Protecting the Santa Fe River in North Florida

Be Informed.

Take Personal Responsibility For Pollution

Algae in the Santa Fe in 2012. Photo by OSFR advisor John Moran

The following article by OSFR advisor Dr. Robert Knight is online in the Gainesville Sun and will appear in the Sunday, Feb. 26, 2017 edition.  The entire article can be seen at this link.

The shenanigans of the Columbia County Board of County Commissioners at the Thursday, Feb. 16 meeting mentioned by Dr. Knight, are still coming to light. As more information develops we may see another post.

Comments by OSFR historian Jim Tatum.
-A river is like a life:  once taken, it cannot be brought back-


Take personal responsibility for pollution


Posted Feb 24, 2017 at 2:00 PM Updated Feb 24, 2017 at 2:10 PM

In 2012, the middle segment of the Santa Fe River through Alachua and Columbia counties stopped flowing. Stagnant and loaded with nutrients, the river between High Springs and Gilchrist Blue Spring devolved into a guacamole quagmire. Flows were at an all-time low for the 89 years of record-keeping and nitrogen concentrations were the highest ever measured.

Combined with Florida’s famed sunshine and warm temperatures, Mother Nature followed her natural course of explosive algae growth, followed by depleted dissolved oxygen in the water and dying fish. Recreation ceased on this popular stretch of the river for several months, including the Memorial Day weekend, one of the year’s biggest outdoor holidays.

The Santa Fe is even more vulnerable to another horrific algal bloom today than it was four years ago. Average river flows continue to decline because of new groundwater pumping permits. Fertilized row crops, pastures and confined animal feeding operations are proliferating throughout the region.


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These changes are occurring despite the state’s admission that the aquifer is unacceptably depleted and nutrient pollution in the springs is well above harmful levels. Well-meaning laws approved by the Legislature to prevent this type of aquatic nuisance continue to be ineffective.

Fast forward to this month. After two years of meetings between Columbia County leadership and stakeholders, the county’s planning and zoning board, with authority provided by its County Commission, developed a proposed ordinance restricting new large and medium-sized industrial livestock operations south of U.S. 27. The purpose was limiting the rate of increase in groundwater pollution reaching the springs along the Santa Fe.

The proposed land development code amendment precluded new intensive agricultural operations from developing on the most vulnerable lands in the county. With this ordinance, county residents living near the Santa Fe would no longer have to worry that their neighbors might put factory farms with hundreds of thousands of chickens or thousands of pigs on the land next door, and that nitrate levels in their drinking water well might exceed human health standards.

On Feb.16, the County Commission unexpectedly voted 5 to 0 against the proposed amendment. County staff had worked in good faith with multiple groups concerned with the health of the area’s springs and rivers, including Our Santa Fe River, the Ichetucknee Alliance and owners of nature-based tourism operations, to develop a wise and environmentally protective ordinance. But representatives of Big Ag packed the commission meeting. Speakers opposing the regulations included the Florida Cattlemen’s Association, Florida Farm Bureau Federation, Florida Forestry Association, Columbia County Farm Bureau and the pro-free enterprise Pacific Legal Foundation (motto: “Rescuing liberty from coast to coast”).

The state’s published data indicate that of the roughly 800 tons each year of polluting nitrogen that flows out of the Santa Fe into the Suwannee River, about 575 tons come from agricultural fertilizers and livestock wastewaters. About 200 tons come from human wastewaters and residential fertilizers, and the remainder of the pollutant load is from natural atmospheric inputs. Of the estimated 180 million gallons of groundwater pumped on average each day in the region, 93 mgd is pumped by municipalities and private wells while 72 mgd is pumped for agricultural irrigation and livestock watering.

All groundwater pumping, whether for home use, lawn watering or intensive agricultural irrigation, further reduces the flow of the springs and rivers. The intensity of agricultural irrigation in the region surrounding the Santa Fe is taking a big bite out of spring flows. In urban areas elsewhere in the state, public groundwater uses dwarf agricultural uses and the scale continues to shift from crop irrigation to lawn irrigation.

All segments of society need to reduce their personal contributions to pollution and depletion of the aquifer.

A million people pass through High Springs every year to enjoy the area’s springs and rivers. They bring money to local businesses and create good jobs. They include country folks and city folks who all find solace and value in a healthy environment. Nobody wants to float on a stagnant spring run or swim through algae-choked waters.

One definition of liberty is being safe from your neighbor’s pollution. If we hope to keep guacamole out of our springs and rivers, we all need to work together by taking responsibility for our own aquifer footprint.

— Robert Knight is director of the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute. If you wish to learn more about your aquifer footprint, please visit us at the North Florida Springs Environmental Center in High Springs.

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