Southeast Volusia Audubon Society, P.O. Box 46, New Smyrna Beach, FL 32170;

October 2014 SJRWMD Update

Understanding the mystery of Florida’s springs
District, university enhance science to better understand factors impacting springs.

Florida boasts more than 700 springs, the largest convergence of springs on Earth. For centuries, writers and explorers have waxed poetic about the state’s springs, Marjory Stoneman Douglas calling them “bowls of liquid light” and William Bartram characterizing them as “the blue ether of another world.”

Within the St. Johns River Water Management District, 96 springs have been identified and documented. The crystal-clear water from the springs, which maintain a year-round temperature of 72 degrees, is the source for many of north and central Florida’s rivers and streams. They provide the habitat for fish and wildlife, including manatees, alligators, limpkins, herons and turtles.

Springs are also indicators of the health of Florida’s aquifers, the primary sources of the state’s subterranean potable (drinking) water. In recent decades, the ecological structure and function of some springs have changed. The most apparent signs are high nitrate concentrations, decreased native aquatic plants, blooms of attached algae and reduced fish populations.

The District has contracted with the University of Florida to better understand how nitrates and other factors affect Florida’s springs and to develop science-based, cost-efficient solutions for improving ecological structure and function. The District is funding the $3 million, three-year project.

Teams of University of Florida (UF) and District scientists began work on the project in March 2014 under the leadership of Dr. Ed Lowe, chief scientist with the District, and Dr. K. Ramesh Reddy, graduate research professor and chair of UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) Soil and Water Science Department. UF’s Water Institute, led by Dr. Wendy Graham, will play a key role in coordinating the university’s work.

The project focuses primarily on the Silver Springs springhead and ecosystem, and, secondarily, on Wekiwa Springs near Apopka. The project is intended to improve the scientific foundation for the management of nitrates flowing into the springs. Further, it will evaluate whether nitrate reduction alone will be sufficient to restore the balance of nature and assess the relative influence and controllability of other pollutants and stressors.
Over the past several years, UF scientists have studied various aspects of Florida’s spring systems. The project provides an opportunity to finally “look at springs as a whole,” says Graham.

Instead of solely focusing on nitrate levels in springs, teams are examining potential links between spring health and flow rates, water levels, dissolved oxygen and even plants and microorganisms residing in them.

preparing spring water samples

A District environmental scientist prepares bottles of spring water samples for evaluation at the District’s laboratory.

“We have 10 faculty members from IFAS and the colleges of Liberal Arts, Science and Engineering,” Graham says. “One of the Water Institute’s missions is to keep the groups coordinated and communicating with one another so that the pieces fit together in an integrated way.”

Scientists are also examining rainfall and runoff quantity and quality; aquifer storage, flow and spring discharge; nitrate sources, nitrate uptake and nitrate loss in soils and groundwater; algae abundance and roles of various animal species on the health of spring ecosystems.

The partnership with UF is one component of the District’s Springs Protection Initiative, which combines science, projects, planning and regulatory programs to reduce nitrate loading and protect spring flows. The Springs Initiative helped fund nearly $47 million of cost-share projects with cities and counties in the first year. These include reclaimed water projects that improve water quality by decreasing nitrate pollution and protect spring flows by reducing demand for groundwater withdrawals.

“The state of Florida and the District have made protection of Florida’s springs one of their highest environmental priorities,” said Hans G. Tanzler III, the District’s executive director. “The challenge is finding the most cost-effective means for restoring and protecting these precious, natural resources. This innovative collaboration between the District and UF will develop the strong scientific foundation needed to restore and protect Florida’s world-class springs.”
Ed Garland
St. Johns River Water Management District