Saturday, July 9, 2016

Water Visions: We Live in the Springs Heartland of Planet Earth

I grew up swimming in Florida’s freshwater springs but I didn’t know until recently that we have more of these springs than anywhere else in the world.
There are over 1000 springs in North and Central Florida. Here in the Suwannee River Water Management District—which includes the watersheds of the Suwannee, Santa Fe, and Ichetucknee rivers—we have over 300 documented springs.
So we don’t just live in the springs heartland of Florida. We live in the Springs Heartland of Planet Earth!
If all that water could be channeled into one giant spring, we would have a World Heritage Site or a National Park. But because our springs are scattered and have different owners, it’s hard for most of us to grasp the full international significance of these watery treasures.
And they are treasures—economic treasures, ecological treasures, and spiritual treasures.
We’re living in the middle of a world treasure map.
Wayne Kinard is a fifth-generation Floridian who comes face-to-face with the international importance of our springs every day at his business, Amigos Dive Center in Fort White. Surrounded by air tanks, hoses, and other SCUBA equipment, Kinard points out two marker boards crowded with the names and nationalities of people who have come to dive in our springs.

“I have 5800 customers from all 50 states and 88 countries,” Kinard says. “And I’m getting over 500 new customers a year.” Reading the marker boards is a visual trip around the world and proof that our springs and rivers are economic engines for rural North Florida.
Jerry Johnston is someone else who knows what a treasure we have in our springs and rivers. A professor of biology at Santa Fe College, Johnston is the founder and director of the Santa Fe River Turtle Project. At a 2014 meeting of the Santa Fe River Springs Protection Forum, Johnston explained that the world’s number one hotspot for turtle species diversity is Asia. The southeastern United States is the number two hotspot and within the Southeast, our area—the Suwannee, Santa Fe, and Ichetucknee rivers—has the largest variety of turtle species. We’re number one in the world for springs and number two in the world for turtles!
Our springs and rivers are sources of life for countless other species including birds, fish, reptiles, amphibians, mammals, and plants. One tiny creature, the Ichetucknee silt snail, exists only in a 10-square-yard area along the Ichetucknee River.
Fifty years ago when I started exploring springs, they were not easy to find. Some springs had not yet become parts of state or county parks, signs were scarce and you had to be able to read topographic maps to locate them. I learned how to get to Poe, Ginnie, and Ichetucknee by word of mouth from people who had already been there.
Finding a spring today is much easier. The new North Florida Springs Environmental Center in High Springs has a high-tech, touch-screen version of a springs treasure map! Created in Google Earth by springs scientists, the map offers visitors a wealth of information.
In just a few minutes at the computer screen, you can search for a spring by name or location, zoom in to the map to locate other nearby springs, and find specific information including spring name, county, magnitude of flow, name of the basin that includes the spring, and latitude and longitude. Google Earth also provides directions to the spring of your choice.

The Springs Environmental Center is a new project of the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute (FSI), a nonprofit, independent, science-based organization that advocates for spring restoration and protection and provides scientific information to other organizations that are working to save our springs.
“Over one million people travel through High Springs each year to visit our local springs,” says Heather Culp, associate director of FSI. “The North Florida Springs Environmental Center is a clearinghouse of information about our springs, rivers, and aquifers.”
In addition to exploring the springs map, center visitors may watch one or more of 15 available high-resolution videos, pick up free copies of the spring restoration plans prepared by FSI, and attend Springs Academy classes that are held at noon on the first Tuesday of the month. Academy classes are taught by Robert L. Knight, Ph.D., director of FSI. Brochures are also available about nearby parks with springs and water advocacy organizations such as Our Santa Fe River and the Ichetucknee Alliance.
With warm weather already here, it’s time to get outside and enjoy the Springs Heartland of Planet Earth. Remember that while Florida’s springs are the world’s to love, they are ours to take care of.

To Learn More

Amigos Dive Center
5472 SW Elim Church Road
Fort White, FL 32038
Owner:  Wayne Kinard

Santa Fe River Turtle Project
Director Jerry Johnston, Ph.D.

North Florida Springs Environmental Center
23695 W. U.S. Highway 27
High Springs FL 32643
(old address: 99 NW First Ave.)
Hours (subject to change without notice):
Tuesday-Thursday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
Friday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-1 p.m.
Springs Academy classes meet at noon on the first Tuesday of the month through September 2016. Classes are free although a $5 donation is requested.

This article originally appeared in the June 2016 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 here.