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Following the Currents that Guide Florida's Future
How can we save Florida’s endangered springs?
Frank Bentayou
A legal fight over whether state newcomer Adena Ranch can divert as much as 13 million gallons of water a day from the source that feeds Florida’s Silver Springs to irrigate cattle land has brought conditions of Florida’s springs into sharp focus. Years of sprawl, population growth, greater industrial and, especially, agricultural water use have taken their toll on these natural pools, diminishing their flow (already by 50 percent at Silver Springs) and clarity. Now, what is more important to the state, saving these natural resources or boosting economic development? A conference on the issue convenes today at Silver River State Park, Ocala.
Robert Knight
Director, Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute

In the 1850s Florida’s pioneers assumed that Silver Springs had always existed and would continue to flow for all eternity. Yet, Silver Springs’ average flow (nearly 500 million gallons per day [MGD]) declined to about one-half its long-term average in 2011 (247 MGD) and is currently about one third of its long-term average flow (160 MGD). Silver Springs is literally dying before our eyes – without flow a spring becomes a stagnant sinkhole with the almost complete loss of aquatic life.

So, what causes a spring with more than 150 years of recorded history to stop flowing? There are only two possible factors that could have caused the observed flow declines at Silver Springs: a drastic reduction in rainfall and/or a drastic increase in groundwater pumping. In Marion County, rainfall has remained relatively constant, averaging about 54 inches per year over the past 96 years and 52 inches per year over the past decade. Luckily for us rainfall has not stopped. On the other hand, groundwater pumping in Marion County was non-existent 150 years ago. Today there are 931 active groundwater consumptive use permits (CUPs) in Marion County for a permitted allocation of 84 MGD. This figure does not include the thousands of private self-supply wells in the county. Even more significant are the 28,630 CUPs with a combined pumping capacity of 4,700 MGD in the three water management districts that surround the groundwater basin that feeds Silver Springs.

This astounding number of permits and allocated withdrawals have lowered the regional groundwater levels from coast-to-coast, resulting in reduced flow to springs and rivers, lower lake levels, and coastal salt water intrusion.

We can’t control the rain. But fortunately, we can control how much groundwater we pump. There is a precedent where we have reduced our reliance on groundwater. The Tampa Bay “water wars” are a case in point. In the late 1980s it became increasingly obvious that groundwater pumping was lowering lake levels and drying up wetlands near Tampa. After an extended legal battle, in 1997 the Florida legislature required the opposing parties to settle their dispute and reduce their dependence on groundwater by increasing their use of surface water supplies.

The answer to the question above “How can we save our endangered springs?”  is simple. Florida needs to cut back significantly on groundwater pumping. If we cannot live without that water, then we must shift to surface water supplies. The first target should be to cut back to pre-1990 pumping rates. Once we see how much that will restore flows at Silver and other imperiled springs, we may need to cut back further.

These cuts need to be across the board, not only in Marion County, but from Weeki Wachee to Jacksonville and from Daytona to Tallahassee. Our “eternal” springs are dying the “death by a thousand cuts” wherever they are in Florida. And so too is our state’s future.

Ed de la Parte
Tampa lawyer de la Parte represents Adena Ranch in its Marion County water request

The most important thing that people need to know is that the Adena Springs Ranch permit request, if granted, will have no material environmental impacts on or off the ranch. The project has been designed that way.

Fear is a horrible filter. And, people who care about our water resources have seen changes over time and those changes can be scary.

That’s why our permit application is supported by technical reports produced by engineers, hydrologists, geologists, ecologists, agronomists and others. We arrived at the requested amount based on an irrigation demand model provided by the St. Johns River Water Management District, and what we are asking for is necessary for this agriculture purpose.

First, you should know something about the owner whose direction is guiding this process. Frank Stronach is a successful businessman, but that hardly covers who he is or his values. Everyone who works for him will tell you that he doesn’t cut corners. He does things right. He does them to the highest possible standard, and he does them because they add value. That’s who he is as well as what he does.

The Adena Springs Ranch project is going to create jobs — about 150 of them. It’s going to produce a Florida-branded grass-fed beef product — something to make the community, Florida agriculture and the ranch proud.

The project is uniquely designed to rely primarily on the natural system. Fields are designed so that the cattle can graze on grasses and then move to other fields allowing rainfall and cow manure to naturally grow the grass again. In case of drought or during the winter months, irrigation may be necessary — that’s what our water request is for. To be clear, our permit will allow Adena to irrigate roughly 34 days in a year. And, it costs about $1,000 for each irrigation event, so Adena is planning to use rainfall to the extent possible and supplemental irrigation only when necessary.

Likewise on nutrients. The cattle will provide necessary fertilizer. The ranch will test soils and leaves every seven to ten days to ensure that the grass is getting the fertilizer it needs — and no more. The nutrient management program is designed to ensure that we are not creating polluted runoff.

Some people are concerned about the Silver River and Silver Springs. Concern for these environmental treasures may be warranted, but fear from impacts caused by Adena Springs Ranch are simply unfounded.

For all the details, visit AdenaSpringsRanch.com

Estus Whitfield
Life-long conservationist and chief environmental advisor to five Florida governors

If you believe Florida’s springs, lakes, rivers and groundwater are in good health and have bright futures, then read no further.  On the other hand, if you have seen dried-up lake beds, springs with little or no flow, and rivers and streams choked with algae, then you join legions of Floridians who are asking, “Why can’t Florida get the water right?”

Check out Kissengen Spring near Bartow in Polk County, once the pride of the area; it went dry in 1950.  Take a look at some of the lakes around the Keystone Heights area of Northeast Florida; they are bone dry and riddled with vehicle tracks.  White Sulphur Springs in White Springs, Hamilton County, was a major tourist attraction early in the last century; it hasn’t flowed in over a year.  I know several springs and water resources experts who could write a book.

The iconic Silver Springs’ water flow has been reduced by 50 percent over the past several years, algae grows on the once white sandy bottom, the water is no longer crystal clear, and native fish species are giving way to exotics.  Silver is no longer the same place that attracted millions in past years.

Rainbow Springs, a few miles west near Dunnellon, faces the same grim future.  This extraordinarily beautiful place may join Silver on the “may go dry list,” given today’s state water policy and practice.

A healthy environment and a long-term healthy economy go hand in glove; they are inextricably linked together.  It is our world-famous natural resources that make Florida a favorite place to live and visit.  During the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, when Florida’s economy enjoyed unprecedented growth, the state had in place the most effective set of growth management, water resources and environmental protection laws in the country.  These laws worked well back then and resulted in better planned development and healthier water and environmental resources than today.

Notwithstanding the 2011 legislative dismantlement of the state’s growth management program, Chapters 373 and 403, Florida Statutes, remain on the books and are among the best water and environmental laws in the nation.  They are worth reviewing.  Yet, laws are only as effective as how well they are implemented, and this is a problem.

The state’s leaders, our policymakers, are entrusted and obligated by law and the Florida Constitution to conserve and protect our natural resources and scenic beauty.  They are accountable to the people.  If the public will raise its interest and voice, there will be positive change; otherwise it’s business as usual -- and down the drain. 

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FloridaVoices User Comments

Well, first we all must resist the temptation to engage in anything draconian; Florida's springs do, however, deserve and by their current state appear to insist on some rather quick and decisive action. First we must find a way to have all industrial and agricultural interests state-wide commit to implementing the most state of the art conservation methods and water treatent methods. Whatever they dispose of must not place any more pollutants and especially nitrates than necessary back into our aquifer. It is worth considering that water really has no "owner"-rather, it is "owned" by us all. It eminates from everywhere and flows everywhere pretty much. Lines on a map mean nothing to it. If florida's business community, industries and agricultural and ranching communities take the needed and admittedly somewhat painful steps to treat water as a truly precious life-giving entity, we as citizens will only become more inspired to do even more to think about every drop of water we use, how we use it, and what happens to the wonderful flora and fauna around us whenever we do. I think this is, at least, a good beginning in treating our precious springs with the respect they need and deserve.

I think it is important to not choose between natural resources or boosting economic development, but to find ways for them to successfully co-exist.

So, I tend to agree with the previous comment, that Florida’s business community, industries, and agricultural and ranching communities must treat water with respect. And, after visiting Adena Springs Ranch’s website, it appears they are going to do just that. They have taken big strides to make sure the nutrients from the cattle won’t impact the springs, and from the research they have conducted, they’ve shown the water allocation they are asking for won’t impact surrounding springs.

Florida’s springs are important to the health of our state. We can all agree on that. But, I don’t think we can completely stop economic growth to protect the springs. I think we need to support new projects that take the time to make sure they won't impact the springs. And, it seems Adena Springs Ranch is a good example.

by Dr. Radut.