Industrialized Farming Diminishes Springs


Robert Knight

The Gainesville Sun has run a column today by OSFR advisor Robert Knight describing how industrialized farming using huge quantities of water and nitrogen ferlizer has damaged our springs, rivers and aquifer.  Continue reading here for excerpts, or go to this link for the original article.Scroll

Over 200 artesian springs feed the Santa Fe, Ichetucknee, Withlacoochee, and Suwannee rivers in North Florida. The springshed that nourishes these springs is called the Suwannee River Groundwater Basin and is recharged by rainfall in 16 Florida and Georgia counties stretching from Keystone Heights on the east, Valdosta, Georgia on the north, Gainesville on the south, and by the Gulf of Mexico to the west. Aptly called the Springs Heartland, these springs once discharged over 4 billion gallons of groundwater each day.

With nearly 700,000 people living and working in the Suwannee River Basin, the Springs Heartland is no longer pristine. Average spring flows have declined more than 45 percent and average nitrogen concentrations have increased by 2,000 percent.

Throughout the Springs Heartland, agricultural production has long been a mainstay of the rural economy. Corn has been grown in the basin since the time of the Pre-Columbian Indians. Livestock rearing has always been a part of North Florida’s rural life — a few cows for milk, poultry for eggs and meat, and hogs and cattle for high living. In the past, irrigation with groundwater and the heavy application of nitrogen fertilizers were not a part of these family farms.

Since the 1950s and 1960s, intensive agricultural operations have proliferated in the Suwannee basin, dramatically impacting the health of North Florida’s springs. Industrial agriculture, such as dairies, cattle feedlots and irrigated row crops, is dependent on groundwater extraction and application of nitrogen-rich fertilizers and agri-chemicals. Both of these dependencies, in turn, impact the health of Florida’s springs.

With the rise in industrial farming practices, including their massive groundwater withdrawals for irrigation and thousands of tons of nitrogen applied to the most vulnerable karst areas of North Florida, the public’s access to clean water springs has suffered. Reduced flows, accompanied by elevated nutrients, turn springs green and eradicate their native plants and wildlife.

The public’s only source of drinking water, the Floridan Aquifer, is polluted and depleted. As a result, an unfortunate and unintended trade-off occurs: the financial fortunes of agriculturalists increase at the expense of the public’s clean and abundant spring waters and the ecotourism-based jobs that are dependent on healthy springs.

Agricultural profitability in the Springs Heartland diminishes the region’s springs, rivers and coastal resources and their recreational and commercial uses. And since agricultural interests are more politically powerful in the Florida state capital than the much larger non-agricultural economy, little attention is paid by state officials to accomplish meaningful springs restoration.

With the political deck stacked against the best interests of the general population, it is high time they spoke with a louder and more unified voice. Millions of visitors come to the Springs Heartland to experience Florida’s natural beauty. Instead of pristine spring,s they find mile after mile of center-pivot irrigation systems, cattle feed lots, poultry factories and green springs.

To once again gain access to clean and healthy springs, the many must exert their power to limit the excesses of the few. Sustainable family farming is not the enemy. The problem is industrialized farms that seek to maximize production and profit at the expense of the region’s publically shared natural resources. It is time to demand that state officials protect the public’s interests.

— Robert Knight is the director of the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute. The Springs Institute is proud to announce the opening of the North Florida Springs Environmental Center in High Springs in early 2016.

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