Florida Springs Council president Dan Hilliard writes today in the Gainesville Sun about the degradation of the Suwannee River. This is on-going under the watch of our water managers who think they are good stewards.
And they are in many ways, but in spite of their efforts, the bottom line is that the river continues downward, in reduced flow and increased pollutants. This is consistent and the battle is being lost. The conclusion is that they must do a better job, which we agree is difficult given our current political situation in Tallahassee.
Difficult though it may be, what Dan Hilliard says here is scary, and we should pay attention. This situation must be changed. Facts cannot be ignored.
Read the original article in the Gainesville Sun at this link.
Comments by OSFR historian Jim Tatum.
-A river is like a life: once taken, it cannot be brought back-
Dan Hilliard: Gates’ investments threaten Florida’s iconic springs
Posted at 2:01 AM
By Dan Hilliard Special to The Sun
Florida’s Treasure Coast has become Florida’s Toxic Coast, as slimy blue-green algal blooms, visible from space, have taken over rivers and coastal waters. With Florida’s top industry — tourism — in peril, Gov. Rick Scott asked President Obama to declare a state of emergency.
However, while the degradation of South Florida waters has received national attention, contributions of big agriculture — exemplified by operations owned by Bill Gates — to the deterioration of North Florida waters have gone largely unnoticed.
Throughout North Florida, over-pumping of the Floridan aquifer and overuse of nitrogen fertilizer have led to strongly reduced flows and high rates of pollution in our rivers and our 1,000-plus artesian springs. North Florida has more natural springs and more first-magnitude springs than anywhere in the world.
Crystal-clear, biologically productive and a constant 70-72 degrees, springs like Silver, Rainbow, Wakulla and Weeki Wachee were primary tourist destinations before Disney arrived. Springs remain wildly popular — 20 award-winning state parks are organized around springs. In terms of historic and cultural identity, natural springs are the heart and soul of North Florida.
Flowing 250 miles through lightly populated areas of Georgia and Florida, the Suwannee River alone has seven first-magnitude springs. But the Suwannee is no longer the pastoral waterway memorialized by Stephen Foster and George Gershwin. Flows are down 40 percent since the 1970s. And the Suwannee spills ever-increasing amounts of nitrogen into the Gulf of Mexico, degrading water quality in nearshore areas, fostering algal growth, and killing seagrass beds and the “live bottom” that supports sport and commercial fisheries.
The Suwannee River springs send more than twice the nitrogen pollution to the Gulf as Lake Okeechobee sends to the slime-infested St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee Rivers 250 miles to the southeast. The formerly pristine Suwannee River has become big agriculture’s sewer.
Florida’s expanding population, fertilized lawns, golf courses and 2.5 million septic tanks all compromise our rivers and springs. But in North Florida, the biggest threat is intensive agriculture.
The Suwannee River basin is rife with cattle and dairy operations, irrigated and fertilized pastures, and row crops like watermelon, carrots, peanuts and cotton. These activities suck up hundreds of millions of gallons of groundwater daily and add thousands of tons of animal waste and fertilizer to the ground, much of which ends up in drinking water and springs as nutrient pollution.
Agriculture is rapidly expanding here as operations move in from South Florida and the West Coast. The reasons are clear. Land is cheap. Taxes are low. Groundwater is free. Fertilizer use is unregulated. Agriculture is much easier here than in California, where water is scarce and expensive and where climatic change means that droughts may become routine.
Some of the largest agricultural operations in the Suwannee watershed are owned by Bill Gates. A single Gates investment group — Lakeland Sands — pumps over 20 million gallons of groundwater daily. The total amount of water controlled by Gates’ subsidiaries is probably much larger.
I assume that Gates’ agricultural operations are not in Florida to reduce world hunger, but simply to make money that is funneled to the philanthropic activities of the Gates Foundation. This is a noble end, but along the way, these investments are compromising the health and welfare of North Florida.
The Florida Springs Council, a consortium of 35 citizens groups representing over 125,000 Floridians, was formed in 2015 to promote springs restoration. Members have driven the back roads to inspect Gates’s purchases. Agricultural operations on these properties are not state-of-the-art, but more intensive versions of what was practiced by prior owners.
We have seen crops planted to the edges of county roads and next to sinkholes. We have seen healthy forests cleared and replaced by intensive animal operations and row-cropping over the most vulnerable portions of the Floridan Aquifer, source of our springs and our drinking water.
For a year, the Florida Springs Council has repeatedly asked Gates’s representatives to begin a discussion of advanced agricultural practices that could be utilized on their properties. Given his philanthropic focus, we hoped that Gates or the Gates Foundation would be eager to embrace creative methods for reducing agriculture’s impact on Florida’s natural environment. We have yet to receive a response.
The Florida Springs Council does not challenge Lakeland Sands’ right to farm, but we do believe that opportunities exist for innovative practices that could lessen impacts on our precious rivers and springs. We stand ready to begin a discussion with Gates’ representatives on restoring health to North Florida’s troubled waters.
— Dan Hilliard is chairman of the Florida Springs Council (www.springsforever.org).