Blue Spring

In Volusia County, Blue Spring glistens under the warm Florida sunshine as it provides a home to various wildlife, a first magnitude spring and the only east coast winter refuge for West Indian manatees. With a minimal flow regime in place, the spring is able to maintain sustainable levels without water districts dipping into the resource beyond the set consumption for public use. A number which decreases each year.

Because of this, the manatees are able to have their own winter home without worrying if a full, clean spring will be around next year.

While many riverbeds and springs of Florida are either on their way to drying up because of drought or over-used resources, some bodies of water are able to maintain their natural composure because of implemented standards. Blue Spring is one of 35 designated bodies of water, made up of springs and lakes, which follows a minimal flow level by the St. Johns River Water Management District.

While there are multiple Blue Springs in Florida, this particular Blue Spring is located in Orange City, about 30 miles northeast of Orlando. It is the largest spring on the St. Johns River, according to the St. Johns Water Management website. It’s a first magnitude spring at an average flow of 65 million gallons of water a day. A first magnitude spring is defined as “discharging an average of 100 cubic feet of water per second or more,” according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

The Blue Spring minimal flow regime has kept the wildlife and the natural flow of the river to a natural and average level as compared to other springs along the St. Johns River. After more than a decade of working groups and studies, Blue Spring was designated as a minimal flow regime spring in 2006.

Minimal Flow Levels

The entrance to Blue Springs

A minimal flow regime is a standard by which water cannot be drawn out of a water body to a certain point. That designated level has incremental changes set for years down the road to use less and less water, according to Scott Laidlaw, a senior hydrologist with the St. Johns River Water Management District. Blue Spring is the only spring using the minimal flow regime in Volusia County, and to Laidlaw’s knowledge the only Florida spring that has ever used that.

Originally, Laidlaw said, when minimal flow level plans went into play, scientists were unsure of how to spread out it the placement. It was unpractical to make a mandate for hundreds of water bodies—focusing less on very small bodies that wouldn’t be effected as much and more so on those at risk or close to developed areas, he explained—so only a handful were.

The more common conservation method is called minimal flow level or MFL. According to the South Florida Water Management District, a minimal flow level prevents harm to the springs. It sets a standard that only allows for a certain amount of water to be taken out of the water supply by the water management district. If the levels decrease below that set limit, which has been determined by scientists and hydrologist, a significant amount of damage will occur like loss of wildlife and the destruction of the ecosystems that revolve around the water supply. The water bodies were chosen by size, how close they were to populated areas and if each body of water had an increased chance of being destroyed. Because of this, the spring has not seen the issues like dangerously low levels and habitat destruction like other springs and lakes where water is taken by other water districts across the state.


Laidlaw thinks another reason Blue Spring was chosen to be a MFR spring is because of the manatee population.

From late November through early March, Blue Spring is home to the endangered West Indian Manatee. According to the Save the Manatee website, a non-profit organization that educates about protection of the sea mammals, the spring is the only east coast inland habitat for the manatees during the colder winter months. Year-round, the spring stays around 73 degrees, five degrees warmer than the potentially life-threatening water temperatures of 68 degrees and colder for the manatees.

He said because they are an endangered species, and are well recognized, the MFR insures that no matter how much development may occur around the area, the habitat will still be intact for the large, water mammals.

Return of the Hyacinth

Bob Knight and Ron Clarke

In March 2012, Bob Knight embarked on what some believe is a dangerous experiment. He reintroduced water hyacinth into Kings Bay in Crystal River, Florida, at the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. The bay is a haven for manatees, which unlike Floridians happen to love hyacinth.

Since it was first brought to the St. Johns River in 1890, water hyacinth has choked waterways, impeding boat traffic and, according to some biologists, altering ecosystems. Complex and unusual mechanical controls began in the early 1900s, followed by chemical controls in the mid-20th century. Finally in 1972 a biological control, the mottled hyacinth weevil, was developed and released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Regardless of its notorious past, Eichornia crassipes, is a superstar at taking up nutrients, particularly nitrates that encourage explosive algal blooms, primarily Lyngbya species, in Florida fresh water bodies. Much of Kings Bay is dominated by these filamentous blue-green algae, which turns the water cloudy and greenish-brown, Knight told a group of students gathered to assist in the project.

Swimmers in Florida springs and bays are often put off by the slimy-cottony floating masses that can cause skin irritations and asthma-like allergies. Lyngbya may also produce secondary chemicals that act as feeding deterrents to fish, crabs, and other animals.

Thirteen students traveled from Waynesburg University in Pennsylvania to spend their spring break learning about aquatic ecosystems and to participate in the Kings Bay Adaptive Management Phytoremediation Demonstration Project organized by the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute. The visiting science students spent their days taking water quality and quantity samples and listening to lectures by Knight, wetlands and aquatic ecosystem expert and director of the Institute.

Led by Chad Sethman, Ph.D., assistant professor of biology at Waynesburg University, the students also participated in building the floating corrals necessary to hold in the hyacinth for the experiment and raking and harvesting algae—a labor-intensive mechanical control to keep the bay bottom clean. And when there was time, the students swam with the manatees that take refuge in Florida’s warmer inland waters and springs during the winter months.

Knight explained to students that although hyacinth has been considered an invasive plant in Florida, it was chosen for the experiment because of its unique qualities.

Knight is not alone in his belief that water hyacinth may hold the key to reducing algae populations and removing nutrients from Florida’s springs and bays. The theory behind the experiment is valid, according to Mark Brown, systems ecologist in Environmental Engineering Sciences and Matt Cohen, hydrologist and assistant professor in the School of Forest Resources and Conservation, both at the University of Florida (UF).

“Hyacinth is very good at removing nutrients,” Brown said, although he doubts that this one action will restore Kings Bay to its previous environmental health. The bay has suffered under decades of chemical controls as well as impact from development, run-off, reduced spring flow, and recreational use.

Knight is confident in the potential for hyacinth to improve water clarity in the bay. “People have been successful at engineering water treatment systems using hyacinth—to propagate them in ponds to treat waste water,” he said.

But Walter Judd, botany professor at UF, urged caution and questioned the prudence of using a non-native plant known to be invasive in Florida waters. Judd suggested alternatives for Kings Bay remediation such as less invasive non-natives: frog’s bit (Limnobium spongia) or water lettuce (Pistia straiotes). These he said would cover the water surface, may take up the same nutrients, and may be inviting to manatees as well.

Robert Lovestrand, regional biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) said the phytoremediation demonstration was agreed upon by all the parties participating: the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, FWC, and other agencies involved in the permitting.

Yet he worries about the potential downsides. He is concerned that the hyacinth may lodge in out of the way canals or boat slips. And he is not sure that the biological control is up to the job of mitigating a widespread growth of hyacinth outside the experimental area.

“This is an experiment. There are a lot of things that can go wrong with it,” Knight said. He also points out that hyacinth is now part of the Florida ecosystem, and Floridians might do well to learn to accept its good qualities as a provider of free ecosystem services.

Lovestrand said that while the fish and wildlife commission is “onboard” with the experiment, they are ever watchful of the hyacinth. “We have a long history of managing hyacinth in Florida,” he said. “It’s what we do.”

Lovestrand added that fish and wildlife is “all for getting questions answered,” especially if it ultimately means beneficial outcomes for remediation of the bay.

The students have returned to Pennsylvania, Knight and the KBAM research team continue to monitor the hyacinths. “We hope gather enough data to show water quality improvement so that we can extrapolate to a larger project,” Knight said.

In the meantime 565 manatees are competing for the floating snacks in King’s Bay, which Knight said they discovered within hours of placement. Lovestrand noted during the past few weeks that the manatees have helped themselves to the hyacinth about as fast the researchers can get the plants in the corrals.

“We’ve put a little salad bar out there for them,” Knight said.

Watch the slide show of the students at work in Kings Bay.