Time running out this session for bill aimed at repairing, protecting Florida's aquatic gems
Fanning Springs had a lush garden of native underwater plants when the artesian jewel became a state park a little more than a decade ago.
Today, a witch's hairdo of algae dominates Fanning's waters. About 35 miles from Gainesville, the cluster of springs has earned recognition as among the state's most polluted and a prime example of what's killing ecosystems at many of Florida's best-known springs.
Sweeping water legislation aimed in large part at repairing and protecting springs across the state is pending in Tallahassee, marking at least the fifth year in a row of serious attempts to bolster safeguards for one of Florida's environmental treasures. But with just three weeks left in the current legislative session, it is unclear whether this year's bill finally will succeed.
"This is the biggest change in water law in at least 20 years," said state Sen. Lee Constantine, R- Altamonte Springs, the author of SB 550. "When you do something like that, it's always dicey."
Ecosystem disasters have been emerging at the biggest of nearly 700 known Florida springs, including Wakulla near Tallahassee; the most iconic, such as the mermaid playground at Weeki Wachee north of Tampa Bay; and even ones as highly protected as the Wekiwa near Orlando.
In essence, complex and rich arrangements of aquatic plants, fish and wildlife are being snuffed out by simple but overwhelming forms of algae.
The culprit is an extremely common type of water pollution, soaking deep into the ground from a variety of sources, including septic tanks, sewage plants, agriculture, lawn fertilizer and dirty stormwater. It's called nitrate, a form of nitrogen and an essential nutrient for plant growth.
Peer into the massive pool created by Silver Springs near Ocala, and to the untrained eye there's not much sign that anything is wrong.
Even through the glass bottoms of the vintage Yahalochee and Charlie Cypress tour boats, the basin seems to thrive with turtles, fish and long, skinny plants that look like giant blades of grass.
Scientists suspect, however, appearances are deceiving at Silver Springs.
Bob Knight, University of Florida professor and springs researcher for 30 years, and other aquatic scientists have documented how rising nitrate levels initially act as a growth booster for a spring's plants and then wreak havoc.
Alexander Springs, deep in Ocala National Forest, is possibly the state's cleanest — nearly what Mother Nature originally designed — with a nitrate level of far less than 1 part per million and measuring consistently at about 0.05 parts per million. That tells scientists healthy springs have extremely low levels of nitrate.
Serious harm begins in a range of 0.2 to 0.4 parts per million of nitrate. At that point, native spring plants are getting force-fed a high-calorie diet. The signature vegetation of healthy springs — eelgrass and tape grass — surges with growth.
The nitrate level at Silver Springs has pushed to 1.4 parts per million and is still rising.
"At higher concentrations, what we see is a flip where the system stops supporting the submerged aquatic vegetation — like the tape grass and the eelgrass — and it starts supporting more and more algae and a different kind of algae: filamentous algae," Knight said, referring to the type that looks like an unruly wig.
"The thickness of these algae mats can be a foot or more, and it totally replaces submerged plants," he said.
Knight studied under one of Florida's earliest springs scientists, Howard Odum, and has at his fingertips a half-century of data on Silver Springs biology and chemistry. He fears the system is vulnerable to that flip.
At Fanning Springs, the nitrate level is about 6 parts per million, which approaches a concentration too toxic to drink. The loss of eelgrass and related variety of other plants was relatively sudden, leaving an ecosystem "pretty much sterile" compared with the flora and fauna once in place, said park manager Sally Lieb.
At Wekiwa Springs, where algae growth is rampant, nitrate levels often exceed 1 part per million.
Knight thinks if dramatic action were taken to prevent nitrate from getting into springs — for example, by connecting septic tanks to modern sewage systems and limiting use of farm fertilizers in sensitive areas — the problem would still persist because of the heavy load of pollutant now stored in the aquifer system that supplies water to springs.
"The springs are just the tip of the iceberg," he said. "We've got a Floridan Aquifer contamination issue with nitrate. It's going to take years, even if you stopped fertilizing in Florida, for rain to rinse that nitrate out."
There is evidence springs can be salvaged. Nitrate in Wekiwa Springs, for example, has lessened slightly as a result of closure of the massive farms around Lake Apopka and the decline of the area's citrus industry.
The city of Tallahassee has been revamping the way it disposes of treated sewage in an attempt to lessen nitrate turning up in waters of Wakulla Springs.
"It's worth noting we are already seeing improvements," said Michael Sole, secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and a strong supporter of most of Constantine's water bill.
Late last week, Constantine held a six-hour meeting in Tallahassee with bill opponents, including representatives of farming, construction and other industries. He agreed to consider modifying some of the bill's provisions, which include measures to improve septic tanks, reform stormwater regulations, establish springs-protection zones and put Florida on a path to adopting more-precise water-quality standards. He also is working to align his legislation with various sections of water legislation in the House.
The bill is slated for one more committee stop before advancing to the Senate floor for debate.
"We've got a good shot," Constantine said. "A lot better shot than we did last year."
Kevin Spear can be reached at email@example.com or 407-420-5062.
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