Last fall, scientists at the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute (FSI) updated the Ichetucknee River System’s report card with a C-minus (C-) grade.
“This system is not healthy,” said Dr. Robert Knight, executive director of FSI who guided the work that resulted in the report card. “If you have a sixth grader who is getting C- grades, you aren’t proud of that.”
The bad grade means we should be taking better care of these priceless natural wonders—a river and springs that are economic engines for our area and have been magnets for human beings for thousands of years.
Back in 1984, the State of Florida named the Ichetucknee an Outstanding Florida Water. According to the website of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, this designation means that the Ichetucknee is worthy of special protection because of its natural attributes. This special designation is…intended to protect existing good water quality.”
But water quality has gone downhill in the Ichetucknee, as indicated by the “D” grade for nitrates earned in 2016 and shown in the graphic.
Nitrates are nutrients from urban and agricultural fertilizers, septic tanks and stormwater runoff. Nitrates can cloud our waterways and feed the growth of algae. The difference between the Ichetucknee of today and the Ichetucknee of the 1960s or even the 1980s is plain to those of us who floated or canoed the river decades ago. Today, the water’s clarity is dimmed and brown algae coats eelgrass that once shone bright green beneath the water.
Nitrates are measured in concentrations of milligrams per liter (mg/L). At 0.79 mg/L, nitrates in the Ichetucknee are twice as high as Florida’s recommended standard for springs. “Nitrates in the Ichetucknee have been at this level for years and this harms the whole ecosystem,” Knight explained.
While murky water and brown algae create a less-than-perfect experience for Ichetucknee visitors, nitrates create the potential for an even greater danger. Elevated nitrate levels threaten the purity and security of our drinking water supply, especially for those of us in rural areas who depend upon water pumped from private wells. High levels of nitrate can create health problems for adults; newborns are especially sensitive. Do you know the level of nitrates in your well water?
Given an increasing population, given that water pollution from nonpoint sources such as agriculture, urban areas, and roads, highways and bridges is unregulated and often uncontrolled, and given the increase in industrial-level agricultural operations in North Florida, we can expect that nitrate levels in our springs, rivers and drinking water may go up, not down, in the coming years.
Knight is also concerned about loss of flow on the Ichetucknee, the other area in which the river system got a “D” grade.
“Flows are way below the historic average and are staying down,” Knight explained, “and there is no light at the end of the tunnel for them to go back up. Both the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) and Suwannee River Water Management District (SRWMD) have agreed that flows are too low, but they’ve done nothing to reverse that situation by reducing the numbers of water use permits.”
The 2016 rate of spring discharge, 306 cubic feet per second (cfs), is well below the long-term median flow of 347 cfs. FDEP and SRWMD have recognized that the Ichetucknee River System needs to be “in recovery” and FDEP has established a new restoration focus area in the Ichetucknee springshed. Knight said that more efforts at protection are needed, however, given that long-term trends show declining levels in the groundwater that feeds the springs.
Those falling groundwater levels are another threat to the security of our area’s water supply. For every foot that the groundwater level drops, the underlying layer of saltwater rises 40 feet. Saltwater intrusion is a threat not only to drinking water but also to agriculture, business and the economy. Maybe that bumper sticker that reads “No Farms/No Food” should read “No Water/No Farms/No Food.”
Given that, as an Outstanding Florida Water, the Ichetucknee was not supposed to experience any degradation after 1984… thinking about the latest Ichetucknee Report Card…realizing that current efforts by state agencies are not reversing declines in flow or lowering pollution levels…and concerned about the link between conditions in the Ichetucknee and the security of our drinking water supply, I am left with one big question.
Do we need stronger legal protections for the Ichetucknee?
To learn more about…
Outstanding Florida Waters
The health effects of nitrate exposure
Nonpoint sources of water pollution
Long-term trends in flow and pollution in the Ichetucknee
The Ichetucknee’s 2016 Report Card
This article originally appeared in the February 2017 issue of "The Observer," a free monthly tabloid (circulation 5000 copies) distributed in the High Springs/Alachua/Newberry/Jonesville/Fort White areas of North Florida. Many thanks to publisher Barbara Llewellyn for her kind permission to post it here.