Santa Fe River – Passionate Local Non-Profit Aims to Protect and Educate

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Thank you Mary Goodwin for this thorough and well-written article on Our Santa Fe River which appeared in Our Town – Summer 2013.

Santa Fe River – Passionate Local Non-Profit Aims to Protect and Educate

Mary Goodwin, Our Town Summer 2013


The members of the educational activist group Our Santa Fe River, Inc. (OSFR) are sure of one thing: Florida today is nothing compared to what it once was.

And that is exactly what the non-profit has been voicing to state agencies for the past six years.  Countless emails, phone calls, letters and nudges from the community finally resulted in the words Merrillee Malwitz-Jipson, the group’s president, said she had been waiting to hear:  “The DEP [Florida Department of Environmental Protection] called and said, ‘We are making decisions up in Tallahassee, but we do not really know the river.  Could you show us around?”

From that long-awaited call in January until the day of the trip, the OSFR board worked to construct an extensive tour for the DEP and the Suwannee River Water Management District, grazing the surface of issues such as newly formed sinkholes, shrinking water levels, potentially toxic bacteria an the GRU Biomass Plant (which is requesting 2 million gallons per day from the local aquifer).  The core objective of the tour was to help the government gain perspective of the land uses that impact the quality and quantity of the water in the Santa Fe River Basin.

“With state agencies, we are trying to create a bridge of knowledge from our perspective on the ground with the people who live and work in the area and bring that perspective to their attention,” Malwitz-Jipson said.  “So when they make land- and water-use decisions, they are aware of what issues we have.”

The issues span across the field.  Years ago, tourists plunged into the crystal clear springs among water slides and flourishing trees in a clean, safe aqua oasis.  today, a repugnant film of bright green algae coats the water’s surface just feet from a sign reading “do not enter” to deter visitors from Hornsby Spring at Camp Kalaqua.

But Hornsby Spring is not alone.  Worthington Springs, which was once a thriving tourist hotspot with four hotels, is nearly dried up and closed.  In 2012, the water levels at Boat Ramp Road in High Springs were so low that people could walk across it, and canoeing patrons were forced to drive farther down the river because of the lack of water.  Poe Springs has very little flow, has been under construction for more than a year and has unusually high levels of nitrate and sucralose.  Ginnie Springs now has increasing nitrate levels with little to no vegetation in the springheads.

While the mere sight and feel of filamentous algae is unappealing, another factor to consider is that when it decays, the smell is over-powering.  Malwitz-Jipson said.  Some people can have toxic reactions to it.  Even worse, water levels tested positive for cyanobacteria – a potential neurotoxin that has never before been discovered on the river.

“That is when everything changed and the state started to really step up,” Malwitz-Jipson said.  “For North Florida, the biggest economic crisis is not taking care of our environment.  People come here to recreate, to live and to relax and cool off in the springs.  If we see continual degradation of the river, they cannot have that lifestyle, and tourists will not want to visit a river with algae.”

Isotope and sucralose studies have traced the algae blooms back to human use; leaky septic tanks, fertilizers and pesticides all release nitrates into the air and water, Malwitz-Jipson said.  The low water conditions are a direct result of the drought the state has been in for the past 17 years.  With the local aquifer and area water use, there is just not enough supply for the increasing demand.  And when the flow lessens, the water pools and become stagnant (stagnation combined with heat creates a cesspool for filamentous algae, enabling it to cultivate at an alarming rate.) Noxious weeds, such as tape grass and invasive Hydrilla, grow alongside the algae, which can hinder the river’s native plants.

The issues are tenfold, but the common solution is simple – conservation.

OSFR challenges residents to question: how many chemicals they really need, how they are dealing with and cleaning septic tanks and how prompt are repairs regarding water, such as leaky faucets, made?

“It might not seem like a lot, but it adds up,” Malwitz-Jipson said.  “A leaky septic tank is going right into our aquifer water.

“A big problem in Florida is that our geography is so permeable, anything you put on land is going to end up on the waterway.  We have an aquifer system flowing underneath us that is our water supply for almost the entire state up to Orlando.  As far as OSFR goes, we are concerned about our water basin, but it is a bigger picture.  It is a state issue because it is all interconnected, and we are all going to have to work together.”

Personal use of chemicals is garnering more attention and action in recent years, with initiatives like the Florida-Friendly Landscaping™ Program, which suggests the idea that grass lawns in Florida are no longer viable and should be replaced with low-maintenance plants and environmentally sustainable practices.  These types of plants do not need to be watered or fertilized, and pesticides are not required.  Implementing drought tolerant ground cover in place of grass eliminates the need to water a lawn – which uses, on average, 62 gallons of water for every 10-by-10-foot area.

In an effort to control the major issue right now regarding “water balancing,” the state agencies are pushing to lessen the lenght of permits granted by balancing them out, so that a new consumptive-use permit can only be granted when an existing one retires.  The government is making strides, Malwitz-Jipson said, as a permit was recently issued with an expiration of five years (due to potential irreparable harm to the river base) as opposed to the traditional 20 years.

The Department has also formulated a total maximum daily load, with a goal to improve water quality of the river and surrounding springs by 35 percent.  It has adopted the Santa Fe River Basin Management Action Plan, which detects the specific actions needed to decrease nutrient concentrations i the basin, which encompasses more than 1 million acres.

“I am proud of the groundwork laid by this cooperative effort, but remain aware that the Santa Fe River continues to experience severe algal blooms,” said Drew Bartlett, Director of DEP’s Division of Environmental Assessment and Restoration.  “Stakeholders like Our Santa Fe [River] provide essential local insight, and [on the tour] I learned from their observations in person.  there is no doubt that we recognize the water quality impacts the river is experiencing.”

To restore and monitor improving water quality, local stakeholders have committed more than $25 million in projects and more that $900,000 to address nutrient and water supply issues in the Santa Fe River Basin.  The Suwannee River Water Management District will use the money to help local farmers improve their irrigation and fertilization practices, keeping more than 1 million pounds of nitrogen from entering the river and spring system, which in turn saves 670 million gallons of water each year.

In addition to water conservation and adequate septic tank pumping maintenance, OSFR encourages citizens to attend the local forum to no only learn about how their water and land resources are being utilized, but to bring their knowledge and personal observations and experiences to the table.  In the past, increasing attendance at government meeting resulted i the dismissal of four bottling plant proposals, Malwitz-Jipson said.

The non-profit operated with the idea that knowledge is power.  With a new headquarters located off CR-138, which also doubles as an art studio, members can gather and disseminate information about conserving resources.

The money raised from the artwork, strictly revolving around the river and springs, goes to the Springs Tie-Dye Kitchen Towel Project, an intense educational lesson delivered to guests as they tie-dye a towel to resemble the spring at no cost.  The organization also hosts a song contest every year, where members assemble to hear the songs musicians have written about the Santa Fe River.  Now in its fourth year, local musicians have composed and performed 21 songs.

These efforts, along with the groundbreaking tour, Malwitz-Jipson said, are the core of OSFR – a group of education advocates constantly seeking new ways to inform people, protect the environment and conserve the earth’s natural resources.

“We do not have the same Florida we had when I was a kid,” she said.  “And because of population demands on the environment, we cannot go back to that, as far as restoring what Florida once was.  But, we can learn how to conserve what we do have.”

Doesn’t this article make you just want to get off your butt and help Our Santa Fe River?  To volunteer to help OSFR protect Our Santa Fe River, click here.

Thank you Our Town for being a voice for Our Santa Fe River!

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