A restoration plan for Columbia County’s Ichetucknee Springs says officials charged with managing area water don’t have enough information to be effective and the regulatory process used by the agency responsible for water quality is too slow.
The plan also recommends actions by local officials and organizations as well as the Florida Legislature.
The Ichetucknee Springs Restoration Plan was released Tuesday by the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute. Dr. Robert Knight, director of the Florida Springs Institute and a University of Florida professor, compiled the report.
“The springs will stop flowing in 20 years at the rate we are going,” Knight said. “There are ways to stop these problems without stopping economic growth.”
In 2010, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) funded a three-year project to write a restoration plan. The Ichetucknee Springs Working Group and a consulting firm developed a draft of the restoration plan, but because of state funding cuts, the working group dismantled in June 2011. The Florida Springs Institute volunteered to complete the final report.
Knight will explain the science behind water Friday during the free, multi-media event Our Water, Our Future at the Florida Gateway College Performing Arts Center from 7 to 9 p.m. Springs photographer John Moran will also have a presentation.
The most noticeable side effects of the deteriorating springs is the increase in algae and the dominance of eel grass, Knight said. “Algae is not attractive in anyone’s book,” he said, and it has repercussions for the springs’ plants and animals. Divers can see a change in water clarity and color, he said.
Two types of eel grass have replaced the seven dominant plants species once found in the springs and river. The next step is almost complete dominance of algae, Knight said.
The Ichetucknee is not as degraded as many other springs across the state. It could be worse.
“It’s somewhere in the middle right now,” he said. “It’s not dead. I’d say it’s getting ready to go to the emergency room. That’s why I’m raising the alarm,” Knight said.
The Ichetucknee is not the best or the worst studied spring, Knight said. “There’s a lot of gaps in the data we have,” he said. Research is funded periodically by various groups, Knight said.
Turtles have been studied twice. Fish populations are measured periodically and yearly bird counts began recently, he said.
Scientists have good data on flows from the springs, but water quality data is periodic and sloppy, he said.
The changes occurring in the Ichetucknee are not in compliance with current laws, Knight said.
The 103-page report is “based on best available science and is intended to provide a foundation and preliminary blueprint for immediate and continuing actions” needed to restore and protect the Ichetucknee System. The plan lists eight goals with specific actions and the entity Knight labels as responsible.
The Florida Legislature and the Florida Park Service are responsible for the overall springs protection, according to the report.
Lawmakers can establish stricter groundwater nitrate standards, adequately fund the FDEP and require complete minimum flows and levels for bodies of water before water use permits are issued, the plan says.
The park service can define the human carrying capacity, especially near sensitive spring areas, like Blue Hole.
The Suwannee River Water Management District (SRWMD) is responsible for restoring spring flows and must establish minimum levels for environmental needs, according to the report. How much groundwater is actually available for human and environmental needs is not available to the district’s governing board, the report says.
The district should require agricultural water-use metering and set a timeline for overall groundwater pumping reductions to return spring flows, the report says.
The SRWMD is also responsible for groundwater assessment and should create a database with all existing wells to estimate pumping rates and historic levels.
Florida Leaders Organized for Water, the consortium of local governments, should implement strong conservation measures, according to the report. FLOW should ask Suwannee River and St. Johns water management districts for a Regional Sustainable Groundwater Yield and strict water conservation programs, Knight said.
Columbia County, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and the FDEP are agencies responsible for restoring water quality, the plan says.
The county should use its taxing and zoning authority to protect the springs by establishing Aquifer Protection Zones and discouraging residential lawn fertilization.
FDACS should draft legislation that provides incentives for conversion to crops requiring little or no fertilizer and animal operations cutting their nitrogen discharge. New livestock operations should be prohibited near area springs.
FDEP should phase in advanced nitrogen removal at all wastewater treatment plants. FDEP should also work to implement the Basin Management Action Plan, which would reduce pollutants, on an accelerated schedule. FDEP should also study the feasibility of cluster sewage collection for high-density areas in the Ichetucknee Springshed, the plan said.
A program of SRWMD and FDACS, the Suwannee River Partnership is responsible for reducing agricultural impacts. The partnership should work with agricultural producers to implement best management practices and grow crops that require less groundwater and nitrogen fertilizer, the restoration plan says.
Nonprofit, The Ichetucknee Partnership and local media outlets are responsible for effective communication, according to the plan. TIP should lead the implementation of the restoration goals and fund Springs Health Report Cards, published reports on spring health, Knight said. Local media should report the improving or declining health of the springs.
Nonprofit, federal and state environmental organizations, such as the Florida Springs Institute, Four Rivers Audubon, Three Rivers Trust and the U.S. Geological Survey, are responsible for documenting spring health, the plan says. The groups and agencies can implement ecological monitoring programs and expand water quality and biological sampling for the springs. After monitoring, they can prepare bi-annual Springs Health Report Cards.
With less reliance on groundwater and less fertilizer in the area, the springs can come back, Knight said.
“A phased plan to cut back on consumptive uses of groundwater within and outside of the Ichetucknee Springshed as well as restoration of natural drainage and water storage patterns in wetlands and streams will be needed to restore spring and river flows,” according to the plan.
Fertilization and wastewater disposal practices also need to be updated for more efficient technologies to reduce the load of nitrate reaching the aquifer, according to the report.
More technical information is needed to understand flow reductions, sources of increased nitrogen loads and their effects on the health of the Ichetucknee, the report said.
The plan also calls for educating the public as well as local, state and federal leaders on the importance of restoring the Ichetucknee System and its natural biodiversity.
Florida state parks have a $950 million impact on local economies, according to the report. A 2002 study estimated visitors to Ichetucknee Springs State Park spent $23 million a year, about $34 per visitor. About 90 percent of the visitors were from outside Columbia and Suwannee counties.
Birds, fish and other wildlife depend on the Ichetucknee, but their value is hard to measure. “The value of these natural resources/living plants and animals is not easily measured in terms of dollars but is priceless to natural environment and many of the people who regularly visit the Ichetucknee River and its springs and those who breathe the local air and drink from its waters,” the report said.
“The district is working to accomplish much of what the restoration plan recommends through our water use permitting and data monitoring programs, minimum flows and levels development, and water supply assessment and planning efforts,” the SRWMD said in a statement Friday.
In addition, the district recently received a grant of nearly $1 million from the FDEP to implement water quality and quantity improvements in the Santa Fe Basin, which includes the Ichetucknee river and springs, the statement said.
Through the program, the district will work in coordination with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and the Suwannee River Partnership to fund retrofits to existing irrigation systems for area farmers. This work will prevent more than 1 million pounds of nitrogen annually from entering the Santa Fe River Basin and save 670 million gallons per year of water use.
“These efforts will equip irrigation systems to deliver a more uniform and efficient application of water and fertilizer and reduce water use and the potential for nutrients to leach into the water table,” said District Assistant Executive Director Charlie Houder.
FDEP has adopted a Basin Management Action Plan, a five-year blueprint for reducing nutrients in the Santa Fe Basin. The district will cooperate in the plan’s implementation, the statement said.
“The one thing that I’m sure of is, we’ve got to do something,” said Fort White environmentalist Loye Barnard.
Knight is a knowledgeable voice speaking on the front line, she said.
Barnard said the public and elected officials need to see the information. “We have to know that we will lose so much if we don’t protect the springs,” she said.
Although the Florida Springs Institute has no authority to enforce the plan, Knight said he will present it to local officials and groups to encourage action. “I’m going to spread the message as far as I can,” he said.
A 20-page summary of the plan will be available this month to help more people understand the issues. The full report is available at floridaspringsinstitute.org.