Carl McKinney

Carl is a senior at the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. His areas include writing, audio editing and HTML/CSS coding.

Lars Andersen: Guide to Florida’s Waters

Lars Andersen

Lars Andersen began writing about nature in the mid 1980s.  His first work, an audiobook titled “North Florida Adventure,” was an educational look at the history and locations of North Florida through the eyes of fictional characters.  Listeners can drive across North Florida and hear about sites as they pass by.

Since then, Andersen, a Florida native, has had a long career as an environmental writer and a nature tour guide.

Andersen began guiding tours in North Florida in the late 1980s.  He conducts river tours on about 60 different waterways, including coastal areas.

“We’ve had a lot of people have transformative experiences when they are out on the river,” Andersen said.  Sometimes after young people have been on a river tour with their parents, they choose nature-related fields of study when they go to college.
[pullquote class=”left”]”We’ve had a lot of people who have transformative experiences when they are out on the river.”[/pullquote]
The 55-year-old nature guide started a formal business about 15 years ago when he opened the Adventure Outpost in High Springs, Fla.

A 2009 National Geographic blurb mentioned Andersen’s tour, including some of his tips on how to approach manatees.

He views his nature-related writings as another means to educate the public about the state’s waterways, as well as some of the problems facing Florida’s water supply.

“Just being a writer really is a great avenue for continuing to learn about these things,” he said.  “I think through my capacity as a writer, I’m helping to contribute in getting this info out to the general public.”

Andersen has written guidebooks, historical accounts of waterways and articles for nature magazines.  Among his works are “Paynes Prairie: The Great Savannah: A History and Guide,” a comprehensive book detailing everything there is to know about the shallow basin in the middle of Florida.

In “Paynes Prairie”, Andersen recalls his childhood fascination with nature, and how his range expanded from his neighborhood. By his teens he had discovered the Prairie.

“I began exploring the Prairie every chance I got, often joined by friends and my brother. . . ,” he wrote.

When asked about his best experience as a nature guide, Andersen told the story of a family; a father, his son, and two grandchildren; he took out to Rainbow River.

“Three generations of people sharing this incredible experience,” Andersen said.

The day went without a hitch. They saw more wildlife than usual, and the family had a great time.

Andersen said that about a month later, the son called him to share some sad news. He told him the grandfather who had arranged the tour had died.

“That trip had been the grandfather’s idea,” Andersen said.  “He wanted to spend one last memorable day with his grandchildren and his son.”

Swimming in Green

Visitors to Ginnie Springs looking out at the Santa Fe River. There is visible algae in the background, though the spring's waters were clear.

On a Tuesday afternoon, Ginnie Springs near the city of High Springs, Fla., is filled with divers, swimmers and people relaxing in the water. For a weekday, there are more people than you’d expect.

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.

Differing viewpoints

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.

Happy campers

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.”

The Contamination Complication

Mark and Annette Long have lived in Florida for most of their lives and lately they’ve noticed something wrong with the local waterways.

“The water is covered in algae and it doesn’t have a whole lot of flow,” said Mark. “The spring basins aren’t what they used to be.”

Mark is a Florida native and Annette  moved to the state about 30 years ago.  They said they began noticing problems with the water in Florida about 10 years ago.

Alarmed by this observation, the couple who live in Chiefland,  became activists for water issues in their area. They started Save Our Suwannee, which engages in a number of activities from educating the public to lobbying local governments. Of major concern to them is nitrate pollution.

Nitrates (NO−3), or nitric acids, are chemicals commonly found in fertilizers and waste.

Paul Chadik, a University of Florida professor of environmental engineering sciences, said nitrates are a nutrient for the development of algae growth, causing harmful algal blooms. This process is known as cultural eutrophication.

Chadik said that when the algal cells start decaying, the bacteria that catalyze the process absorb large amounts of oxygen from the water.

“Other aquatic life that needs the oxygen can’t get it,” he said. The aquatic ecosystem would be damaged, he said.

A 2008 Florida Department of Environmental Protection study reported that nitrate pollution in both surface and groundwater has increased by a factor of two or three over the last 20 years.

According to the study, about 30 years ago, nitrate levels in Florida’s water were about 0.2 mg/L. Now, the average is about 1.0 mg/L.

The Longs both said they were very concerned over the amount of nitrates finding its way into the water.

Severe environmental degradation can occur at 0.4 mg/L, said Annette, who serves as president of Save Our Suwannee. That’s the general scientific consensus among the experts she has spoken with.

“It causes algae to bloom once it’s exposed to the sun,” she said. The algae overgrowth then “smothers out the healthy aquatic vegetation.”

The maximum contaminant level (MCL), a standard set by the Environmental Protection Agency, allows 10.0 mg/L of nitrates.

Annette also said nitrates pose a threat to the humans drinking the water.

“There are even studies that indicate a level of 1.5 (mg/L) causes bladder cancer.”

Agriculture is one of the major source of the pollutants, the Longs said. Fertilizers commonly used in agriculture contain nitrates, herbicides and phosphorus. He said the rain washes the chemicals into both ground and surface water.

Terry Hansen, an environmental consultant for the environmental protection department, agrees that the Suwannee and Santa Fe rivers are in poor condition.

“The state has determined both the Suwannee and the Santa Fe are impaired,” he said.
An “impaired” means the water body has been evaluated and found it is not meeting intended use.

The state ranks bodies of water based on a scale of one to five. A one means the water is drinkable, and a five indicates the water is for navigation and industrial use only.

The Suwannee and Santa Fe rivers are both class three water bodies, meaning they are for swimming, fishing and recreation. Impaired water bodies exceed the pollution allowed for a class three.

To address this issue, the department has implemented a Best Management Action Plan (BMAP). A BMAP is a collection of methods used to lower pollution.

For instance, the BMAP for the Santa Fe River prescribes a public education campaign about the impact of stormwater and new guidelines for controlling pollution from construction sites, as well as other sources.

Hansen said the complex nature of Florida’s water systems is one reason why pollution is such a major problem. The underground aquifer connects to several bodies of water, meaning nitrates and other nutrients can have a wide reach.

“There is no single place you can implement a system of control,”Hansen said.

A 2010 study, conducted by MACTEC, a private consulting firm, funded by the  Florida Department of Environmental Protection, analyzed sources of nitrate pollution in the Santa Fe River and its springs.

According to the study, water bodies near agriculture contained about 4.0-5.5 mg/L of nitric acids on average, significantly higher than the amount Annette said was dangerous. Water near undeveloped areas contained about 0.1 mg/L.

Another part of the problem, Annette said, is Florida’s lack of enforcing effective environmental policy.

“The state is bowing to industry,” she said, and “dragging its feet” in setting standards for limiting pollution.

The federal Clean Water Act, passed in 1972, made it unlawful to discharge pollutants into the water from a point source (pipes or man-made ditches) without a permit. Mark said far too many of these permits are being issued to industrial businesses such as paper mills.

Cris Costello, a regional organizer for the Florida Chapter of the environmental advocacy group, the Sierra Club, expressed a similar opinion.

“The problem is that FDEP considers polluters their customers,” she said. “They cater to those customers to an incredible extent to such an incredible extent that the environment suffers.”

Florida needs to adopt numeric limits to water pollution.Rather than being proactive, state currently doesn’t take action unless the water is already green and slimy, she said.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection finalized a plan in January 2012 to implement a numeric limit, which is awaiting approval by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Costello said.

The Sierra Club advocates a cheap and easy way to limit nitrate pollution is with local laws regulating fertilizer use, he said.

Manatee County, Fla., is the latest county to adopt regulations on nitrate-based fertilizers. The ordinance prohibits the use of fertilizers containing nitrogen or phosphorus from June 1 through Sept. 30, due to heavy rainfall during these months. In addition, it limits where the fertilizers can be used.

Annette said rules like these should be implemented across the entire state.

The couple remains optimistic that Florida’s water situation will improve.

On the subject of water, Annette said, “It’s the only reason people come to my town.  I hope things will turn around.”