Friday, August 5, 2016

Water Visions: Why Aren’t Florida’s Water Laws Protecting Florida’s Water?

Memories are tricky. I’m often amazed at how my mental images of important experiences get foggy over time while memories of insignificant things remain clear.
Some of my most vivid memories are of seemingly minor events, snapshots of time spent in or near Florida’s freshwater springs.
In one snapshot, I’m standing on the bank of Ginnie Springs in 1969 with my geology professor, Jean Klein. We’re on a field trip and my classmates are wandering around, talking and laughing, but Jean and I have gone quiet as we stare into the shimmering mirror of the spring.
“You know,” Jean says, “if these springs ever get polluted, it will take Mother Nature thousands of years to clean them up.”
Forty-seven years ago, the idea that our springs could be polluted was laughable—but the bad news is that we have not been kind to our springs and they are polluted now.
To notice the effects of this pollution, you need a basis for comparison. You would have to remember, as I do, how the springs looked many decades ago. People who see the springs for the first time today or visit them only sporadically do not know what we have lost.
Scientific analyses of long-term trends in water quality and flow, however, give us vivid pictures of what we have permitted to happen.
According to the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute (FSI)—Florida’s only independent, nonprofit, scientific voice for our springs—long-term trends show that pollution in the Ichetucknee, Santa Fe and Suwannee rivers is going up while flows are going down. This combination is a double whammy that leads to algae growth, murky water and a looming public health threat since the nitrates (from fertilizer and human and animal waste) that pervade the springs also enter the Floridan aquifer and our drinking water.

Groundwater nitrate nitrogen (mg/L) concentrations throughout Florida and near the Ichetucknee (inset). All colored areas other than blue indicate human-caused pollution of groundwater. Source:  Ichetucknee Springs & River:  A Restoration Action Plan, p. 14, prepared by the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute.
In 1979, the State of Florida designated the Suwannee River as an Outstanding Florida Water (OFW). The Ichetucknee and Santa Fe rivers received the same designation in 1984. According to state law, these rivers should have been protected from further pollution as soon as they received the OFW designation. But according to FSI, that hasn’t happened.
Nitrate concentrations in the Lower Santa Fe River have been rising steadily since the 1960s. In 2008, the river was added to Florida’s Impaired Waters List. Average nitrate concentrations in some of the Santa Fe springs have increased by more than 3000 percent in the last 20 years.
During the first decade of this century, nitrate concentrations in the Ichetucknee headspring have increased more that 1500 percent. That spring received a D grade for nitrate levels and attached algae in the environmental report card FSI prepared in 2008.
Nitrate levels in the Lower Suwannee River have increased by 1500 percent above historic baseline levels.
Flows in our area’s rivers have fallen because of increased pumping of groundwater, periods of drought, and loss of aquifer recharge areas. According to professional geologist Jim Gross, every drop of water we use for our farms, ranches, businesses and homes means one less drop for our rivers and our springs. The expected influx of new residents escaping sea level rise in South Florida will only compound our water problems.
Local citizens are waking up to our water problems and becoming active. Recent flashpoints for public outcry include a large-scale chicken “factory” in a high aquifer recharge area near Fort White and a proposed phosphate mine on the New River—a tributary of the Santa Fe—in Union and Bradford counties.
What is happening here? For many years, Florida’s water laws served as model laws for the rest of the country. Why haven’t these laws protected our rivers and springs? Is the problem with the laws themselves? With their enforcement? With the complicated geology of our aquifer? With a combination of those problems? Or with something else?
Two attorneys—Heather Culp of FSI and Traci Deen of the Center for Earth Jurisprudence at Barry University Law School in Orlando—will discuss these issues at a free public program, “Why Aren’t Florida’s Water Laws Protecting Florida’s Water?” 7-9 p.m. Monday, July 25, 2016, at the High Springs New Century Woman’s Club, 23674 West US Highway 27, High Springs FL 32643.
The event is organized by the Ichetucknee Alliance and sponsored by the Alliance, Our Santa Fe River, and the Woman’s Club in conjunction with the Smithsonian Institute’s Water/Ways exhibition at the High Springs Historical Museum. Audience members will have a chance to ask questions and there will be time for one-on-one conversations with the speakers at the end of the program.

To learn more:

Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute (FSI)

FSI has prepared restoration plans for many of our area’s springs and rivers. The plans are available free of charge at the North Florida Springs Environmental Center, 23695 W. U.S. Highway 27, High Springs, and may be viewed on line under the “Current Projects” tab at:

For more information about FSI, call 386-454-2427.

Center for Earth Jurisprudence (CEJ)

Located at Barry University Law School in Orlando, the mission of CEJ is to protect the rights of nature by developing a philosophy and practice of law that respects the natural world in its own right. Learn more at:

Video of the Water Voices program may be viewed at:

This article originally appeared in the July 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.