Until recently, Floridians could count on a daily drenching sometime in the afternoon—except during a few cool, dry winter months. Long-time Florida residents note that those predictable daily storms are fewer in number and lighter in intensity. And they tend to be random rather than predictable.
“I strive every day to tell people when and where those afternoon showers will hit,” said Jeff Huffman, meteorologist for the University of Florida. However, “urban heat islands and diminishing wetlands—potential byproducts of human interaction with climate—have produced new challenges in forecasting the coverage and intensity of our diurnal [daily] thunderstorms.”
Climate change is increasingly affecting weather on a local level, so much so that the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently changed the plant hardiness zones for the entire country. Atmospheric conditions, fossil fuel emissions, warming ocean temperatures and local land use may be behind the vanishing afternoon summer showers.
However, it is more serious than a lack of afternoon drenching. Climate-related concerns for Florida include extreme weather, saltwater intrusion into private and public water supplies, adverse effects for agriculture and sea level rise.
Climate change is often difficult for non-scientists to wrap their head around. The changes in weather patterns and climate are not measured in seasons or years, but by long-term trends over decades and centuries. The changes experts are predicting for the Southeast won’t happen next year, but will unfold slowly over the century.
Those who pay attention to climate issues, or even just the local weather broadcast, have no doubt become familiar with El Niño and La Niña.
El Niño arises from warmer Pacific Ocean currents, and the southeastern United States experiences cooler but wetter winters. La Niña becomes dominant when Pacific Ocean temperatures are cooler, and the Southeast typically has warmer and drier winters—often with 50 to 60 percent less rainfall.
El Niño and La Niña—and dozens of other climate-related ocean oscillations—are used in global climate models (called GCMs) to help project future trends. Unfortunately, at regional and local levels the GCMs are less accurate, said Vasubandhu Misra, Ph.D., assistant professor at Florida State University and member of the Florida Climate Institute.
Less accurate local predictions are the result of statistical constructs and magnitude. “If you look out your window, the largest cloud you might see is a kilometer. The resolution of our climate models are on the order of 100 kilometers or even closer to 200 kilometers,” Misra said.
“The rain in a model is an aggregate—a virtual cloud,” Misra said.
The models are not designed to simulate the difference between Miami and Fort Lauderdale, said Katherine Hayhoe, Ph.D., climatologist at Texas Technical University at a 2011 climate seminar at the University of Florida.
“The biggest model disagreements over the Southeast come in the summer,” she said.
Regardless thought quibbles in the predictions, the overall outlook for Florida is drier, Hayhoe said, “Almost every model shows a drying trend.”
To understand the impact on Florida, models must be downscaled, which has proven difficult. Clouds are major components of climate predictions because they affect both radiation and absorption of heat—but they are variable and chaotic and have proved problematic for global climate modelers.
Nevertheless, climatologists wrestle what data they have into coherent local predictions, which for Florida points to less rain in the summer and slightly more in the winter.
The drying conditions are dependent on geographic location and season—dry winters in the Panhandle area, dry spring weather statewide, less dry north Florida summers but the possibility of severe drought in South Florida. Decrease in rainfall statewide is expected in all seasons except for the fall.
Florida is unique when it comes to global averages. The peninsula state is at the same latitude as the great deserts of the world. Orlando, for instance, is practically in line with Cairo, Egypt, according to Misra.
So how did “La Florida” the land of flowers, get its name if it sits on the northern hemisphere’s desert belt? Water surrounding the long peninsula gives Florida distinctive climate conditions, he said.
However, with less rainfall and continued loss of naturally occurring wetlands, Florida’s future as lush, subtropical paradise may be threatened.
Florida’s climate is greatly affected by the loss of wetlands to development and agriculture. From 1780 to the 1980s Florida lost 46 percent of its original 20.3 million acres of wetlands, according to a 1990 National Wetlands Survey compiled by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Current wetland acreage is calculated about 9.3 million, according to the Florida Division of Environmental Assessment and Restoration.
Although, at 55 inches a year, Florida has had the second highest annual rainfall in the country, there has been significant decrease in rainfall. And it is likely connected as much to climate as to land use. Wetlands have been the natural storage area for tremendous amounts of rainfall during Florida’s summer.
These wetlands are the staging ground for more rain—the natural cycle of rainfall, heat and evaporation is what produces those predictable afternoon rain storms.
Nearly 90 percent of Floridians get drinking water from the Floridan aquifer, a huge natural storage tank that stretches from Florida to South Carolina and west to Alabama and even part of Mississippi.
Although a small percentage of Floridians get water from other sources, the Floridan aquifer is the mother lode of the state’s water supply, and, because it spans the Southeast, that of other states as well.
Recharging the water in the underground system is a time-intensive process that requires a lot of water—from regular and consistent rain, as well as huge tropical storm systems. The water must percolate hundreds, often thousands of feet, through soil, gravel and a labyrinth of porous limestone before settling down on top of a layer of saltwater in the aquifer. In peninsular Florida, the water percolates into the aquifer at about 1 to 5 inches per year.
The five water management districts in Florida have issued warnings that conservation of water resources in the light of drier climate predictions may become a way of life for Floridians.
Less precipitation, more population, and climate change coalesce to stress Florida’s underground water resources at a rate that alarms some residents and government leaders as well as agricultural concerns and public and private utilities. Coalitions and organizations are emerging all over the state to address these issues.
All Florida’s water management districts have some kind of information about the effects of climate change on water resources.
“We need to look out 20 to 30 years and be sure that we can meet the needs of water suppliers, utilities, agriculture, public supply and ecosystems” said Tom Bartols, director of the Bureau of Water Supply for the St. Johns River Water Management District. Bartols is one of the authors of the district’s recently released Water Supply Impact Study in which population, land use, and climate change are explored as threats to Florida’s water resources.
The Public Water Supply Utilities Climate Impact Working Group was formed about two years ago when a utility approached the UF Water Institute looking to bring together stakeholders around water issues in Florida. The institute and the Southeast Climate Consortium convene workshops for public water suppliers, water resource managers, climate scientists and hydrologic scientists to share knowledge, data, models and decision-making strategies for the future of Florida’s water.
In February 2012 several north Florida counties united to form FLOW, Florida Leaders Organized for Water to protect the areas groundwater resources from being usurped by localities elsewhere in Florida.
The Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact is a coalition of Broward, Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and Monroe counties to work together to mitigate and adapt to climate change, which includes addressing water issues.
There are also citizen organizations such as the Clean Water Network, Florida Defenders of the Environment, and dozens of others forming around specific community water resources such as lakes, rivers, and springs.
Hurricanes have been a significant source of recharge for the Floridan aquifer as well as filling lakes, streams and Florida’s remaining wetlands. Hurricane activity though is one of the least certain predictions of climate models.
Hollywood movies would have us believe that hurricanes will increase in intensity and frequency at devastating rates, climate scientists believe that the kind of ground-drenching tropical storms needed to replenish aquifer may not be on the increase.
“Some researchers claim that linkages between global warming and hurricane impacts are premature,” climatologist David Zierden told the audience at a March 2012 Public Interest Law Conference at the University of Florida.
World hurricane experts predict that the numbers of hurricanes per year will be the same or unchanged—however, intensity may be increased.
Although hurricanes may not be on the increase, they may couple with sea level rise to intensify storm surge along Florida coasts. While uncertainty may exist for the amount of increase in ocean heights, sea level rise is undeniably related to climate change, and Florida’s coastal cities are not waiting for any signals from the federal or state governments to address this pressing issue.
In 2007, Governor Charlie Crist told the Florida legislature that “global climate change is one of the most important issues that we will face in this century.” He pointed to Florida’s 1200 miles of coastline where a good portion of residents live, and the potential vulnerabilities to rising sea level and extreme weather patterns.
Sea level rise is a result of two factors: warming, which increases ocean volume; and the melting of continental ice sheets and glaciers, which add more water to the oceans.
Sea level for Florida has declined and increased over hundreds of millions of years depending on global climate conditions. The peninsula has been as small as just a few counties in the northeast to a coastal extension of 150 miles into the Gulf of Mexico about 18,000 years ago when the last glacial period locked up a lot of the water.
Prehistoric Florida residents migrated inland when necessary as evidenced by recent finds by archeologists at Florida State University. Artifacts and remnants settlements dated to 8,000 years ago were found in 50 to 60 feet of water near the Big Bend near the Panhandle.
Climate-induced sea level rise will more than likely affect the entire coastline of Florida in one way or another. Modern sea level for Florida has been rising for more than 100 years, according to Zierden.
“Data from the Pensacola and Mayport (near Jacksonville) indicates a rise of about 8 to 8.5 inches per century or 2 to 2.5 millimeters per year,” he said.
South Florida is among the places to be significantly impacted by sea level rise along with other low-lying coastal areas around the globe including New York City, Pacific islands, parts of Japan, and low-lying areas of southeast Asia.
In a report recently released by the Southeast Climate Consortium (SECC), sea level is predicted to rise 80 centimeters by 2100. Although uncertainty exists, areas of Florida that are only a few feet above sea level have prudently decided to create strategies for the worst case scenario.
Sea level rise has the potential to cause huge amounts of infrastructure damage both in the public and private sector, especially as the 80 centimeter estimate is considered by many to be conservative including tide gauge expert Gary Mitchum at the University of South Florida.
Miami-Dade County established a climate change task force in 2006 and Broward County followed in 2008. Broward County is currently meeting with stakeholders to make significant changes in its comprehensive plant to address climate change and sea level rise in particular, according to Nancy Gassman, the county’s natural resources administrator.
Both counties have devoted resources to investigation, analysis, planning and community outreach in efforts to mitigate and adapt to the various impacts of climate—including sea level rise. The task force groups are cross disciplinary and include members of the community, government agencies and climate change experts.
Under certain conditions, Gassman said, Broward County coastal residents are already getting some experience of sea level rise. From September through November at certain phases of the moon, high tide has been 6 to 10 inches higher than normal. The county has taken steps with changes to infrastructure to mitigate damage from these regular events. However, Gassman, said southeast coastal communities must prepare for more extreme conditions if sea level predictions turn out to be accurate.
“Climate change may seem distant, but it is a subtle and creeping change,” Misra said. “When people say ‘this spring is getting to be warmer than the previous year’—they are perceiving climate change.” But in the same breath, “it would be immature to run away with the conclusion that this year’s spring is warmer than the previous year is solely on account of climate change,” he explained.
“One has to be wary,” he said. “It is easy to dismiss climate change because it is not going to affect you tomorrow or the day after, but if you are preparing for the long haul—for the next generation, then, yes you should be concerned about climate change.”
Will the regular afternoon thunderstorms return to Florida? For locally produced rain to increase in Florida, existing wetlands would have to conserved and dried up wetlands would need to be restored. Some effects of climate change, however, might push solutions toward adaptaion.
The models point to a drier Florida, and, at least for the short term, fewer hurricanes. Good news if you’re planning a picnic. Not so good for your garden and the future of Florida’s water resources.]]>
Paul Clark / floridasprings.us/
There are more than a thousand natural springs in Florida. They are prehistoric, beautiful, world-famous, and draw thousands of visitors and millions of dollars to the state every year.
On weekends, springs are crowded with people swimming, boating, enjoying picnics, or snoozing near waters, which hover at 72 degrees year round.
The unsurpassed beauty has been featured in art, photography, music and even films. For many the springs hold a deep mystery that they believe is healing, spiritually and physically.
In addition, these ecological gems provide a window into Florida’s supply of potable water. We injure them at our peril, according to researchers and concerned citizens.
If the springs are healthy, and if there is ample abundant clean water, that will positively affect the health of the community and the local economy,” said environmental scientist Carol Lippincott.
The paradox: we may be loving these incredible resources to death.
By some estimates more than 60 percent of Florida’s springs are impaired in some way.
Impairment may be anything from high nutrient concentrations to low flow levels. The causes vary and include overconsumption of groundwater by Florida’s 19 million residents from private and municipal wells, by high rates of pumping in the agricultural sector and through manufacturing use.
Spring health also deteriorates from runoff from fertilizer use. Human activity in and near the springs causes battered shorelines, trampled native aquatic grasses and stressed wildlife.
Sea level rise threatens salt water intrusion—even more dramatically when coupled with overconsumption, which can draw portions of the aquifer below sea level. A decades-long drought has significantly decreased rainwater that percolates to the aquifer and recharges it, which is the source of the springs that Floridians and visitors alike enjoy.
Signs of disaster are all around the state, said Bob Knight, an advocate for the springs and director of the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute.
The first sign of a deteriorated spring is reduced biodiversity. “The most senstive native species of aquatic grasses disappear. This is currently happening in many springs,” he said.
Knight, who also teaches at the University of Florida, said he is concerned that the capacity to provide water for people and the springs has been exceeded.
“Ichetucknee is showing signs of eutrophication and declining flows. You can walk across parts of the Santa Fe and Suwannee rivers. White Springs is nothing more than a sinkhole,” he said.
Burt Eno, president of Rainbow River Conservation Inc., is especially critical of the agricultural sector’s central pivot irrigation systems, which result in significant amounts of evaporation. “Water never gets a chance a chance to trickle back down into the aquifer,” he said.
The springs are a window into a deeper concern for Floridians. The health of the springs is a measure of the health of Florida’s freshwater supply. Experts and citizens are becoming alarmed about the future.
“It’s not a pending water crisis. We are in a water crisis,” said Carol Lippincott, who has worked in natural resource protection for 24 years. As a former senior environmental scientist with the St. Johns River Water Management District, Lippincott learned firsthand about the threats to Florida’s water supply.
“Water management districts across the state have notified local governments that there is no more ground water for them to withdraw. Local governments must start conserving water in much more meaningful ways,” she said.
Lippincott has also worked with communities to protect springs, which she said have a tremendous social, ecologic and economic impact.
Although surrounded by water on three sides, Florida’s true hydrologic treasure is the network of 7,800 lakes that dot the state and the 1,700 spring-fed rivers that spider the landscape on their ways to the sea.
These once abundant and pristine waters have laced the peninsula for eons, sustaining water supply and supporting ecosystems to the benefit of wildlife and indigenous people.
The rivers are fed by springs that are entwined and interconnected in porous limestone labyrinths deep beneath the ground.
Two categories of springs are found in Florida. Seeps are shallow, slow and generally at the level of the water-table.
Karst springs, though, are what make Florida so famous. These artesian springs discharge—often with tremendous force, through openings to the surface from cracks, crevices, and caverns under pressure deep underground.
The most abundant concentrations of springs in the world are located in northern and central Florida. Wakulla Springs, just outside Tallahassee, claims the distinction of being the largest and deepest spring on the planet.
Florida’s springs originate from geologic activity dating back to the Eocene and Miocene ages—as long as 55 million years ago, according to Jeff Davis, hydrologist with the St. Johns River Water Management District. Millions of shells and skeletons from sea life have since accumulated and hardened into calcified rock formations.
Sea level rose and fell covering and uncovering the peninsula over millennia. As the Appalachian Mountains eroded, Davis said, sand and clay were deposited to Florida, allowing the formation of “confining units,” that accumulate water. Ponds and lakes that could hold water formed. Rainwater, which is slightly acidic, filled those spaces and slowly dissolved the limestone substrate, creating tiny holes, crevices and, in some cases, sinkholes and large underground caves.
The Floridan aquifer is 100,000 square miles of this underground limestone matrix that holds, experts say, nearly 2 quadrillion gallons of potable water suspended above a level of saltwater.
This bounty, subject to the vagaries of whatever happens on the surface, is shared by other states in the Southeast. The Floridan Aquifer stretches beneath the ground to South Carolina and includes portions of Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi.
Florida’s springs are a direct result of this ancient geological formation. The interconnected crevices, cracks, caves and tunnels are the “pipes” through which water flows to the springs.
When new water enters the system through rainfall and percolation, pressure is exerted on the water already there, which forces it to the surface. The magnitude of this upward force is the result of the number of caves leading to the spring vent, and the diameter of the vent.
Spring flow is directly related to the health of a spring’s ecosystems as well as a good indicator of the amount of water in the aquifer.
The more water that Floridians, and our neighbors, pump out of the aquifer, the lower the level in the storage tank gets, and the slower springs flow. This creates an imbalance in ecosystems and can cause springs to stop flowing entirely.
Springs are measured by a system called “magnitude.” Florida has 33 “first magnitude” springs that exceed flow rates of 100 cubic feet per second. That’s about 64.6 million gallons per day.
No less impressive are the next 340 “second” and “third” magnitude springs that drive water to the surface at rates between 600,000 and 64 million gallons per day.
Matt Cohen, a systems ecologist and hydrologist at the University of Florida, is not fond of the absolute statement “all springs are drying up,” which he noted “seems to be a meme floating around.” And while some springs are drying up, others are managing to sustain historic flow rates, he said.
“It has been a pretty dry decade,” Cohen said. The lack of inputs—the rain—must be factored into the mix of whether overconsumption or drought is playing a larger role in the reduction of springs flow, he said.
What Cohen called the “poster child” of dried up springs, Kissengen in southwest Florida, ceased flowing in the 1950s. Located at the north end of the Peace River, its demise has been blamed on hundreds of wells drilled into the aquifer in the springshed.
The aquifer is like a big Slurpee cup,” said Bob Knight, director of the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute and president of a wetlands consulting business.
“Just imagine,” he told a group of students doing research in Kings Bay in Crystal River, Fla., “that there are lots of straws and everyone is pulling out water at the same time.”
But there are no refills—except rainwater.
Getting that rainwater into the aquifer is not easy or quick. Some of the rainwater evaporates immediately, Knight said.
The surface landscape determines how much water ends up back in the aquifer, the reservoir that feeds the springs. If the surface is natural (with plentiful vegetation), about 10 percent will run off (eventually into the sea), 40 percent will evaporate or be taken up by vegetation, and as much as 50 percent will seep into the aquifer.
However, if a landscape is covered with roads, parking lots and buildings, up to 55 percent may run off, 30 percent will evaporate and as little as 15 percent or less might make it into the aquifer.
The rainwater in some places must seep through thousands of feet of sand, clay and limestone crevices before reaching those prehistoric caverns that have stored Florida’s water for millions of years. Recharge rates vary from less than one inch to more than 20 inches per year, depending on local geologic and hydrologic conditions. Typically in the central Florida peninsula recharge is slow, according to the U.S. Geologic Survey.
Recharge, in some cases, is not keeping up with consumption. For example, the long-term flow decline in Ichetucknee Springs, located in Suwanee and Columbia counties, is about 15 percent.
Spring flow is what fills up spring runs which seamlessly turn into rivers and creeks. Many rivers in north and central Florida are spring runs, Knight said.
Reduced flow may impair springs in other ways such as reducing dissolved oxygen and promoting algae growth.
Signs of problems in Florida’s springs are all around us. Parts of the Santa Fe River, for example, are so dry that canoeists must portage their canoes dozens of times to make a single run.
Worthington Springs and White Springs have completely dried up—“they are nothing but sinkholes now,” Knight said. This scenario plays out all over Florida. The groundwater source for any spring in the state, is the same water source for human consumption, be it a private well or a public utility.
“The same depleted aquifer that feeds the Santa Fe and Suwannee rivers and their springs, is the aquifer that waters yards in Gainesville, Newberry, Archer, Hawthorne, Lake City, Live Oak and hundreds of other small and large human enclaves,” said Bob Knight, an advocate for the springs and director of the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute.
About 260 artesian springs along the Suwannee River, for example, naturally pump an estimated 2.8 billion gallons a day from the aquifer. Withdrawals for human consumption and industry amount to 245 million gallons a day.
“Although that is a small fraction of the flow,” Knight said, it starts to add up. “Especially when you realize that Jacksonville and coastal Georgia are pumping water from the same aquifer.”
Groundwater pumping in northeast Florida is pushing the groundwater divide to the west, encroaching more and more on the rainfall recharge area that historically fed the springs and rivers. Data published by the U.S. Geological Survey indicates that pumping in the Jacksonville area is pulling down the levels of the aquifer—about 35 to 40 feet in the last 60 years.
“A very small decline in groundwater levels will slow the springs flow,” he said. Unfortunately, at this point, much of the water that Jacksonville withdraws discharged into the St. Johns River where it flows out to sea instead of percolating back into the aquifer.
When water is used wisely, according to Florida’s water management districts, and returned to the ground, it percolates slowly back into the aquifer for reuse by humans. Resupply from percolation and rain means spring flow can be sustained. Rainfall and storage, however, are becoming challenges in Florida.
Climatologists have pointed to the conversion of wetlands to development and agriculture as one of reasons for less rainfall in the state. Water that evaporates from wetlands, rivers, and lakes is the catalyst for locally generated rainfall.
In a 2004 study, Curtis Marshall and Roger Pielke of Colorado State University, determined that land use changes in Florida over the past 100 years have significantly decreased summer rainfall and increased temperatures in Florida. When wetlands in Florida are converted to agricultural and urban use, we lose the natural surface storage areas for the water, the study reported.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, “more than half of Florida’s 36 million acre peninsula was submerged,” journalist and author Cynthia Barnett wrote in her book Mirage.
Since that time, development and agriculture has reduced that wetland area to less than 9 million acres, according to recent figures from Florida Division of Environmental Assessment and Restoration.
Restoring those missing wetlands may be one of the keys to increasing rainfall in Florida and replenishing water supplies that feed the springs.
No one wants to go swimming in green slime. But jump into a cool Florida spring and that’s what you may find. Springs in Florida are being overrun by a noxious aquatic weed that grows in thick gelatinous masses, hanging in the water or forming mats on the bottom of spring runs.
Besides a deterrent to enjoyment, Lyngbya wollei are an ecological disaster for native aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. The presence of this algae is often a signal of high nitrate levels in the aquifer supply, which can be toxic to people and animals, said Stacie Greco, water conservation coordinator with Alachua County Environmental Protections Department.
Public water is tested routinely for nitrate levels and other chemicals, but those who depend on private wells for drinking water should have water tested regularly.
The unchecked growth of this native algae began in the mid 1980s, according to researchers and residents who use the springs, and until recently has been tightly correlated with increased nitrates in Florida waters.
Lyngbya are a type of cyanobacteria and can be toxic to livestock and pets. The algae have caused human health issues, including respiratory problems, rashes, and stomach ailments, according to a 2004 report prepared for the Florida Department of Health by an environmental engineering firm in Jacksonville. Details about toxic algae in Florida are available on the Florida Department of Environmental Protection website.
Citizens, environmental activists, researchers, various state agencies, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are engaged in trying to slow down and remove the algae growth and set standards for measuring it.
While political and legal forces wrestle with the standards, scientists seek causes. For decades algae overgrowth has been attributed to high levels of nutrients in the water, such as nitrates found in fertilizers, manure and sewage.
New theories point to causes besides nitrate levels. Lack of dissolved oxygen is one; another is the decreased flow rates, or discharge of Florida springs from the aquifer. The answer may be all of the above, according to researchers.
The first scientist to look into springs and river aquatic ecosystems in detail was Howard T. Odum. From his extensive studies of the Silver River, near Ocala, Fla., in the 1950s Odum developed a complex matrix of interactions that is still taught as a standard for ecosystem research.
One glance at Odum’s visual description of an aquatic ecosystem is enough to see that the number of possible relationships for cause and effect outpace an easy answer to what might be causing the algae overgrowth.
Two of his former students, Bob Knight, director of the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute and Matt Cohen, a systems ecologist and hydrologist at the University of Florida are engaged with their own students in solving the problem of the algae proliferation in Florida’s springs. Their approaches though, are different.
“It is very reasonable to say that nitrates are the cause of what ails the springs. I wouldn’t reject that hypothesis, but it is dangerous not to entertain other mechanisms,” Cohen said. If algae, for example, is kept in check by grazers, which Knight also sees as a possibility but perhaps for different reasons, then grazers might be affected by levels of oxygen in the springs.
Cohen and his fellow researchers do not see nitrate levels “correlated with algal abundance across a broad population of springs that have been sampled. They theorize and are now testing a relationship between dissolved oxygen, grazer density, and algal blooms.
Knight has proposed an alternative hypothesis that points to elevated nitrate concentrations as a cause of observed loss of native vegetation, and subsequently an increase in filamentous algae.
“The elevated nitrate concentrations in combination with other stressors—such as low oxygen, reduced flow rates, trampling, aquatic herbicides—are stressing or eliminating the dominant native aquatic plants in the springs,” he said. This allows the Lyngbya to take over, he proposes.
Knight believes that “this is allowing increased dominance by the filamentous algae species that have otherwise always been present at low densities.”
Vexing for these researchers is a current lack of consistent patterns. Some springs have filamentous algae but normal rates of nitrates and dissolved oxygen. Some have high nitrates and no filamentous algae.
Silver Glen Springs in the Ocala National Forest, for example, has almost no nitrates, but an explosion of filamentous algae. What’s different? For Knight, it is that “native aquatic grasses are disappearing in the spring runs.”
A 1,500 percent increase in algae in the springs at Weeki Wachee State Park, south of Crystal River, required intense restoration by the Southwest Florida Water Management District. In 2001 the former tourist attraction and home of the Weeki Wachee World Famous Mermaids, was acquired by the state. In addition to heavy deposits of sand, silt and muck, the filamentous algae had invaded the spring.
As students of Odum, Cohen and Knight strive for a “whole systems” approach to their work. Eventually they may find that they are putting together pieces of the same puzzle.
You may not live near a spring in Florida, but your daily activities likely affect at least one. When you fertilize your garden and grass, water your lawn and wash your car, or linger in a hot shower, you affect the springs that flow from Florida’s deep underground aquifer.
Use too much water and you contribute to low flow rates. Fertilize too much and you add nutrients that cause eutrophication—an overgrowth of vegetation. Both result in degradation of Florida springs and decrease drinking water resources.
Everyone living in springsheds, also known as a recharge areas, can compromise the health of a spring. There are scores of springsheds in Florida that can across hundreds of square miles. River basins are even larger and include springsheds. The unique geology of Florida makes water a shared experience.
Water from your yard percolates through sand and limestone to the Floridan aquifer, which is then recharged into springs that flow into Florida’s rivers. Nutrients from fertilizers, septic tanks, and manure, and pollutants such as manufacturing waste and runoff from highways may flow directly into springs and rivers. Or they may percolate, along with the rainwater, hundreds of feet into the aquifer.
The challenge for Floridians is how to protect this vital resource without stifling growth or unfairly impinging on people’s enjoyment and use of the springs.
“I’m optimistic for several reasons,” said Carol Lippincott, a native Floridian and environmental scientist. “I believe in the capacity of people to make good decisions when they are well guided.”
In addition, she said “Florida’s water law is very protective of water resources, yet still allows ample opportunity for economic vitality in the state.”
One of the missions of six springs basin working groups established in 2001 through the Florida Springs Initiative was to reconcile this dichotomy. The idea was to create an atmosphere of collaboration for economic development and support for healthy ecosystems within springsheds—thus protecting the state’s water supply.
For each working group, stakeholders, citizens, environmental groups and government agencies were brought together for quarterly meetings. These forums facilitated open dialogue, education, and strategic planning for communities, Lippincott said.
“I think it is safe to say that there is a universal attraction to Florida springs,” said Lippincott, who spent four years facilitating two of the springs working groups.
“When people spoke about why they value springs or their experiences with springs, it was unanimously a positive experience,” said Lippincott, who facilitated the groups through her consulting agency, “Floridia.”
In fall 2011, the groups fell victim to state budget cuts. “The state made it clear that the cuts were for lack of funding, not lack of support,” Lippincott said.
Some of the groups have continued on their own initiative. Lippincott, for example, helped Volusia Blue Springs reform under another nonprofit agency and stays in touch with members.
The Silver Springs working group has reverted to its original forum as a citizens’ initiative and has filed for nonprofit status. Called the Silver Spring Alliance, the group is currently engaged in a battle against the development of a 30,000 acre cattle operation that has filed for a consumptive use permit for 13.2 million gallons of water a day from the aquifer.
The Santa Fe Springs working group is currently facilitated by Stacie Greco, water conservation coordinator with Alachua County Environmental Protections Department.
The sphere of concern about the springs, however, needs to radiate out more than just a few miles from the actual spring, said Peter Colverson, who co-facilitated three groups through an environmental services company Normandeau (formerly Pandion).
Protecting the springs requires behavior change, he said. “And that is a very hard sell. How do you create a connection between someone who lives in Williston, their everyday activities, and Rainbow Springs, which is 50 miles away?”
Put very simply, Colverson said, “Why should they care?”
The closer you live to a spring the more likely you are to care about the quality and quantity of the water and protection of the ecosystem. Those are the preliminary findings of University of Florida graduate student, Diana Alenicheva. She mailed 1,800 questionnaires to residents of two springsheds in north central Florida.
Based on analysis of the 518 responses, Alenicheva noted that concern for local springs increases to some degree with residential proximity. Her questions covered topics such as algae blooms, water clarity and plant health.
She also discovered that the organizations most trusted by those living within the springsheds were the springs basis working groups. Nongovernmental environmental groups, scientists, and Florida Department of Environmental Protection were closely matched for second place.
Alenicheva, who has just completed a master’s of science in Interdisciplinary ecology, indicated that study provided rich data that will undergo further analysis.
Burt Eno of Rainbow River Conservation, Inc., said that community effort is the best way to protect springs and rivers in Florida. The Rainbow River group, founded in 1962 and incorporated in 1991, is one of the oldest in the state and has 200 paid members, a quarterly newsletter, and a website.
Rainbow Springs, the source of water for the river, is one of the many former amusement parks in Florida that have been purchased by the state for public use. The Rainbow River group sponsors clean ups, educational programs and works closely with stakeholders and residents.
Eno said they actively participate through local government and when necessary join or support legal actions to protect the springs. Currently the group is fighting a 256-acre, 400-unit development proposed along a mile and a third of the riverfront.
Colverson believes that strategically the emphasis should be on water protection rather than springs protection. Everyone pays attention to potable water resources, he said, but as Alenicheva’s preliminary results show, not everyone is concerned about the springs.
Colverson and Lippincott independently agree that the best way to manage water resources in Florida is to engage local citizens in the decisions.
Colverson said in his experience the state environmental protection agency “shies away from enforcement” and prefers that communities work together to solve water resource problems.
Stakeholders and residents with mutual goals and needs are more likely “to find common ground” and “work together on issues that will be beneficial to springs and at the same time beneficial to the local communities and their economies,” Lippincott said.
For Mary Rockwood Lane the springs are a sacred experience. “There’s magical energy in the springs. There is an ancient ancestral spirit that lives there,” she said.
As an artist, nurse, and author, Lane has spent much of her energy investigating the healing potential of sacred sites all over the world as well as sharing with others how to tap into personal natural healing forces.
“If you go to all the sacred spots in the world, they are all at intersections of water. Often near a spring. The hub of human and animal life was at the springs,” she said.
Christopher Witcombe, professor of Art History at Sweet Briar College in Virginia has written that “the identification of the sources of rivers, streams, springs and wells as sacred is very ancient. Often it was claimed that the waters healed the injured or cured the sick with the result that well or stream came to be regarded as a sacred shrine.”
Lane, who teaches transformational workshops about art and healing, considers Florida’s springs some of the most powerful spots on the planet.
She found the headsprings of the Ichetucknee River a motivating place for her own healing journey and creative work. “For years I went to springs to inspire me to write every single book I ever wrote. The springs were like a creative force that flowed through,” she said.
Lane often takes people to the springs as part of workshops or ritual. She finds that people respond positively to the experience. “When people go to the springs, they immediately get connected on a deep level. It’s like a baptism. Like a holy place—very powerful and very healing.”
Janice Knapik drives all the way from Jacksonville, Florida, to enjoy the waters at Salt Springs in the middle of Ocala National Forest. She began visiting springs in Florida as a place to relax and read, but when she developed asthma, she discovered that the water might be healing.
“I did some research and learned that cold water therapy stimulates the immune system,” she said.
Knapik goes to Salt Springs during the week to avoid the crowds on the weekend. “I get there around 9 a.m., and I immediately go into the water.”
“Initially the cold water is a shock, but it is also exhilarating,” she said.
After a morning at the springs, she arrives home invigorated and refreshed—something she does not get from a trip to the nearby beaches near Jacksonville, she said.
Springs in Florida have been sites for healing spas since the 19th century. Wealthy speculators built luxury resorts to accommodate those who arrived to bathe in the bubbling mineral waters.
Many persist, such as Safety Harbor Spa near Clearwater, which offers the amenities of a modern resort complex in addition to the plunge into the healing springs. Originally, according to the resort’s historical information, the spring was identified by Indian shell mound builders almost 2,000 years ago, who believed the mineral springs held mystical and powers.
Sulphur Spring now located in a busy section of Tampa, was once a famous bathing area in Florida. Built in the 1920s by Josiah T. Richardson, the resort attracted people from all over the country who came to the healing waters. This urban spring has had its ups and downs over the decades and is currently fenced off and not available for swimming. Tampa citizens, leaders, and government agencies are combining efforts to restore the spring.
Green Cove Springs in northwest Florida, population 6,800, has the state’s largest non-chlorinated pool fed by the third magnitude spring. “Technically, it’s called a bathing area,” said Mike Null, director of Public Works for the city. The pool is open only during the summer, and the pool’s water is exchanged every few hours from the 3,000 gallons-a-minute spring flow that moves from the pool to spring run and then into nearby St. Johns River.
Springs all over the state are known in their communities for their special features that often include folklore, history, and even mysticism.
For Lane the experience is spiritual as well as physical. “When we go into the springs, physically with our bodies, we can become part of the energy, part of the creativity of life from the Earth herself,” she said.
The beauty of Florida’s springs is for most people a fleeting experience. We might picnic, canoe, or plunge into the cold water. We enjoy the experience, and then get back to daily life.
Artists seek to capture the beauty, the emotion and the very “soul” of the springs. Two Florida artists who have become well-known are Margaret Tolbert and John Moran.
Tolbert captures the ephemeral springs on canvas. Her springs paintings hang in galleries, museums and in private collections. She has an installation at Orlando Airport. Some of her works you can hold in one hand and others cover entire walls.
Regardless of the size, there are colors, textures and fractions of light that drift and swirl from her paintings, evoking an emotional response for many who view her works. But you never know, she said, how people interpret art or what they see in one of her expressionistic paintings.
She recalled being told that someone wanted to buy her “blue thing.” Clearly, she said, at that moment her work turned from an impressionistic springs motif to an abstract.
Tolbert has long had a love affair with the springs that surpasses painting. She has taken the time to learn the science of the springs and has published a book that celebrates multidimensional aspects of the springs from hard geological facts to the fantastical adventures of a mystical lady of the springs. “Aquiferious” is a collection of essays, art and photography by Tolbert and others.
Sometimes, Tolbert is subject as well as creator of her works. Those familiar with her work know of the escapades of her alter ego, Sirena, who lives only in the crystal clear springs that remain in Florida.
The illusive Sirena has her own Facebook page where you can see photographs of her dressed in striking attire and floppy hats, under water doing an array of activities: bowling, riding a bike, holding an umbrella, playing tennis. “Sirena,” Tolbert said, “has a busy life.”
She has spent more than 15 years carrying canvas and paints to springs throughout Florida. She sits on rocks at edge or in the springs. She immerses herself in the waters or snorkels to see what is under the surface.
Tolbert sketches underwater on plastic with a pencil. A challenge, she said. “I’m floating along, snorkeling in the current, stuff is moving, and I’m trying to draw a turtle!”
Because she pays attention to the functionality of the springs as well as the aesthetics, Tolbert is keenly aware of their decline. Even if she did not know the facts, she said the changes show up in her paintings.
“I’ll start noticing that I am using interesting different colors. I think to myself, ‘I can make forms out of this green,’ and then I realize that there is more algae in the springs.”
The springs seem darker to her. Madison Blue, she said, was beautiful because of the way light reflected on the bottom.
“Now, though, it is covered with algae. It’s like going into midnight. Still special and jewel-like, just not like it was years ago,” she said.
Photographer John Moran also knows what the springs used to look like. He has photographed hundreds of them. Moran is well known for his landscape and wildlife photography across Florida from the Gulf to Atlantic, in the Everglades, and on the Panhandle.
His works have appeared in numerous books and magazines including National Geographic, Life, Time, Newsweek, and Smithsonian as well as on the cover of the National Audubon Society Field Guide to Florida. In 1982, he was named Photographer of the Year for the Southeastern U.S. by the National Press Photographers Association.
Moran is not pleased with what he sees in the springs. Flows rates are down, and he notes the same dusting of algae and gelatinous mats that Tolbert described.
In February 2010, Moran stood on the steps of the capitol in Tallahassee, Florida, as part of a rally.
He called the springs “gems of the Florida landscape” and gave an emotional outpouring that included facts and solutions as he urged legislatures to protect the springs in Florida.
“How can a state, blessed with the finest springs on the planet, allow this to happen?” he asked.
When the algae began to bloom in earnest, “many of the lovely aquatic grasses died back or became coated with a noxious sludge. And the once crystalline waters turned cloudy and dull,” he said.
Moran has photographed the springs over decades and has an archival record of how they used to be. He is currently returning to many of the places he photographed to document what they have become.
As he catalogs the fate of spring after spring for what he hopes will be another book, the experience is “sad and painful.” He feels compelled, though, to take this journey, he said.
In a slideshow of some of his photographs, Moran wrote, “When the oceans receded, the peninsula we call home emerged and was blessed with an abundance of rivers, lakes and springs.”
“Photography has become the language, in which I best express my gratitude,” Moran said.
Looking for solutions, scientists wrestle with chemistry and mechanics of spring degradation. Environmentalists tell us to stop using so much water and fertilizing our lawns.
Artists ask us to see: to note the slight decline in flow, the shifting hues of the water, changing shapes and amounts of vegetation, and the decreasing fish varieties and populations.
It may be artists who are best able to reveal the importance of the springs and convince us of their worth. For these two artists, at least, the aesthetic splendor of the flowing waters is reason enough to protect their quality.]]>
Eleanor K. Sommer / stateofwater.org
For a couple of months every three or four years, an excursion on the Ocklawaha River is a unique journey. The water is closer to historic levels of the waterway prior to the construction of a dam. That’s when inland waterway captain Erika Ritter most enjoys taking passengers down the river.
The Rodman Reservoir near Palatka, Fla., was drawn down in December 2011 to remove invasive plants that clog the lake created by a dam. For a few months the Ocklawaha is about 11 feet above sea level—low enough to see the ecosystems, wildlife and shorelines that are usually buried beneath 20 feet of water.
At 11 feet, thought, the river is still five or six feet about its historical level on its journey for the confluence of the Silver River to the St. Johns River and finally to the ocean.
Ritter has lived on the Ocklawaha almost all her life. A fourth-generation Floridian, she started river tours on the Silver River in 1983. In 2006, she decided to return her business to her backyard: the Ocklawaha.
“I advertise real Florida,” she said. “People are accustomed to seeing rivers lined with boats, and docks and nice houses. They are really surprised—and thrilled—to find an area where humans have not touched every surface.”
She can fit about eight people on her pontoon boat, which has chairs with containers beneath for guests to keep their belongings dry. Ritter has maps and plenty of tales about the river’s history, including one about the failed Cross-Florida Barge Canal, a project so unfathomable and complex that an entire book, Ditch of Dreams, was written about the event that spanned more than 40 years and cost $75 million.
Ritter begins the tour telling passengers how to pronounce the river’s name. There’s no “a” after the “o;” so it’s not “oak-lawaha.” The sound is more like the “oc” in octave, she explains.
Her family lived on the river when the canal was constructed, relics of which include the Buckman Lock, the Rodman Reservoir, and a few very high bridges in the middle of nowhere.
She offers visitors her view of the continuing battle between some bass-fishing enthusiasts, the Florida legislature and environmentalists over the status of the Rodman Reservoir dam that keeps the Ocklawaha from its natural flow.
Most of Ritter’s narrative, though, is about the river and its natural history. She tells passengers about the manatees, the catfish and the natural ecosystems. She points out a small bird, stark yellow perched on a drab grey fallen tree.
“That’s a prothonotary warbler,” she says slowing down the boat, so passengers can get a better view.
Soon she stops the boat completely to get a better view of a huge lone catfish. Channel catfish and 16 other species of fish have been excluded from the river because of the dam and the Buckman Lock. The lock was designed to lift boats from the level of the St. Johns River to the level of the Rodman Reservoir.
As the pontoon boat putters past old pilings of a steamboat landing, Ritter points to her old family homestead.
“This used to be a nice peaceful area, but now it is full of exotic plants and airboats,” Ritter says.
Paul Nosca, also known as “Ocklawahaman,” joins in the narrative. “And there used to be fish camps all up and down the river,” he says.
Not long into the excursion, an airboat speeds by from around a bend. The driver looks frustrated as he tries to get around the slow moving craft piloted by Ritter. Rather than slowing, he revs his engine and glides past, forcing frothy wake toward the pontoon boat and against the fragile ecology at the river’s edge.
“They don’t care or they don’t know,” Ritter says. “They’re loud and not plant friendly. The airboats have a tremendous impact on the on vegetation and they are hurting the small end of the food chain.”
It’s not that I dislike airboats,” Ritter says, “just certain operators.”
Ritter points out more sites as the boat moves slowly down the river.
“That’s where the crusher-crawler came through,” she says.
This piece of heavy equipment was a technological wonder in the 1960s that could flatten hundreds of trees in short order, Ritter recalls. And flatten it did. Hundreds of thousands of trees fell under its maw in the effort to construct a canal across the center of Florida so boats could move from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico, according to Steven Noll and David Tegeder in their book, Ditch of Dreams
“My mother knew it was coming,” Ritter says. “She sat out on the dock and cried,” Ritter says.
She was about 10-years-old when she overheard adults talk about the impact of the dam and the canal. She recalls her own fears, especially that her favorite places to play would be usurped by the barge canal. She was afraid her world would be crushed too, she recalls.
“I used to walk down to this beautiful creek. There were all the things that you could get to as a child—right at the edge of the water. Like the grass and shallows. You could play with the little minnows and stuff,” she says.
Once the canals were dug and the trees and vegetation gone, invasive plants took hold, and contractors and government agencies came to remove them with chemicals. One day, she remembers, her mother was directly sprayed.
“Most people did not want the barge canal. But the politicians thought it would increase the economy. Big boats could cross Florida using the locks,” Ritter recalls.
The lifelong efforts of Marjorie Harris Carr and others finally convinced politicians that there was more money in fishing and tourism,” Ritter tells the passengers as her boat floats past degraded woodlands.
The Cross-Florida Barge Canal was officially suspended in January 1971 by executive order of President Richard Nixon.
The river banks stay flooded with water for years at a time and the river current slows.
The natural Ocklawaha had a rapid flow. Water from Silver River, near Ocala, could reach the St. Johns River in three days. The rapid flow kept the sandy bottom clean, Ritter says.
When the dam is closed the water travels significantly slower, taking up to 23 days to reach the St. Johns. Without the strong flow, algae get out of control.
As the boat glides near a shoreline, Nosca points to the banks. “They used to be white sand with easy access to the river, once you were out of the woods,” he says.
The banks he points, though, are thick groves of declining cypress trees and stumps, sagging oaks, and tangled possum haw–nearly impenetrable. Muck and detritus cover the shoreline.
“This is one of the oldest rivers in Florida,” Nosca tells passengers, recounting its geologic history through the central ridge—the area of Florida’s highlands that have persevered over millions of years of sea level rise and decline on the Florida peninsula.
“The Ocklawaha might be 17,000 years old,” he says.
Ritter maneuvers the boat gently against a bank and Nosca helps passengers disembark for a short excursion into woods that are usually under water.
A few mosquitoes buzz around as passengers carefully make their way through branches and knotted roots, until they come to what appears to be a wood wall. Nosca waits for the awe to sink in. It’s a cypress tree as large as a cabin and stretching what seems to stretch 100 feet into the air.
The tree is completely hollow. Standing inside the cavern of its wide base, it is possible to see the sky. Shafts of light pour through several slashes in the trunk. A bit of wispy green fringe struggles from the top against the sunlit blue background.
The tree still lives.
As the group makes its way back to the boat, Nosca points out the trees progeny. Tiny cypress barely inches high sneak up from the leaf and humus on the ground.
“They’ll be drowned in a few weeks,” he says, a noticeable sadness in his voice.
Although cypress trees grow well in swamps and wetlands, the four-year period of high water when the Rodman Dam is closed is too much for their normal life cycles. The trees typically reproduce from seeds more readily than from suckers.
The seedlings have no chance for survival. They die soon after the water rises over the banks. The suckers are just as threatened; they cluster tightly at the base of the mother tree, as if clinging to hopes of surviving another flood.
When the reservoir is full, the cypress also struggle for oxygen in the depleted and nearly stagnant high water. The trees frantically send up knees, desperate for a breath.
Cypress knees are typically spaced a foot or more from each other, but in the Ocklawaha they are glued together in grotesque malformations, resembling abstract rather than nature.
Tree after tree along both banks of the river look identical—high water mark noted by a ghostly shadow of mineral scale. Overhead are sparse patches of pale green needles fluttering in a breeze. Absent is the thick lush spring growth that healthy cypress would sprout this time of year, Ritter says.
“Because of the constant water, we’re losing the diversity of trees, too,” Nosca says scanning the bank and pointing to a few flowering haws.
When flooded, the river-channel ecosystem loses 14,000 acres of land that was used by ground-nesting birds and other wildlife along the banks.
The situation is controversial. Some government agencies have recommended restoring the Ocklawaha River to its natural state and establishing it as an official “Wild and Scenic River,” according to Florida Defenders of the Environment. Others believe the fishing in Rodman Reservoir and the economic benefits are more important.
Ritter says she wants to see the river the way she remembers it from childhood.
In the meantime, she hopes that people will have an appreciation of the river and see that it is a special place—a sanctuary to learn about nature.
“And when they go back to town, they will realize that there is a place they can come back to. A quiet place where humans have not totally taken over and changed the habitat and run off the wildlife,” Ritter says as she slides the boat back to the dock marking the end of the idyllic journey down the Ocklawaha.]]>
In this interview, Alvarez talks about the common mistakes some homeowners make when it comes to plant selection and irrigation systems.]]>
“A lot of people typically think they know what plant to put in,” Alvarez says, “but they don’t necessarily pick the right plants for the right place, and that results in water management issues.”
Plant selection should be the first priority when it comes to a homeowner’s property. St. Augustine grass tends to have the reputation of being the most water-consuming, but Alvarez says research shows that any type of grass would be better than bare soil. St. Augustine grass is available in several varieties, and some are more drought resistant than others.
But Zoysia and Bahia grasses use less when it comes to water consumption.
“Turf grasses, like Zoysia grass, are being marketed as being more drought tolerant than St. Augustine grass right now,” Alvarez says. “And that’s kind of a mixed message because it does tend to turn brown faster if it’s exposed to drought, but it survives the drought better than St. Augustine grass.”
She always warns homeowners to beware of neighbors’ landscape advice. Even some landscape companies do not have the proper education or training, which could lead to problems if people spend a lot of money and time investing in a landscape unfit for the area. It is a smarter move to ask your county extension office, or better yet, the university’s horticultural department if you are in doubt.
When it comes to watering your lawns, an irrigation system should be in sync with the weather as well.
“It’s never a good idea for a homeowner to set their irrigation system to Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and leave it alone. It should always be connected to what’s going on in the weather,” Alvares says.
Nowadays, technology makes management easier with systems that are connected to weather stations, have soil moisture sensors and evoratranspiration readers. According to Alvarez, these readers are becoming common and available for homeowners, where they measure weather data and determine an irrigation schedule based on rainfall, temperature and humidity.
However, even with the latest high-tech irrigation system and ideal plant selection, water conservation truly comes down to a person’s awareness.
“A lot of evidence has shown that if someone wastes water inside, they are going to waste water outside,” Alvarez says.
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When she was 2 years old, Jill Heinerth fell off a dock into the freezing cold water of Lake Ontario.
In the midst of drowning, Heinerth said the only thing she remembers is floating face down, content and unafraid.
“It was peaceful down there,” she said. “I saw the rainbow ripples on the sand below and just didn’t want to get out.”
Ever since that moment, Heinerth, now 47, said she sees life as a continuing effort to get back in the water.
As a professional cave diver and independent filmmaker living in High Springs, Heinerth has explored about 100 underwater caves all over the world. She has made movies for National Geographic, befriended a cave diving pioneer and guided “Titanic” director James Cameron on his first cave dive.
Growing up in Ontario, Heinerth’s parents never let her take diving lessons. She didn’t learn to dive until she enrolled in a scuba class in college. The teacher took the class on a dive trip to a lake in Ontario.
The water was 37 degrees and murky. She couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of her. But within hours, she stumbled upon four tugboat wrecks in the depths of the lake.
That was it. Heinerth was hooked.
“The noise of the world completely stops when your down there,” she said. “It is very freeing. I just knew it was where I belonged.”
After she finished college, Heinerth opened an advertising agency in Ontario. Life in an office, however, didn’t suit her.
At 26, she sold her business and most of her belongings, packed a suitcase and moved to the Cayman Islands where she worked in marketing for a hotel and taught diving.
It was during those two-and-a-half years in the Cayman Islands that Heinerth began making trips to High Springs, Fla., a small town in North Florida painted with exotic, fresh-water springs, to explore its numerous underwater caves. The town was an international mecca for cave diving.
In 1996, she left the Cayman Islands and moved to a city a few hours south of High Springs.
“People don’t realize it, but the springs here are like the eighth wonder of the world,” she said. “I’ve explored a lot of caves, but these springs are the most unique on the planet.”
Heinerth now lives in High Springs with her husband Robert and their peacock, Indigo. She dives in Ginnie Springs across from her house almost every day.
It’s not that she’s looking for something in particular when she plunges into the deep, Heinerth said. She craves the experience, and if she comes across a boat wreck hidden in the sand or finds herself swimming alongside a killer whale, it’s an added bonus.
As her love of diving developed, so did her passion to raise awareness about water and the issues associated with it.
When she relocated to Florida, she opened Heinerth Productions, a film production company that she still runs today. This way, the diving was still constant, but she could now capture what she saw and share it with the world.
In 1996, Heinerth was working on a film about the caves of Wakulla Springs near Tallahassee. It was on that project that she met Wes Skiles, a cave diving pioneer known around the world for his underwater photography.
The two decided to work together and explore underwater caves in an iceberg that had calved off Antarctica in 2003.
Skiles, a daring diver and Heinerth, an eager explorer pitched the idea to National Geographic on a whim and got the funding.
It took them a month of diving in the minus-two-degree water before they found any caves.
At one point, while she was exploring the caves beneath the iceberg, the current unexpectedly changed. The rope that divers use as a lifeline from the caves to the surface broke. Heinerth couldn’t see more than five feet in front of her.
Her ear piece went silent. She lost contact with her team.
“I didn’t think I was going to make it,” Heinerth said. “I just kept thinking to myself, ‘Crap, Robert doesn’t know how to do the taxes. I’ve got to get out of here.’”
But she calmed herself and made it out. It was one of her scariest brushes with death, but she went back down the next day.
Heinerth’s proudest piece of work was a documentary series she and Skiles shot in the mid-2000s called “Water’s Journey.”
The two divers who shared a passion for film making wanted to spread awareness about where tap water came from and the importance of conserving water. They followed the course a drop of water takes through the environment, traveling through storm water and sewer systems and exploring the entire extent of the Everglades watershed.
Tragedy struck in 2010 when Skiles died while diving off Boynton Beach in Florida. Although she misses her friend and mentor, Heinerth hasn’t let Skiles’ death keep her from combing underwater caves.
She went on to work with Hollywood director James Cameron on his 2011 film, “Sanctum.” The film is dedicated to Skiles.
Because she had made dozens of films and worked frequently with National Geographic, Heinerth made a name for herself in the diving world.
Cameron contacted her to help train the actors and direct underwater scenes in “Sanctum,” a film about cave divers who explore one of the world’s most treacherous and least accessible caves.
Under Heinerth’s guidance, Cameron went on his first-ever cave dive in Ginnie Springs.
In her home, Heinerth has pictures of her and the Academy Award-winning director eating pizza while they float in the aquamarine water.
Next May, Heinerth will head on the road to present and promote her newest film, “We Are Water,” to educate viewers about where water comes from and to teach people how to protect and nurture our connection with the finite resource.
Heinerth and her husband, Robert, will bike more than 5,000 miles from Vancouver to the southernmost point of the St. Johns River, stopping in cities to present the film. The tour is an effort to engage viewers in taking action to conserve water.
“I see ‘We are Water’ as the journey of the rest of my life,” Heinerth said. “I’m going to continue to carry this message in every way that I possibly can.”]]>
Daniel Yeh, an assistant professor at the University of South Florida and an expert in green technologies and water issues, explains that even though water is a finite resource, we can develop different ways to supplement or regenerate it for human consumption.
With less than one percent of the natural water supply accessible for drinking, the use of desalination has grown worldwide in response to an emerging global potable water crisis. The World Health Organization estimates that nearly 20 percent of the world’s population lives in countries where water is scarce.
Most of the world’s desalination plants operate in the Middle East where the amount of naturally occurring fresh water could never support the population. The United States has one of the largest supplies of viable fresh water, but desalination is still an attractive method for some locations. The Tampa Bay Seawater Desalination Plant is the largest plant in North America. It produces 25 million gallons per day (mgd) of clean drinking water to Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties, as well as the cities of St. Petersburg, Fla. and Tampa.
The average output for safe, drinkable water from the amount of sea water put into the desalination process is roughly 50 percent, according to Paul Chadik, an associate professor in potable water systems engineering at the University of Florida. The Tampa facility, however, has an average fresh water recovery of about 57 percent.
Among the problems with desalination are the amount of energy it uses and the possible adverse environmental effects. Desalination’s critics are concerned about the process’s potential for harming the ocean and ocean life and the possibility that people will continue to over-consume rather than conserve water.
Dr. Chadik believes that, like all new forms of technology, desalination still has much room for improvement in the amount of energy it uses, the cost and most importantly its environmental impact.
“I think [desalination technology], just as it has improved over the past 50 years since its first conception, will continue to improve,” Chadik says.
Chadik says there are processes that eliminate waste byproducts entirely. But these processes, having just been introduced in the last decade, are still not cost effective enough to be applied on a municipal level. But the possibility of doing so could be very real in the next ten years.
He and many others are hopeful for the future of desalination technologies and hope for continued support while as the technology develops and improves.]]>
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.]]>
Scientists are curious people, constantly searching for answers to questions that often elude others. Laura Reynolds has found the answers she sought out, but she doesn’t think anyone is listening.
Reynolds said since moving to work in Florida as an environmental scientist and conservationist, she has seen how disconnected people are from the problems the delicate ecosystem faces.
“Part of the problem is that many people don’t think about where their water comes form or where it goes,” Reynolds said. “The fishermen in Dade County don’t even realize that the water entering Biscayne Bay affects their catch.”
Reynolds believes change is necessary now for any type of recovery to happen.
“Think about turning on the faucet on the day that no water comes out and then deciding that there’s a problem the needs to be dealt with,” Reynolds said. “We have got to get away from that kind of reactionary thinking.”
For three years, Reynolds has been the executive director of the Tropical Audubon Society, in Dade County. The group operates to conserve all natural resources, including water, and educate members and the public about the delicate relationship we all have with the planet. Years before she took the top position in the non-profit organization, Reynolds served on the Tropical Audubon Society Board of Directors as both the vice president and the chair of education.
“Really, a non-profit tries to take the science and make use of it,” Reynolds said. “If you’re just a scientist in the field and you don’t interact with some of the people that are trying to influence policy then your work just sits there.”
Born and raised in Monticello, New York at the base of the Catskill Mountains, Reynolds was always surrounded by nature, both thriving and suffering. Reynolds said her childhood turned her into an environmentally conscious scientist.
“I got to see the Long Island Sound start to come back from a very bad place,” Reynolds said.
The Sound is an estuary of the Atlantic Ocean between Connecticut, Long Island and New York City that has suffered tribulations with pollution through the years. Reynolds attributes the recovery of the Sound as evidence that restoration is possible from the brink of total pollution.
Her love for the environment spurred questions that she didn’t have the answers to. By age 9, Reynolds realized her life would be spent as a scientist finding those answers.
Laura has worked, researched and taught in Florida since she moved here in 1994. She completed her undergraduate degree in marine and environmental science at Jacksonville University. She sought more science research and her master’s degree in education at the Florida International University while also working as an adjunct professor.
After seeing a divide between people and the land, Reynolds turned her focus from research to education outreach and advocacy.
“I think that universities ought to require some kind of environmental course, whether you’re a major or not,” Reynolds said. “I think it’s so important that people understand that we live above our water supply.”
Reynolds believes a combination of political reform and an educated, conscious public is the only way to save Florida’s ecosystem.
“For the most part people are reluctant to make changes in their life because they don’t think it makes a big difference,” Reynolds said.
Reynolds said she reduces her impact on the water supply by taking shorter showers, using public transportation, Xeriscaping her yard and saving rain water for irrigation through a rain barrel system.
Reynolds believes the transient, non-native population of Florida is a large contributor the state of the water here.
“Unfortunately for Florida, a lot of people were not born here,” Reynolds said. “Their roots are not here and so their actions to protect it are not the same.”
Reynolds said there are some native Floridians trying to preserve the state’s delicate ecosystem, but not enough.
“Development rights are being transferred in the northern Everglades because [natives] don’t want their land to ever be developed,” Reynolds said. “They want to see their family’s legacy continue on. We need more of that. Those are kind of people that can save a community.”