn’t meet the state’s technical definition of impairment.
Poe Springs’ problems aren’t unique. Natural springs across the region and state have experienced decreased flows and increase pollution due to intensive agriculture and development. Lax enforcement of environmental laws and permitting of excessive groundwater pumping have harmed springs and the aquifer, so now the state is trying to make up for the damage with new designations and funding.
Already the state has designated focus areas for Hornsby Springs and the Devil’s Spring system, located on either side of Poe Springs. The designations mean an increased focus on protecting a huge swath of northwestern Alachua County that contributes to the groundwater feeding those systems, but leaving out Poe Springs creates a large gap in an area that stretches from parts of the cities of High Springs and Newberry.
Longtime visitors to Poe Springs have reported deteriorating conditions over the years. Its flow has decreased, even stopping completely during dry conditions a few years ago, as nitrate levels and algae growth have increased. Tests have found sucralose, an artificial sweetener and indicator of domestic wastewater influences, in samples collected in Poe Springs and wells in its springshed.
Septic tanks in the area are one likely problem. There are 10-15 privately owned properties upstream along the Santa Fe from Poe Springs that might be contributing to water quality issues, according to the county. In addition, High Springs operates a municipal wastewater treatment facility about three miles away that includes a traditional spray field for disposing of effluent.
The state of Florida is spending millions to update or eliminate septic tanks and improve wastewater disposal methods near other springs, and should take a similar approach with Poe and the rest of the Santa Fe River springs. Better enforcement of environmental laws and using Amendment 1 money for its intended purpose of conserving environmentally sensitive land would even more cost effective ways of protecting and restoring springs.
While Poe Springs might not meet the state’s technical definition of impairment, the problems documented there show it is not far from reaching that point. The Department of Environmental Protection should declare Poe Springs’ protection to be a priority now and dedicate resources to restore it, rather than wait for conditions to worsen and get more costly to correct.