Saturday, August 12, 2017

Rum Island: The Slow Death of a Small Spring

Time to Lose Our Lawns/Save Our Springs?

I moved to southern Columbia County with this phrase from “Cross Creek” by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings echoing in my mind:  “We need above all, I think, a certain remoteness from urban confusion.” A bonus of that move was that almost right around the corner, there was a beautiful little blue spring at Rum Island on the Santa Fe River.

My visits to Rum have been fun, inspiring and soul-healing. I’ve seen the spring in bitter winter, when mists whirled on the water like dancing spirits. I’ve been followed by a school of tiny fish as I waded in golden water while the rising river encroached into the spring. I’ve gone swimming on a warm Christmas day, taken photos on a magic May morning when the last evening’s rain dripped from the trees, hiked to other small springs upriver. And I’ve seen the spring completely covered by dark river water, re-emerging only when the river receded.

And all that time, Rum Island Spring was slowly dying.

Yes, I knew that the Santa Fe River springs, like many of Florida’s springs, were in trouble because of pollution and declining groundwater levels. But it was a chance comment on a Facebook post that gave me a wake-up slap in the face.

Lars Andersen, river guide and owner of Adventure Outpost in High Springs, administered that “slap”:

Sadly, it looks like Rum Spring will be the next to go. It’s in the death throes…Santa Fe’s springs seem to be on the front line of the slow demise of all Florida’s springs…this browning of Rum Island at this relatively minor high water event is new. We’ve had occasional brownings in recent few years, but very rare and with higher water. It is now happening more frequently and with less river water to make it happen. This was the same pattern we’ve seen in Poe and Lily before they lost their color. While those springs aren’t completely brown, they now have a very apparent mix of brown river water and spring water even in the best conditions. Further upstream, the story is the same for Columbia and Hornsby Springs. It looks like Rum is following that pattern. It may get clear again—maybe even several times—but if the pattern holds, the color will slowly morph into the brownish/greenish mix of river water and spring water we’ve seen in the others…all of Florida’s 1000+ springs are losing their flow, some faster than others. The combined average of all the 300+ springs on and near the Suwannee basin have declined an average of 48%.

And in response to a question, Bob Knight of the Florida Springs Institute chimed in:

Lars and I have both been observing these declines for decades. Just as Poe stopped flowing during the 2012 drought, that tragedy will be coming soon to Rum.

These predictions from two trained observers put the fear in me, so I went looking for scientific data that would confirm their theories. I found it. Scientists have documented that Rum Island Spring had a discharge of 60.8 cubic feet per second (cfs) in 1990, 23.7 cfs in 2000, but only 15.8 cfs in 2010.*

I am unwilling to sit back, do nothing and allow Rum Island Spring to die. What about you?

If we agree that saving our springs is something we need to do…if we acknowledge that to do that, agriculturalists as well as homeowners must use less water and that implementing agricultural changes is going to take time…and if we want to do something now…one thing we can do is to lose our lawns, since lawn irrigation is usually the biggest use of water by homeowners.

What would a “Lose Your Lawn/Save Our Springs” effort or water ethic look like? What if…
  • Everyone in the area surrounding the Santa Fe River springs (ex:  Alachua, Columbia, and Gilchrist counties) who had a lawn quit watering it, fertilizing it, putting pesticides on it? Or installed rain barrels or gray water systems to use as alternatives to using groundwater?
  • We switched all or part of our yards from turf grass lawns to native plants, Florida friendly plants, groundcovers or wildflower meadows?
  • We made water conservation a top priority?
  • We convinced local governments and businesses to model this effort to save the springs and find ways to help homeowners and agriculturalists make needed changes? 

Could we do it? Will we do it? The alternative—a dry sinkhole where Rum Island Spring once flowed—is too tragic to contemplate. Yes, change is hard. But aren’t our springs treasures worth saving?

*Draft Report, Santa Fe River and Springs Environmental Analysis, Phase 1, Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute, May 2017, Table 22, p. 97.


  1. One day, during a heavy rain here in Ormond Beach, I put a 5gal bucket outside; it filled to the top in less than 30seconds. I wish I knew how to convert my sprinkler system. I wish I knew what kind of native plants to plant. I wish I had the time to figure this out and if I don't, could hire a cost effective service to help me. Most times, folks want to do what's right but need help with the conversion (and not the kind of help solar panel companies offer where the homeowner is charged $25K to convert--where the homeowner is plain robbed of their good intentions by corporate America). Thx you for your blog regarding the important issue and for offering some very specific suggestions on how homeowners may help!

    1. If you have a local water advocacy group, they may be able to put you in touch with people who can answer some of your questions. Your local agricultural extension agent may also be able to help.

  2. You blame all of this on "the home owner" watering the lawn. But what about the countless dairy and other farmers that have these outlandish water permits? How does my usage of water as a normal homeowner compare to the MILLIONS of gallons a day they are allowed to pump? It is not all the homeowners fault, some if not most of the blame falls on the farmers.

    1. I am not "blaming" anyone other than to say we are all to blame because we all use water. A geologist has told me that every drop of water we use is one less drop for our springs. That is true whether we are homeowners or agriculturalists or business owners or public utility workers. As I say in the post, implementing agricultural changes is going to take time, but homeowners who want to take action NOW may be able to help our springs and may even inspire others to make change. Faced with a dying spring, I don't want to sit back & wait for others to make changes first. And how can I expect others to change if I am unwilling to do so myself? I think change and personal responsibility begin at home.

    2. You are, of course, right about the amounts of water the State of FL is permitting to be withdrawn from our aquifer. Be aware that the governor of Florida appoints both the head of the FL Dept. of Environmental Protection and the directors of the water management districts; that puts a lot of power over water use decisions in the hands of whoever is the governor. Next year (2018) is an election year and I hope we Floridians can choose someone who cares about our springs and realizes we are using water faster than rainfall can replace it.