Nov 3, 2006

Saving Our Springs: Conservation is key in keeping the water flowing

Saving Our Springs
Conservation is key in keeping the water flowing
Elaine Aradillas | Orlando Sentinel Staff Writer
October 30, 2006

Some of Central Florida's springs may grow drier if the increasing human demand on the region's underground water supply continues.

In Rock and Wekiwa springs, which are surrounded by booming development in Orange and Seminole counties, flows are expected to decrease by close to 10 percent by 2025.


Relying less on water pumped from the ground -- something water managers are poised to do -- is a crucial step toward saving the state's springs.

"If the public doesn't care, we will lose our springs. That's the bottom line," said Jim Stevenson, former chairman of the Florida Springs Task Force.

More water pumped from the underground Floridan Aquifer to serve a growing population means less water is available for springs that feed rivers and serve as vital habitat for wildlife ranging from manatees and birds to snails.

Earlier this month, three water-management agencies banded together in an attempt to halt increases in the amount of water pumped from the imperiled aquifer after 2013 to avoid harm to springs, lakes and wetlands. The agencies hope utilities will begin using alternative water supplies, such as river water or desalting sea water.

"It's a balancing act," said Bill Graf spokesman for the South Florida Water Management District. "We're trying to provide [water] for all the new residents and trying to preserve what is traditionally Florida."

In recent years, spring flow has increased in many areas as the region emerges from a dry trend that has lingered for several decades. Still, some springs, such as Wekiwa and Rock, which are in a rapidly growing area, haven't rebounded as much as others.

"Our modeling to date has suggested the reason the numbers are down is because of development," said Hank Largin, spokesman for the St. Johns River Water Management District.

But he said development isn't the "definitive" explanation.

Pinpointing the cause of reduced spring flow is difficult because springs are affected by development, natural cycles of drought and rain and geology. Inside the aquifer, water in a complex labyrinth of crevices and caves moves at different speeds because of differences in pressure, and complex computer models must take these and other factors into account.

Water managers estimate about 7percent of spring flow can be sucked away by residents' water demands. And the effects of today's actions aren't visible in springs until years and sometimes decades later.

"What we're seeing now is the past," said Bill Osburn, a hydrologist at the St. Johns district who studies the springs. "If we change things now, it could be 20 to 60 years before we see a change in the springs."

Springs are endangered not only by reduced water flow but also by pollution -- ranging from fertilizers to pesticides. For example, in Wekiwa Springs, scientists have found nutrients are feeding algae that is choking out wildlife. The nearby Rock Springs is suffering from contaminants that leach from septic tanks.

Florida has about 700 springs across the central and northern regions; it's the largest concentration of freshwater springs on Earth. There are 17 state parks with springs that attract more than 2 million annual visitors and collect more than $107 million in revenue.

Kissengen Spring in Polk County once hosted thousands of visitors in its swimming hole supplied by 20 million gallons of water a day. But underground water withdrawals in the area increased, and by 1950, the spring dried up.

It's a part of Florida history that water managers don't want repeated.

In 2001, Gov. Jeb Bush created the Florida Springs Initiative to focus on spring health. So far the group has received about $15 million for conservation education and programs that enhance water quality, among other things.

Some money has been funneled toward Central Florida, including septic-tank removal at De Leon Springs in Volusia County and monitoring water discharge in Blue Spring near Orange City, where the spring flow amount affects manatees that use the warm waters as a winter refuge.

In Tallahassee, the Department of Environmental Protection is trying to encourage better management of storm water so it dumps fewer contaminants into springs and also is working with developers and landscapers to encourage them to install plants that use less fertilizer and water.

The Department of Transportation, which partnered with DEP, installed signs along the Wekiva River basin last year so motorists could comprehend the size of the springshed -- the underground area that contributes to the flow of springs that feed the river. Those springs are affected by rain and water withdrawals in a vast region that stretches across much of Orange and Seminole counties.

DEP spokeswoman Sarah Williams said educating the public is paramount.

Saving water saves the springs. That's why water-management districts have rules limiting lawn irrigation and county agencies have implemented programs to conserve water. Seminole County, for example, teaches water-wise irrigation techniques to developers and residents.

Ruth Hazard, coordinator for Seminole's water and sewer department, said residents tend to be receptive to learning about effective irrigation techniques that can lower their water bills.

But she said developers are still planting water-hungry lawns and plants.

"Developers want to mow down all the trees and plant St. Augustine," which is considered a wetland grass, Hazard said. She recommends using Bermuda or Zoysia grass, which can survive droughtlike conditions. She predicts landscaping that limits water usage -- called waterwise or drought-tolerant landscaping -- will become an effective tool in water conservation, especially inside the springs' watersheds.

"It's a change of behavior," she said. "We're trying to work with development review boards so that everyone is happy."

Elaine Aradillas can be reached at earadillas@orlandosentinel.com or 407-931-5940

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