Recently, the Florida Springs Institute (FSI) and Kings of the Springs (KOTS) environmental non-profits came together to host a Springs Outing on the Chassahowitzka River in southern Citrus County. Chassahowitzka springs are christened with names like Seven Sisters, Crab Creek, Potter, the Crack, Betteejay, and more. The “Chaz”, as regulars and locals call it, is a little-known but locally popular hangout on hot summer days. With its rope swings, wildlife, and swim-through caves it’s no wonder this spring system has become such a beloved hangout spot, for locals and visitors alike.
Our group was led by Tom Morris, springs biologist and cave diver, featured in the PBS documentary series Water’s Journey, and by Tessa Skiles, daughter of the legendary Wes Skiles who conceived and produced the four Water’s Journey films and created dozens of other important educational resources about the caves and narrow passages that comprise the Floridan Aquifer and its springs. Tessa is the Outreach Director of the Florida Springs Institute and is a passionate outdoors woman and photo/videographer in her own right. She shares her father’s passion for protecting the aquifer, springs, and rivers of Florida. Brent Fannin and David Cobiella, founders of KOTS, and many of their supporters rounded out our group of close to 30 paddleboarders, kayakers, and canoeists.
Our group ranged in age from a 15-year old high school junior, through young professionals, and a few older folks approaching retirement. Most were new to the Chassahowitzka and witnessing their enthusiasm and passion was an invigorating experience for me. Their smiles, laughter, and physical prowess above, on, and under the water warmed my jaded heart. Although I started the day bemoaning the sad condition of our beloved springs, I was re-infected by their deep passion for what is left to save and cherish. Where I was contemplating writing another springs opinion piece about what we have already lost, my spirits were uplifted and refocused on the unfinished job ahead.
Added to this heartwarming display of humanity’s best instincts, was a story relayed to me by one of the paddlers. This friend had recently been backpacking in the North Carolina Smokey Mountains, and on a remote mountain-top bald, was engaged by a group of Florida day hikers who commented on his Ichetucknee Springs Alliance hat. Queried by the strangers about the condition of the Ichetucknee and other Florida springs, my friend answered the group’s questions by describing the good and the bad. Their conversation eventually turned to the role of politics in springs protection, and one of the strangers identified himself as the former speaker of the Florida house and a Republican. This former legislator assured my friend that the current pro-business-at-any-cost Florida government would eventually come back around to supporting the irreplaceable jewels of our state - healthy springs, rivers, and estuaries.
My morning depression was in part due to a first-hand account I had received about Fanning and Manatee Springs. At Manatee Springs and Catfish Hotel, experienced divers found turbidity so extreme that visibility was reduced to less than six feet and the water emitting from the spring was described as “murky”. Compared to the crystalline clear blue, lushly vegetated Manatee Springs I have known in years past, this spring is best described as dying or dead.
At Fanning Springs, they found blue, clear water and a sandy bottom. Unlike the lost clarity at Manatee Springs, the high nitrate nitrogen levels polluting Fanning Springs are invisible. Although Fanning has filamentous algae and has lost its former submerged aquatic plants, recent high rainfall has recharged local aquifer levels enough to create a higher flow of clear water. My friends had Fanning Springs to themselves and thoroughly enjoyed their snorkeling experience in this equally-impaired water body.
Such was the case this past Saturday for our entourage who visited the Chaz. The various springs did not appear healthy, yet they continue to be a magnet for thousands of people who cherish time outdoors. My fellow springs hoppers and I took home memories we will share with our friends and cherish into the future. We all experienced the Real Florida® that we want to preserve for our kids and grandkids. I just hope that all springs visitors realize, as I do, that our responsibility as Florida citizens and thoughtful voters is to insure a bright future for our natural environment.
Robert Knight is Executive Director of the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute in High Springs.