Thursday, April 27, 2017

Water Visions: Healing Our Springs: The Holy Grail, the Wounded King and the Waste Land

Like many people, I grew up fascinated by the legends of Merlin, King Arthur, and the Holy Grail. The one idea in the Grail stories that puzzled me for years, though, was the legend of the Wounded King or Fisher King—the last keeper of the Holy Grail, the king whose wound is bound up with the Waste Land that he rules. When he heals, the land heals too. I finally grasped this connection on a deep emotional level when I watched the movie “Excalibur,” in the scene where the Waste Land comes back to life.
The longer I work on water issues in Florida, the more clearly I understand that profound connection between leaders and land.
My fascination with these old legends led me to read more and to discover that throughout the British Isles, many springs are considered sacred and some wells are recognized as holy. Even today, many communities continue an old tradition of “dressing” the wells as the seasons change. And people still make pilgrimages to visit the sacred springs.
Traditional societies and religions worldwide have recognized the special or even sacred nature of water for thousands of years. For an exhibition about springs that I worked on several years ago, I collected quotes about water from different faiths and cultures. Here are some of my favorites:

  • Water was enchantment, certainly. But it was also deeply feared and honored, held close to the heart in both mystery and awe. It was sacred. -Bill Belleville (writing about the Timucua who inhabited Florida at the time of Ponce de Leon)
  • I will make rivers flow on barren heights, and springs within the valleys. I will turn the desert into pools of water, and the parched ground into springs. -The Bible, Old Testament, Isaiah 41:18
  • Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Water; she is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure. -St. Francis of Assisi
  • By means of water, we give life to everything. -Koran, 21:30
  • The frog does not drink up the pond in which he lives. -American Indian Saying
  • Filthy water cannot be washed. -West African Proverb
  • You don’t miss your water ’til your well runs dry. -William Bell, American singer/songwriter
  • By perceiving ourselves as part of the river, we take responsibility for the river as a whole. -Vaclav Havel, Czech playwright/politician
  • Our bodies are molded rivers. –Novalis
  • The supreme good is like water, which nourishes all things without trying to. -Tao Te Ching #8, translated by Stephen Mitchell
  • When you drink water, remember the spring. -Chinese Proverb 

These quotes reveal how water and people are interconnected; they speak to the significance of a healthy relationship with water. “Water is life,” as the water protectors in North Dakota and here in Florida reminded us recently. Our bodies are up to 60 percent water. We can live about three weeks without food but only about three days without water. While water sustains us, we must in turn sustain water or suffer the consequences.
So what does the Grail legend about the Wounded King and the Waste Land have to do with the Suwannee, Santa Fe, and Ichetucknee rivers and their springs?
I was at Rum Island one day after a swim when I passed a young woman standing on the bank gazing at the water. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” I asked. Her response was immediate:  “It’s sacred.”
At the Ichetucknee headspring, area churches have baptized the faithful for years. Steven Earl’s book about the Ichetucknee is subtitled “Sacred Waters.” Talk to almost any spring visitor and these ideas about sacred water, reverence and rejuvenation (remember the “Fountain of Youth” legends?) crop up.
In the early years of the 21st century, we are not as far removed from the idea of sacred springs as we might think. But we’re polluting too much, pumping too much, and turning our “Holy Grail”—the Springs Heartland of Planet Earth—into a Waste Land.
In the Grail legends, the Wounded King and the land are healed when the knight Perceval asks the right question:  “Whom does the Grail serve?”
So I wonder:  Are we asking the right questions? Are we like the Wounded King? Is our wound the failure to understand that as water suffers, we must suffer too? Can we heal our springs and rivers by healing our relationships with water and with each other? Do we need a stronger water ethic?
And where are the leaders with the courage to make the tough decisions needed to convert a springs Waste Land back into a Springs Heartland?

To learn more about…

This article originally appeared in the March 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.

Water Visions: Why We Should Care That the Ichetucknee Got a Bad Grade

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…

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.

Water Visions: The Springs Heartland Has a New Sierra Club Organizer and Office

John Muir, who founded the Sierra Club in 1892, had hiked from Gainesville to Cedar Key in the late 1800s when he had the insight that our natural systems have value in and of themselves, apart from any benefits they provide for humans. Muir wrote about that idea in the journal that was later published in his book, “A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf”:

…Why should man value himself as more than a small part of the one great unit of creation? And what creature of all that the Lord has taken the pains to make is not essential to the completeness of that unit—the cosmos? The universe would be incomplete without man; but it would also be incomplete without the smallest transmicroscopic creature that dwells beyond our conceitful eyes and knowledge

I like to think that Muir would be pleased with news that in June 2016, the Sierra Club hired Merrillee Malwitz-Jipson, former president and policy director of Our Santa Fe River, to lead a new effort to protect Florida’s freshwater springs from pollution.
Before Christmas—as American Indians at Standing Rock were making headlines to protect water from damage by the Dakota Access Pipeline—I sat down with Merrillee to talk about our springs, Florida’s Sabal Trail Pipeline, and her new role with the Sierra Club.
“The Sierra Club hired me because they needed a grassroots organizer in North Florida to work for springs protection,” Merrillee explained. “The club is concerned about the amount of pollution that is damaging our springs, so I’m focused on that. My job also includes complementing the work that’s being done by the club’s Suwannee-St. Johns Chapter.”
The new Sierra Club office is located at Merrillee’s family-run business, Rum 138 in southern Columbia County.
Geographically the largest Sierra Club chapter in the eastern United States, the Suwannee-St. Johns (SSJ) group has close to 2000 members and includes all or part of 16 counties in Florida’s springs heartland.
One of Merrillee’s projects is to assist with the creation of SSJ’s new North County Working Group. Designed to encourage people to be the eyes and ears of Sierra in North Central Florida—to watch for development, changes in water use or land use regulations or anything else that might damage our springs—the group meets once a month on the third Saturday at 10 a.m. at Rum 138.
“The big effort is trying to get better land use development on top of high aquifer recharge areas,” Merrillee explained. “I’m working with groups to push for better land uses that do not affect our aquifer and springs. Right now, I’m involved with people in Brooker and other communities in Union and Bradford counties to stop new phosphate mining that has the potential to pollute the Santa Fe River. I’m also working with people around the state to try to stop the potential for destruction caused by the Sabal Trail fracked gas pipeline that is coming through our region.”
Designed to carry large amounts of natural gas, the Sabal Trail Pipeline has received its required permits and is under construction, boring through wetlands and sensitive areas that are prone to sinkholes. To protect the springs and the Floridan aquifer, the Sierra Club joined with the Flint Riverkeeper in Georgia and the Gulf Restoration Network in a lawsuit challenging permits for the pipeline. At press time, the lawsuit is still in the court system.
“The Sabal Trail Pipeline is newsworthy because the power corporations involved are locking us into fossil fuels rather than moving toward more sustainable energy sources such as sun and wind,” Merrillee explained. “There is a statewide movement against the pipeline because of that and because pipelines can leak, explode, and damage water supplies.”
“Stopping the pipeline requires a huge movement,” she continued. “We as citizens can stop this, even though it is now being built.” To support that claim, Merrillee cites the stoppage of the Cross-Florida Barge Canal in the 1960s and the recent actions at Standing Rock, where American Indians have at least temporarily halted construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.
“Standing Rock put the wind in our sails when we saw what they accomplished to delay a fossil fuel behemoth,” Merrillee said. “The tribal network gave that movement its energy and people’s motivation to get involved was their water supply, something they could all stand behind.”
To learn more about the new North County Working Group or other Sierra Club activities in the springs heartland, email Merrillee Malwitz-Jipson at or call her at 386-454-1542.

To learn more about…

Sierra Club Suwannee-St. Johns Chapter:

This article originally appeared in the January 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.

Water Visions: Gifts of Water and Water Gifts

I’m writing this the week before Thanksgiving and thinking about what I’m thankful for this year. At the top of that list is knowing that I live enfolded in the Springs Heartland of Planet Earth.
What healing gifts these springs offer to the world! Gifts of beauty, inspiration, relaxation, rejuvenation, life itself. Gifts not only to humans, but also to fish, birds, turtles, manatees and plants that depend on our springs and spring-fed rivers for life-giving water.
Water makes these gifts to us and, because we are interdependent with the world around us, we can also give back to water.
Since we’re moving into the season of Christmas, Hanukkah and Yule/Winter Solstice—holidays traditionally marked by gift giving—here are a few suggestions for local places to shop, if you’re looking for a water-related gift, or to offer a contribution, if you want to donate to a good cause. (See links in the sidebar.)
Rum 138 has something for almost everyone on your gift list, from canoe/kayak trips on a section of the Santa Fe River known for its many springs to water-themed books, paintings, pottery and jewelry. The gallery offers work by artists including John Moran, Jill Heinerth, Mark Long and Rum 138 owners Doug Jipson and Merrillee Malwitz-Jipson.
Lanza Gallery and Art Supplies carries paintings, jewelry and pottery from local artisans as well as art and craft supplies. Lanza also offers classes and workshops for adults and children. Whose water-related creativity could you inspire with the gift of a class or art supplies? Some of the artists whose work you’ll find at Lanza are Barbara Knutson, Tim Malles, Karen LeMonnier and owner Tina Corbett.
Canoe, Kayak and Stand-Up Paddleboard (SUP) Outfitters. Why not give someone a chance to experience our rivers and springs on a fun outing? In addition to Rum 138, there are many outfitters who offer shuttle service and rent canoes, kayaks and SUPs for trips on local waterways. Check out Adventure Outpost and its Springs Republic boutique, Drift, Santa Fe Canoe Outpost, Paddling Adventures, and Ichetucknee Family Canoe & Cabins.
If you’re considering a year-end donation to a nonprofit group that educates and advocates for protection of our springs, rivers, and aquifer, check out these local and nearby organizations.
Our Santa Fe River (OSFR) stopped a potential influx of water bottling plants on the Lower Santa Fe, advocates for a moratorium on water use permits, and is actively opposing the Sabal Trail Pipeline and a proposed phosphate mine on the New River (a tributary of the Santa Fe in Bradford and Union counties). OSFR also holds regularly scheduled paddle trips and is involved in a multitude of other activities.
The Ichetucknee Alliance legally challenged a bad minimum flow and level rule and worked to move the Sabal Trail Pipeline away from the Ichetucknee. The group monitors water quality and fish populations, organizes the “Water Voices” speaker series, and maintains a dialogue with state agencies that resulted in a new restoration focus area and economic incentives for agriculturalists to protect the Ichetucknee.
With a long-term goal of establishing a permanent springs research center, scientists at the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute (FSI) develop restoration plans and management goals that serve as blueprints for many springs advocacy groups, including members of the Florida Springs Council. FSI also offers monthly Springs Academy classes at its new North Florida Springs Environmental Center and holds annual “Give Springs a Break” events for college students. The Environmental Center also sells springs-related books and t-shirts.
The Florida Springs Council is made up of close to 40 advocacy organizations that represent over 150,000 citizens. The Council organized the 2016 Springs Restoration Summit that brought scientists, water managers and advocates together for 2-1/2 days of discussion about how to save our springs. The Education, Legal, and Legislative committees work actively in those three areas to restore, protect and preserve Florida’s springs.
Through their website, exhibitions, transit bus wraps and other activities, the three artists (John Moran, Lesley Gamble and Rick Kilby) who run the Springs Eternal Project (SEP) work to inspire people to value and redefine our relationship with springs. This past summer, SEP ran a Springs Ambassadors camp for middle school students.
The 10-year-old Center for Earth Jurisprudence at Barry University Law School in Orlando is focused on changing and expanding our laws to provide better protection for springs and other natural systems.

To learn more about…

Rum 138

Lanza Gallery and Art Supplies


Our Santa Fe River

Ichetucknee Alliance

Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute

North Florida Springs Environmental Center

Florida Springs Council

Springs Eternal Project

Center for Earth Jurisprudence

This article originally appeared in the December 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 it here.

Monday, April 10, 2017

A Vision: The Floridan Aquifer/Springs System

I had a dream right before I woke up this morning that seemed significant. I was in a learning environment, like a classroom, and the instructor (not anyone that I recognized) was writing something on a blackboard. He (I'm pretty sure it was a man) was explaining about the potentiometric pressures in the Floridan aquifer, and how when the groundwater levels fall, flows in the springs decline, and when the groundwater levels rise, the spring flows increase.

All of a sudden I was lifted high into the sky—not by anything in particular, I just found myself there—way above "birds-eye view" level, more like satellite level. I could see all of North Florida and I could see all of our over 1000 freshwater springs. I could also see into the aquifer. As I floated there, I watched the groundwater rise and fall along with the simultaneous rising and falling of the levels in the springs. It was like watching the earth breathing, but instead of breathing air, it was breathing water.

I woke up with the phrase "The Floridan Aquifer/Springs System" in my mind and I realized that so often, we deal with problems and issues that are affecting one or two individual springs, when instead the whole thing—the interconnections between aquifer, groundwater, springs and humans—is one giant ecological system.

I emailed a couple of scientists I know to double-check this insight and one has confirmed that " now know more than many of the people who work at the water management districts. The Floridan aquifer system, certainly at the scale of the Florida peninsula, is one continuous groundwater flow system.  The USGS has described it as such for more than half a century."

I already knew about the connections within the aquifer—how the underwater limestone caverns and conduits carry groundwater from here to there—but it is one thing to know this intellectually and it is a whole other thing to be "shown" it in what was basically a speeded-up time lapse movie.

So I'm thinking that instead of calling this "the Floridan Aquifer System" as USGS does, maybe it should be the "Floridan Aquifer/Springs System," or some even catchier name that reflects the interconnections between aquifer, groundwater, springs and humans. 

Maybe that kind of catchy name could help people to understand what happens to the springs when they use water. The same scientist who confirmed my vision likes to say that every drop of water we use is one less drop for our springs, rivers and lakes.

I wish everyone could see that "movie" that I watched in my dream.