OP/ED: Blue Gold: Reflections on the Condition of Florida’s Natural Springs

Written by Stephan Hoda

Have you ever seen a Florida spring?  The Sunshine State is home to roughly 1,000 natural springs, making it the largest concentration on earth.  Yet, I often find my friends and colleagues are unfamiliar with these natural gems.  “You’re missing out,” I’ll say, enthusiastic to share a story or recommendation.  To see the look on someone’s face the first time they lay eyes on the gleaming water of a Florida spring is priceless, the mere thought of it makes me positively giddy – and I jump at the chance to show one off!

Born and raised on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, wetland environments are my native terrain.  I was an amphibious kid, to be sure – fishing, boat-riding, and always watching out for snakes and gators.  In my young world, rivers were to be compared with the muddy waters of the Jordan, Pearl, or Mississippi.  One can imagine this little boy’s first experience with the bubbling blue waters of a Florida spring.  I’ve come to think back on those pleasant memories of family vacations and outings as formative to the person I’ve grown up to be.

Very little could compare with my excitement at the prospect of visiting Weeki Wachee Springs and watching the underwater performers’ rendition of The Little Mermaid.  As cliché as it sounds, it was pure magic.  Indeed, any kid with an active imagination is quite at home in the “City of Live Mermaids.”  Although I remember very little about being ten years old, our trip to Silver Springs is quite vivid in my recollection.  The glass bottom boats, the wildlife, the twisting palm trees, and of course the dancing white sand at the bottom of the first-magnitude spring have all become foundational points of reference in my mind for how nature ought to be – powerful, incorruptibly harmonious, and a place to wonder at the very essence of life.  Indeed, my summer memories are gilded in Florida’s blue gold.

This past November, while having a cup of coffee in a café, I noticed the headline of a Tampa Bay Times on the table.  “Florida’s Vanishing Springs,” it read.  Immediately intrigued, I picked it up.  Knowing in the back of my mind that we face an ecological crisis, I had always figured that Florida’s springs were in some kind of peril.  In fact, I bought the “Protect Florida Springs” license plate, years ago.  Like any good American consumer, I threw money at the problem and hoped that it would sort itself out.  Ignorance is bliss, as they say.  Still, I grabbed the paper and sat down.  My eyes were wide as I read each heart-wrenching detail.

To begin with, we’re quite literally sucking the springs dry.  Despite their decreasing flows, we continue to use obscene amounts of water.  According to the Craig Pittman’s article, Floridians use 50 gallons more each day than the national average.  A particularly eye-opening moment for me came this past April, after reading an article on the declining health of Silver Springs. Like so many, Silver Springs is coagulating with thick blooms of toxic algae, facing ever-increasing levels of nitrate pollution, and a decreased flow due to the demands of over-pumping.  On the very day I read that article, a friend handed me a bottle of water, the brand belonging to a major grocer.  There on the label, plain as day, was given the source of the water – Silver Springs: Ocala, FL.  At that moment I realized the important role we all can play in securing a sustainable future for our springs.  I realized that, although I had been quite outspoken for environmental causes, I had not been holding myself accountable.  Honestly, why are we still buying bottled water?  How have we been convinced that we need it?  And what exactly is in that water?

When I hear stories from older generations about their visits to the springs, I’m taken aback by how much detail they remember.  Notably, they always mention a variety of grasses and plants hailing upward from the sandy floors.  Today, I can’t seem to find that sort of aquatic flora.  What I do find are mats of dark green algae covering practically everything in sight.  But you don’t have to take my word for it.  Showing at the Florida Museum of Natural History is an exhibit featuring the photography of John Moran.  “Springs Eternal” features images of the springs at their best and our worst.  There, one can easily trace the progression of the algae build up from the early 90’s to today.  This can be pretty eye-opening for those unfamiliar with how the springs used to look.  First time visitors to a spring today might not even notice that anything is amiss.  By the clarity of water and variety of animal life, it would appear that everything is as it should be.  Closer examination, however, reveals an almost invisible polluter: nitrate contamination.  In less scientific sounding jargon, we’re talking one of the principle ingredients in fertilizer and feces.  That contamination leads to the growth of the pervasive slimy algae we find choking out our springs.

In the polluting of Florida’s aquifer, there are many culprits.  On a large scale, we can look to Florida’s agricultural and cattle industries.  But, like the situation with bottled water, it is important to account for the role we play as individuals and households.  Especially in the dry months, we Floridians have a tendency to play the greenest lawn game.  But we’re growing more than grass, these days.  The amount of lawn fertilizer washing down into the aquifer plays a large part in the growth of algae.  Septic tanks add their high nutrient effluent into the overall nasty mix.

Bringing in more than $300,000,000 into the state’s annual economy, springs should serve as a source of pride for all Floridians.  Sadly, these natural wonders are facing an uncertain future.  Given the current budget cuts under Rick Scott’s administration, it’s going to take a very large and strong voice in Florida to protect its blue gold.

For me, it only took one moment – one article to change my entire outlook on the role I play as an individual and as a Floridian.  Springs represent the exposed lifeblood of the very earth on which we tread.  Out of the deepest sense of appreciation and reverence do I pray that more people will become informed and motivated to act on behalf of the springs and their respective ecosystems.  For now, I fear the worst.

[note color=”#defcd7″]Stephan Hoda is a recent graduate of the University of South Florida with degrees in Religious Studies and Classical Civilization. His deep love for Florida’s natural springs has led him to consider himself a born-again Floridian and environmentalist. His research interests include nature spirituality and feminist theology.[/note]


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