The H.T. Odum Florida Springs Institute recently published the first Florida Springs Conservation Plan which summarizes historical and recent data for 32 “sentinel” springs from among Florida’s 1,000-plus artesian springs. This springs’ short list includes most of Florida’s publicly-owned, large, and economically-important springs that serve as the “canaries-in-the-coal-mine” in terms of overall springs condition. The Florida Springs Conservation Plan describes a springs ecological health assessment protocol based on the Florida Springs Institute’s ongoing synthesis of springs research data.
Springs health was assessed based on measured changes that closely relate to springs ecology - flow, salinity, and nitrate concentrations. Each indicator was rated as Very Good (A), Good (B), Fair (C), Poor (D), or Failed (F). Half of Florida’s most important springs received grades of D+ or lower, indicating degraded conditions with significant loss of ecological health and a high priority for restoration. Seventy five percent of these sentinel springs were below a B-, indicating an unacceptable level of harm to at least one of the three health indicators. Some of Florida’s springs regions are in worse shape than others, such as springs in East-central Florida, Southwest Florida, and along the Suwannee/Santa Fe Rivers, and are most imperiled due to human activities.
Major springs receiving failing grades include Silver and Rainbow in Marion County, Fanning in Levy County, and Crystal in Pasco County. Springs receiving D grades include Madison Blue, Lafayette Blue and Troy (Lafayette County), Manatee (Levy County), Ginnie (Gilchrist County), Gum Slough (Sumter County), Kings Bay/Crystal River, Homosassa, and Chassahowitzka (Citrus County), Sulfur (Hillsborough County), and Jackson Blue. Nineteen of these 32 sentinel springs received F grades for average flow reductions greater than 20 percent, while eleven of those springs received F grades for nitrate nitrogen pollution above 1 mg/L (a 2,000 percent increase over natural background levels).
None of Florida’s most visited and economically valuable springs received an A grade for all indicators, but 15 of the 32 springs received at least one A among the three health indicators. Based on this evaluation, the healthiest springs in Florida are Alexander (Lake County), the Wacissa Group (Jefferson County), and the Gainer Group (Bay County), all located amidst large tracts of protected forested lands.
As Florida’s government accelerates funding and projects for springs recovery, this inventory of springs ecological health provides a solid basis for prioritizing springs protection efforts. Failing grades indicate that the primary spring functions are very low or absent, restoration is increasingly difficult, and the spring requires immediate and holistic intervention. As documented in more than 20 years of published reports, the state’s springs restoration and protection efforts to-date have been insufficient to reverse the downward trend of springs health. Every day that efforts for springs recovery are delayed adds to the eventual high cost for the state’s taxpayers to protect the Floridan Aquifer and to save these invaluable springs.
The new Florida Springs Conservation Plan outlines the steps that need to be taken to implement meaningful and lasting restoration of Florida’s iconic springs. Groundwater use for critical needs such as human consumption can be more efficient, while groundwater pumping for avoidable uses such as watering lawns should decrease. These goals can be accomplished at minimal cost to the public by setting a cap on groundwater extraction that leaves adequate groundwater for healthy springs and by discouraging excessive groundwater pumping by putting a user fee on groundwater uses. Reducing groundwater use will have the additional benefit of reversing saltwater intrusion in coastal areas of the state.
Increasing nitrate pollution of groundwater can also be reversed by capping nitrogen fertilizer uses and putting a fee on human-caused nitrogen sources, including fertilizers and septic systems. Additional impacts to springs health include physical modifications such as dams and seawalls and intensive recreation. These problems are secondary to flow declines and nutrient pollution, but recovery is attainable and potentially rapid under wiser management of springs in public ownership.
The Florida Springs Institute intends to update this springs’ ecological health assessment annually. These grades will provide an easily understandable baseline for assessing the efficacy of state and local efforts to save Florida’s springs. Healthy aquifers and springs are essential for ensuring a sustainable and healthy economic future for Florida.
Dr. Robert Knight is Director of the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute. Printed copies of the 2018 Florida Springs Conservation Plan Executive Summary can be picked up at the North Florida Springs Environmental Center in High Springs. The full 108-page plan with appendices is available online at www.floridaspringsinstitute.org/reports/.