The Wasting of Our Waters
By Vicki Jackson
Guest speaker, Harley Means, P.G., delivered a foreboding message to a full house of members and guests at the Florida Native Plant Society gathering on August 4th. "Our springs are in serious trouble," warned the Assistant State Geologist of Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP), Office of the Florida Geological Survey. Having grown up in the Florida in the Tallahassee area, he was privileged to enjoy many of our formerly clear springs, but he painted a grim picture of the current status, i.e. condition of springs throughout the state, and expressed only cautious optimism for their recovery. To substantiate his concern, he displayed a photograph of a clear, grassy stream, followed by pictures of slimy and algae-covered "pea soup" pools.
With over 700 springs, mostly from the Panhandle on down to Pinellas County, "Florida has one of the greatest concentrations on earth." Recalling recent concerns about water issues with Georgia, he claimed our principle water supply remains the Floridian aquifer system. "It's one of the most productive aquifers in the world, and together with our annual rainfall of 50-60", the supply of water is plenty enough."
So, what's the problem? It's not the lack of water, but the neglect of it. The speaker identified some of the indicators being exhibited by our suffering springs. Number one on the list would be the elevated levels of nutrients, mainly nitrates, followed by an increase in the growth of algae. Then there's the introduction of exotic animals, as well as plants like Hydrilla, which subsequently require massive amounts of herbicides to eliminate. Populations of native organisms, such as limpkins, apple snails, and other aquatic species have declined. Water flow has been reduced, or even ceased, in some instances. Perhaps most alarming of all, is that the water is becoming saltier, rendering it uninhabitable or detrimental to the health of those organisms that evolved in freshwater, and for the population that eventually drinks it.
How did we get here? While the geologist allowed that the severe drought in 1998-2002 had a part to play, much of the blame must be placed on human habits. He gave examples of activities that have a major negative impact on the health of our springs. Along with dumping, both legal (i.e. landfills) and illegal (i.e. sinkholes and discharge), he cited recreational overuse, and abuse, as well as the (over)population's consumptive use of water. Add to this the fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides used in agriculture, and that used for lawns in the urban sprawl, and the influence is incalculable.
Depending on the particular porosity and permeability, Florida's karst topography is vulnerable. Contaminants carried from groundwater to springs and the limestone aquifer; ultimately end up in our drinking water supply. Means declared, "Springwater and groundwater is the same water ninety percent of Floridians drink. Things that we humans do can impact our drinking water."
He queried, "What can or should we do?" A member of the audience immediately suggested, "Quit using fertilizer." Certainly that could help, but Means thinks the main focus should be on education and outreach. He said, "People think government is taking care of it and government's got their backs. They don't." Legislators, as well as private citizens, need to be better informed, and tools should be provided for people who make land use decisions, in a format that is communicable and useable to society. Accordingly, the FDEP's Springs Initiative is working toward restoration of natural conditions and erosion control, through research, monitoring, public education and outreach, and landowner assistance. As with so many others, their budget was severely slashed this year, and only $500,000 has been allocated for protecting your springs and groundwater.
Means continued, "There is not enough political demand to make this an important issue. Florida Forever was a phenomenal plan for purchasing land for the protection of springs, but that funding dried up. Legislation should be enacted to protect Florida's springs, but big interests have squashed every attempt in the last four sessions. Local ordinances need to be passed." He advised everyone to take personal responsibility and get involved.
One simple way folks can do that is to grow native plants that won't negatively impact Florida's surface and groundwater systems, by requiring the use of harmful chemicals and additional water. Help and advice is available at www.pinellasnativeplants.org.
Springs are not the only waters in trouble here. The St. Petersburg Times recently reported on the decades of systematic abuse and dumping in the Gulf of Mexico, "a sink of pollution". An article reminded that only half of the oil spewed out of the Deepwater Horizon disaster has been recovered. (We are left to wonder how and where the rest of it will end up, and what ruin may follow in years to come.) In another story, an area photographer colorfully documented some of the beautiful creatures that inhabit Tampa Bay, but it is not just their future that is uncertain, and some have said the Gulf has already been damaged beyond restoration.
We all appreciate our water, but how can we take care of it? Our own county has created a valuable tool to assist in the preservation and protection of this precious resource. Concerned citizens, as well as professionals, will find comprehensive information on all things water, and so much more, by visiting www.pinellas.wateratlas.org.
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