This spring, students in Environmental Journalism class devoted the semester to Project Blue Ether, a series of water stories that reveals our connection to the aquifer — and our collective role in solutions to over-pumping and pollution. The series ran for 14 weeks on WUFT News. Read it here, for a powerful impression of how our taps connect to groundwater and the springs that define the good life here in North Central Florida.
Erin Alvarez is a landscape instructor at the University of Florida Environmental Horticulture Department. Her teaching program is based in landscape management, which also includes public gardens management and a focus on landscape management issues.
In this interview, Alvarez talks about the common mistakes some homeowners make when it comes to plant selection and irrigation systems.
Joe Floyd is one of four co-owners of Abundant Edible Landscapes. From fruit trees to rainwater collection systems, the company provides several services to homeowners who would like to develop their landscape with environmentally conscious features.
In this interview, Floyd talks what irrigations systems could cut down your water bill in the long run, why you should stay away from imported plants, and how growing your own produce cannot only save you water, but also gas and money.
One Floridian uses the same amount of water in one day, as an average person living in Mozambique, Africa, would in 88 days: 176 gallons, according to the Orlando Sentinel.
The St. Johns River Water Management District reports that 58 percent of that water goes to outdoor needs – the worst offender being irrigation.
While some homeowner associations may not permit it, there are other ways to create a lush, beautiful lawn that will not only be visually appealing but also save money and water.
The most common turfgrass for residential areas in north central Florida is St. Augustine grass; however, it can come at a cost with higher fertilizing and watering demands than other types of turfgrass, Floyd Gainey of Soil-Enrichment Products said. Gainey recommends Centipede grass instead of St. Augustine grass.
Most common in the Florida panhandle, Centipedegrass doesn’t grow quickly, requiring less mowing, and is drought and shade tolerant. This grass variety also does well in acidic or infertile soils, according to the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agriculture Sciences extension.
Gainey stresses amending your soil before planting any type of plant. Amending includes anything that adds nutrients to the soil and locks in moisture. Not amending soil before planting is like “buying a steak and throwing it in the refrigerator and never cooking it,” Gainey said.
Using organic matter from composting also provides a more nutrient rich soil that will help reduce irrigation needs, because the organic matter holds more moisture than soil lacking either nutrients or organic matter, Joe Floyd of Abundant Edible Landscapes said.
Florida Friendly Landscaping strives to help create residential and business landscaping behaviors and techniques that instill the use of low-maintenance plants and sustainable living.
A typical yard in the program minimizes the use of potable water for irrigation, avoids runoff of excess fertilizers and pesticides from the yard and provides habitat for wildlife. There are nine principles of FFL. The eighth principle—reduce storm water runoff—includes using rain gardens instead of turfgrass, another method to creating alternative lawns.
Rain gardens are shallow areas that have grasses (not turfgrass) and plants that catch rain, allowing it to sink into the ground to replenish the Floridan Aquifer, Florida’s main water source. Mulch or stones are used as groundcover, but any porous surface can be used to allow rainwater to seep into the ground, instead of storm water drains. FFL recommends the use of bricks, gravel, turf block, mulch, pervious concrete or other porous surface when possible to allow water to drain into the ground.
The number one principle of FFL is “right plant, right place.” This principle constitutes acknowledging what areas in your yard are adequate or lacking elements such as soil type, watering needs, shade or sun, and acidity. This principle is best put into practice by carefully planning a landscape. More information on how to pick the right plant for the right place can be found on the FFL website.
From the Fountain of Youth to our dropping aquifer levels, Florida’s history has been driven by what happens with its water. Follow some of the major events that have shaped the Sunshine State.
Spring and summer seasons for Floridians are characterized by recreational activities involving water sources that are especially unique to us like springs and beaches. While we use these resources almost all year around, it can be difficult to notice that these water sources, once plentiful, are now gradually being depleted by wasteful behavior and old technology.
The average gallons per day for a person in Mozambique (Africa) is 2 gallons, Germany, 72 gallons, Canada, 114 gallons, the United States, 150 gallons and Florida, 176 gallons, according to statistics from the St. Johns River Water Management District. The St. Johns district statistics show that about 58 percent of water use goes to outdoor uses – the worst offender being irrigation.
Other uses include about 10 percent for the toilet, about 8 percent for washing machines, about 7 percent for the shower, about 6 percent for faucets and about 5 percent goes to any kind of leak. Cutting down usage of all of these appliances could make a dent in water usage, considering they account for about 36 percent of water usage per person.
There are numerous excuses for not cutting back on water: not enough money, time or lack of knowledge. But whether you don’t have money or you don’t have time, water saving behaviors or upgrades are still in reach.
By just changing behaviors or making upgrades outside the home, 40 gallons or more of water can be saved per day. Behaviors that can easily be changed to reduce water usage are:
- Water plants and grass only when needed.
Tip: Step on the grass – if it springs back then it doesn’t need water
- Set the lawn mower blades one notch higher.
Tip: Never cut more than the top third of grass to decrease evaporation. Longer grass means less evaporation.
- Don’t water on windy days
- Only water before 10 a.m. or after 4 p.m. Watering midday can waste up to 65 percent of water to evaporation.
- Don’t let the hose run while washing your car, instead use buckets to hold water and soap
- Group plants according to their watering needs
- Water less in the winter.
- Use a broom instead of hose to clean driveways
- Adjust sprinklers to reduce spraying on sidewalks and driveways
- Repair leaky hoses or sprinklers
Ready to take the next step?
There are nontraditional upgrades that can be made to the outside of the home. Some of them, like rain barrels and cisterns, that seem foreign to some, but they can stop wasteful watering easily. Upgrades to the outside of the home are:
- Water-efficient drip irrigation for trees, shrubs and flowers
- Install a rain shut-off device on automatic sprinklers
- Put mulch around trees, shrubs and flowers to lessen evaporation
- Use rain barrels or cisterns to collect rain run-off
- Replace turf grass with native drought-tolerant vegetation
- Make a compost pile
- Replace traditional St. Augustine grass (high water use) to a lower water use grass
- Install a smart irrigation controller that adjusts watering for temperature and rain
- Install a pool cover to reduce evaporation
Also: Be careful with small children around these.
Inside the Home
Even though most of the water usage is accounted for outside of the home, 41% of water use comes from uses inside the home. By changing behaviors and making a few upgrades, water can be saved and used efficiently, saving anywhere up to 30 gallons per person, per day.
Water saving tips involving behavioral change are:
- Shower in 5 minutes or less
Tip: Don’t think you can shower in just 5 minutes? Try just cutting back your shower by 2 minutes to save 5 gallons per day)
- Run only full loads in the clothes washer
- Don’t leave water running while washing the dishes
- Run the dishwasher only when full
- Turn off water while brushing your teeth
- Fill the bath tub only halfway
- Don’t use the toilet as a waste basket
Still not enough?
You can upgrade appliances and plumbing in the home to further water saving. Some of these upgrades cost $1 while some cost hundreds of dollars.
Upgrades to save water in the home are:
- Fix leaky faucets and toilets
Tip: Put a few drops of food coloring in your toilet tank, wait 15 minutes, and if bowl water is colored then you have a leaky flapper that should be replaced.
- Install a shower head with a maximum flow rate of 2 gallons per minute
- Install low flow shower head (2 gallon/min)
- Purchase efficient clothes washer (Energy Star)
- Purchase an efficient dishwasher (Energy Star)
- Install toilets with 1.28 gallons per flush
Tip: If you can’t afford a new toilet, try this to reduce the amount of water it uses – fill half way a half-gallon jug with pebbles, gravel, sand or water, and put it in the toilet tank.
**Also: If one flush doesn’t clean out the toilet, then remove the jug.
- Install sink aerators with maximum flow rates of 1.5 gallons per minute
Information was provided by Stacie Greco of the Alachua County of Environmental Protection Department. More resources on saving water include Gainesville Regional Utilities, St. Johns River Water Management District, South West Florida Water Management District and the Suwannee River Water Management District. GRU also provides free home surveys where their trained professionals can point out how to save water and energy in the home.
Every year, millions of people visit Florida’s springs and rivers, bringing their money with them. An annual report compiled by the Florida Park Service estimates that the 15 most popular of Florida’s state parks bring in combined revenue of over $12 million. In addition, visitors to places such as Ginnie Springs, a private spring, and Ichetucknee State Park have a sizable economic impact on the nearby towns.
In many parts of Florida, natural beauty is an economic asset. At least one person thinks that might change.
Trouble in paradise
Roland Loog, director of Visit Gainesville, said that the waters of the Santa Fe and Ichetucknee rivers, as well as all the connecting springs, have deteriorated over the last 12 years.
“The water was crystal clear,” said Loog, when describing his childhood experiences with the Ichetucknee River. “Today, the water definitely has a greenish hue.”
He said that the Suwannee, the Santa Fe, and all the connected bodies of water have suffered. Algae blooms, decreased water levels, and weaker water pressure are among the problems he listed.
Loog said the town of High Springs has “economic woes” directly related to declining conditions in the springs and the Santa Fe River.
Marc Bryan, of the Cave Country Dive Shop in High Springs, disagrees with Loog.
“Where else are people going to go? We still have the most beautiful springs,” said Bryan. “It’s not like they’re going to say the High Springs area is terrible and go to Tampa.”
Bryan said High Springs is suffering due to the poor economy nation-wide, not because of worsening conditions in the nearby springs and river.
He doesn’t deny that he is concerned about algae, but he is reluctant to believe there is a long-term problem with decreasing water levels.
“It’s a timing thing,” he said. “We could have this conversation three weeks from now and things could be different.”
During the the six months the dive shop has been open, one employee estimated about 500 customers have come through.
“Have you ever, ever heard one person say that business is bad because of algae or the water level is down?” Bryan asked Marissa Lasso, another employee at the dive shop. “No,” she replied.
Gently down the stream
Jim Woods, CEO of the Santa Fe Canoe Outpost in High Springs, said that problems with the springs and the river are something he is “extremely concerned” about. Although his business hasn’t seen a decrease in customers, he worries that lower water levels will make canoeing too difficult for his patrons.
Woods said the canoe outpost has had about 5,000 to 7,000 customers over his last business year. An average year, he said, customers number 3,000 to 5,000.
Even though people are still renting his canoes, Woods said that the state of the water has made his cost of business go up.
“We’ve had to adjust,” he said.
Woods’ bookkeeper, Ross Ambrose, said that the water levels have forced the canoe outpost to change where it can put its clients in the water.
“We used to put people in the water right here,” he said. “Now we have to drive them to the next bridge. There’s a cost to our clients.”
In addition, Ambrose mentioned other issues, such as problems navigating canoes in low water and algae making it difficult for divers to see underwater.
Ambrose said he doesn’t think lower water levels, increased algae and more pollutants in the water are temporary problems. Lax regulations and more water use in Jacksonville are to blame, he said.
Ambrose said it is entirely possible that High Springs could eventually end up like White Springs, in Hamilton County, Fla., where phosphate mining disrupted the water flow of the nearby springs. The nearby waters ultimately vanished, causing economic devastation for the town which once featured eloquent destination hotels.
Ecotourism’s secondary business
Aside from canoe rental shops and similar places, other businesses in High Springs rely on tourist cash.
Lucie Regensdorf, owner of the Grady House, a bed and breakfast in High Springs, estimates that 90 percent of her customers are people coming to see the river and springs.
“Ecotourism is huge here,” she said. “Most people come here for the river.”
Her business had about 1,600 customers in 2011. Her best year was 2008, when she had 1,800 customers, she said.
Regensdorf beleives that if the springs and rivers were not in good condition, people would stop coming to High Springs.
“It would hurt my business and a lot of other businesses in town,” she said. “People who think that rivers are important are going to try and protect them, and hopefully they can prevail and get the city commissions and county commissions to do the right things.”
Dan Mijajlovic, owner of the Springs Diner in High Springs, said that during the summer, he gets around 6,000 customers a month. He estimated that nearly half of those patrons are tourists.
Opinions by local business owners on the state of the Santa Fe River and local springs have varied. Loog and Ambrose expressed a pessimistic view, while people like Regensdorf and Bryan said things are good.
A senior employee with Ginnie Springs, who did not wish to be identified, said there is no problem with the water conditions in the area. Ben Harris, former park manager for the Suwannee River Wilderness Trail, agrees.
“The water is better than it’s ever been,” he said. Harris said he believes that the springs and rivers all throughout North Florida have been improving.
“The state has made a concerted effort to make sure there is no pollution,” he said.
Harris said lower water levels are caused by a recent drought and fluctuate with the weather.
The big picture
High Springs is just one place that has capitalized on water tourism. There are many other similar towns that benefit from Florida’s scenic rivers and springs.
In its 2011 annual report on the economic impact of springs in the state, the Florida Park Service looked at the direct economic impact of Florida’s springs from 2009 to 2010. It gathered this information by studying how much money tourists spent in nearby areas while visiting the springs.
Blue Springs, near DeLand, Fla., brought nearly $20 million into surrounding areas.
Ichetucknee Springs, northwest of Fort White, Fla., attracted over $7 million dollars into its local economy.
According to the report, the top 15 most popular springs in Florida had a combined economic impact of $114 million that fiscal year.
Jeff Reeves, a diver originally from Michigan, has no complaints about the water at Ginnie Springs. He has been cave diving in Florida since 1991 but only moved to the state five years ago.
‘The diving brought me here,” he said.
He suits up near a spring known as The Devil’s Eye. Reeves said the water looked just as good as it always has.
“This is one of my favorite spots.”
Divers at Ginnie Springs resurfacing after examining the bottom of the spring. Many of the divers present that day were from out-of-state.
A massive algal bloom at the Santa Fe River, taken near the River Rise Preserve State Park. There was very little activity here, especially compared to the more scenic parts of the river.
Another algal bloom along the shore of the Santa Fe River, near the River Rise Preserve State Park. The water levels were so low, it looked like it was possible to walk across the width of the river.