Adrianna Paidas

As a journalism senior at a school that has developed a premier multimedia news track, I knew it was time to dive into the unfamiliar. I studied print journalism for much of my time at UF where I wrote for a local magazine and worked as the city reporter for the Independent Florida Alligator. But, I am now very interested in telling stories through photos, audio and video. No matter the medium, I just want to let people know what's going on around them, whether it's down the block or on the other side of the world.

Jill Heinerth: Underwater Explorer and Water Activist

Jill Heinerth

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.

A brush with death — and taxes

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.

Exposing the world of water

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.”

The Future of Building: Inside a Net-Zero Water School

On a grassy tract of land nestled in Lutz, Fla., alternative learning practices have become the norm at  Learning Gate Community School. In 2009 Learning Gate was the first public school to be awarded the U.S. Green Building Council LEED Platinum certification. The school focuses its curriculum on energy and water conservation, and serves as a nationwide model for future innovative and educational buildings.

Water districts enter into North Florida partnership

A grim realization has dawned a new age for water management in north Florida.

Since their inception in 1972, the Suwannee River Water Management District  and the St. Johns River Water Management District have watched one another drain the lakes, rivers and springs that populate the region.

The two agencies decided to join forces to monitor and protect the region’s water supply in September 2011. The agreement came after St. Johns approved a permit that would allow a Jacksonville-based utility company to pump 155 million gallons of water per day from the ground. The district made its decision without consulting the neighboring Suwannee River Water Management District.

Once the permit was approved, water management officials realized what many water enthusiasts and environmental activists have been saying for decades: Water is vanishing, and it will continue to vanish if the finite resource is not protected.

“What we do on our side impacts their side,” Teresa Monson, spokeswoman for the St. Johns River Water Management District, said. “We know that now. We have to work together if we want to keep our water and our natural resources.”

Water management districts are required to do a water supply assessment every five years to determine if the springs, rivers and lakes within their boundaries will still be flowing in another 20 years. It is the districts’ mission to monitor and allocate usage through permits of individuals and entities pulling water from the ground.

In 2010, the Suwannee district conducted its assessment and found—for the first time—the Suwannee River basin and the Santa Fe River basin would not provide enough water to keep the rivers running after two decades, Charlie Houder, executive director of the Suwannee River Water Management District, said.

Both districts pull from the Floridan Aquifer, a body of rock below the ground harboring billions of gallons of water and a primary source of groundwater stretching into other southeastern states, to fill the river basins within their boundaries. Because both areas are dependent on the aquifer, Houder said he was happy to work with the St. Johns district to solve the looming problem.

“It just made sense to work closely with them,” Houder said. “Especially if we want to have an adequate water supply 20 years from now.”

The agreement was conceived in September 2011 and created an official partnership, called the North Florida Regional Water Supply Partnership, between the two districts and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. The sole purpose of the union is to share data on the bodies of water within their boundaries and consult one another before approving water use permits, according to officials from both districts.

These permits, called consumptive use permits, allow users like farmers in need of irrigating their land to pump water stored below the ground.

A Zero Sum Game

Because groundwater is pumped from the Floridan Aquifer, long-term pumping in one district can affect water supply in the other.

Over the last 40 years, the permits and the pumping have taken a toll on the numerous lakes, rivers and springs in North Central Florida, according to Chris Bird, director of the Alachua County Environmental Protection Department.

The Hornsby Spring and the White Sulphur Springs, both in North Central Florida, no longer flow, according to a study conducted in 2008 by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

While Houder has cited the water supply assessment as the district’s primary reason to enter into the agreement, the consolidated consumptive use permit granted by St. Johns to a Jacksonville-based utility company served as another determining factor.

In May 2011, St. Johns approved a permit that allowed JEA, the largest water supply utility within the district’s boundaries, to withdraw 155 million gallons of water per day from the Floridan Aquifer. Environmental organizations and activists spoke out against the permit at public meetings.

Though the Suwannee River Water Management District voiced its opposition at district water supply meetings, some residents were dumbfounded as to why the district didn’t take further action to combat the permit.

“It is not my place to second guess the St. Johns governing board,” Houder said. “But, we knew the permit would affect water levels in the Suwannee.”

With the agreement in place, one-sided decisions are no longer an option.

Now that the two districts are in accordance with one another and will employ greater oversight from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, permit applications will be heavily weighed across district boundaries.

Using tools established within the partnership, scientists will work over the next few years to establish minimum flows and levels for each body of water in the region, Monson said.

These numbers, known as MFLs, will be a reference point to determine how much harm has been done to the river, lake or spring. If groundwater pumping causes the spring to drop below its minimum level, the district should abstain from withdrawing water in that area and implement recovery methods to restore the body of water to its healthy level.  The agreement does not state specific punitive actions if a district finds its lakes and springs are below their minimum levels, but it places responsibility on the district to fix the problem.

Though he thought the partnership between the two districts was a positive change, Auley Rowell, former Suwannee River water district official, was weary of the state government’s involvement.

Rowell, who served as chairman of the Suwannee River Water Management District governing board from 1981 until 1988, said he hopes the Florida Department of Environmental Protection doesn’t drive decisions that are supposed to be made by the agencies.

“While I served, we never felt any pressure from the governor or the Legislature to do any specific things,” Rowell said. “Third parties can be healthy and the FDEP is appropriate, but it is the micromanaging that concerns me.”

Vivian Katz, a longtime resident of Keystone Heights and president of the Save Our Lakes Organization Inc., said she viewed the partnership as a step in the right direction.

“Districts are finally saying they want to work together,” Katz said. “Maybe this will spark everyone else to work together to help protect our water supply too.”