Deceptively Clear: North Florida springs offer a shimmering beacon of peril

January 10, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

     Continuing with my series of stories written for my fall 2013 magazine and feature writing course at the University of Florida, what follows is a color news feature concerning the health of natural freshwater spring ecosystems in Florida.

 

Deceptively Clear: North Florida springs offer a shimmering beacon of peril

     Ploop, ploop, one after the other, I plunge my two feet into the refreshingly cool water.  From my vantage point upon the submerged step of the canoe launch at the Ichetucknee River’s northernmost park, I survey the morning scene before me.  

     With the mid-morning sun not yet overhead enough to penetrate straight down into the tight, circular opening of overhanging oak trees and aquatic vegetation, shafts of light angled through the canopy, backlit foliage created intense, almost exaggerated arrays of glowing greens, while illuminating the deep reds of the abundant cardinal flowers that lined the banks, transforming them into flickering, fiery tips, like candles along the periphery of nature’s divine sanctuary.

     The shocking clarity of the deep spring pool immediately before me is as captivating as the tranquil surroundings.  Long, vibrantly green and brown blades of river grass sway back and forth in rhythm with the gentle current, broken up only by a patch of barren, rock and shell strewn limestone, a scar indicating where a fallen tree or large organic debris had once rested on an otherwise unblemished face.

     From this sanctuary, I and four others launch our canoes and kayaks and set out behind our guide, 57-year-old Lars Andersen, a Gainesville native, lifetime paddler, professional guide, writer and, all too recently, activist.

     As ideal as our surroundings seem, they have appeared healthier.  While the causes of record low spring flow and the decline in fish and fauna species that has taken place over the course of the last few decades is hotly contested, recent poor health is generally attributed to over-pumping of the Florida aquifer and pollution leaching into the waters, two problems exasperated by a prolonged drought.  

     Such circumstances have vaulted individuals like Lars to the front lines of the ongoing conflict over fresh water rights in Florida.  Along with water scientists and dedicated citizens, “Water War II,” as labeled by Florida Springs Institute founder Robert Knight is dependent upon individuals such as Lars, men and women who have gained an intimate understanding of spring ecosystems through their years of recreational or professional experience within them.

     Over the course of years paddling and guiding on the Ichetucknee, Lars has experienced first hand the abrupt decline in plant and wildlife species.

     “Twenty years ago, we would have had a lot more diversity in this river.  There would be the grass that you see now, but there have always been a lot of smaller leaf things, mainly five or six species.  But they are a lot more sensitive to pollution, so now even though this looks good, it’s much more of a monoculture.  So as nice as this looks, it’s deceptively unhealthy.”   

A crisp and clear fall morning at Ichetucknee River State Park near High Springs, Florida.    

     Despite his knowledge that things are not what they seem, Lars is in high spirits as we set out to paddle the Ichetucknee that morning.  “It never gets old,” he murmurs to himself just under his breath as he passes my kayak, his gaze slowly swiveling back and forth to survey the scene.  In jeans, and a gray shirt, and a weathered leather fedora hat that appears as if it has seen as many springs as its owner, Lars’ long gray canoe silently slithers south on the Ichetucknee.

     Stroke left, stroke right, glide and then repeat.  This is the routine paddling out of the narrow, meandering origins of the spring run, the dense oaks and cardinal flowers gradually giving way to a slightly different ecosystem, this one containing a wider stretch of river, the flowers and lush aquatic vegetation replaced by an abundance of native wild rice.  The sounds of crickets are a constant, interrupted sporadically by a woodpecker pecking away at an unseen tree, the high pitched call of a bird, or a mullet fish exploding out of the water and landing several feet forward in an audible splash.  

    We pass a trio of chattering otters, their heads emerging briefly, glancing around, then submerging, as if they were engaged in a playful game of Marco Polo.  All the while, our kayaks glide silently over a perfectly visible aquarium full of mullet, turtles and grass, the shadows of our boats so clearly discernable as we pass overhead, the sensation more like piloting a glider over a beautiful but unfamiliar world than paddling a boat.

     Shortly thereafter, Lars leads us up the short spring run to Devil’s Eye.  Here, the hardwood canopy opens up to a circular pool about 40 yards in diameter and maybe 15 feet deep.  At the bottom there’s a limestone fissure, from which, the crystal clear contents of the aquifer escape their subterranean confines.  

     From the banks of the spring, a single forking oak tree branch extends outward just inches above the surface of the water, ending in a Y shape almost directly over the spring’s source, nature’s divining rod pointing me to the most ideal spring paradise that I can imagine.  The impression is that of hovering silently above an aquarium of fish maneuvering in tight synchronous patterns, while a surrounding chorus of birds, crickets and gently rustling tree leaves remind us that we’re in a wild and primal setting.  

     Devil’s Eye is a spring that showcases the symptoms of declining spring health.  We don’t have to imagine the abundance of green grass that should be covering all but the deep blue vent in the center because its transformation from a lush underwater ecosystem flush with life to a barren and sometimes algae-coated pool has been well documented in a series of photographs by Florida nature photographer John Moran, creator of the Springs Eternal photography exhibit.  

     In a particularly striking set of images, both taken 11 years apart, the dramatic degradation of the spring is apparent.  Each image is taken from a perspective of the vent, looking up and out toward the surface of the water, the encircling canopy and the patch of sky beyond.  In the 1995 image, a blanket of lush grass grows from the vent and fills most of the image frame, while the 2006 photograph, all of the grass is gone, replaced by the now barren and algae-coated limestone bedrock that we can so clearly see below our kayaks.

My kayak silently slithering through the headwaters of the Ichetucknee River.  

      Making a wide, circular gesture to indicate the entirety of the spring, Lars recalls, “It used to be solid vegetation all through there.  It’s amazing how fast it’s happened.”

     “It’s still powerful,” responds a paddler on the tour.  

     Over-pumping of the aquifer, which is Florida’s underlying artery of fresh water supplying the springs, is a causal factor for spring health decline that has received a significant amount of attention lately.  The Adena Springs Ranch controversy and the pending decision to grant or deny the proposed grass fed beef operation a permit to pump millions of gallons per day in Marion County, has been a particularly volatile case that springs protection advocates have rallied around.  In a county that has already witnessed Silver Springs, arguably Florida’s crown jewel of spring attractions, decline so rapidly that a state-funded $3.5 million restoration is currently underway, fresh water rights and well permitting has become a hotly contested issue with the fate of the springs potentially at stake.          

     Florida nature photographer John Moran is no stranger to the Adena case.  John lives in a cozy, airy, pale yellow two-story house down a dusty drive not far from the swampy, cypress stumped banks of Newnans Lake.  It’s a fitting homestead for a photographer who has spent decades trudging through such locales, using his cameras and remarkable instincts to show Floridians the often overlooked majesty of our state.  Two years ago, however, those objectives changed.

     “I finally woke up a few years ago and realized that my pretty pictures really weren’t doing any good.  I realized that I had an ethical obligation to show the truth as I see it.  The truth is that I see a state of water in Florida in which 19 million residents, each of us acting in our own enlightened self interests, think nothing of depleting and defiling a shared limited resource, even when it is clear that doing so is injurious to all of our long-term interests.  That is what I see.”

     On a mid-Friday afternoon, I’m standing in John’s kitchen and a creeping westward sun streams light into the window above his white enamel double sink.  John picks up a small mason jar, the kind that have the image of a berry or a variety of fruit embossed on the outside, from a set of several that are sitting on the beige countertop to the right of the sink.  He turns on the faucet and fills the jar nearly to the top with water.  He holds it up before me, sunlight catching the lip of the jar and creating a tiny gleam of light as he tilts it.  

     “The attorney for Adena Springs Ranch was saying that there’s plenty of water in the aquifer, that we’re just talking about a fraction of an inch of what feeds Silver Springs.  But understand this,” John’s voice raises in excitement, “if this glass which is nine tenths full represents the aquifer, then that’s true, there is plenty of water in there, but what you see is when the rain falls and goes into the aquifer,” as he places the glass back beneath the faucet and fills it till it is overflowing, “it is the water that seeps out of the aquifer that supplies the flow to the springs.”  

Lifetime paddler, Ichetucknee River guide and advocate for the preservation of Florida springs, Lars Andersen, identifies an archeological site where a Spanish mission once stood near the banks of the river during the earliest era of European settlement.    

      “That is the spring water coming out right there,” pointing to the steady overflow pouring over the lip of the glass.  

     “What happens is that when it doesn’t rain and you’re left with a situation like that,” now holding a nearly full glass before me, “oh there is a lot of water in the aquifer and you can still stick pumps and wells down there to suck it out to feed your cow ranch in Marion County, but in the meantime our springs have gone bone dry.  The water is there, but what have we lost?”   

     “I’m not used to seeing springs dry up.  This is a fairly recent phenomenon we’re seeing now.  So what I believe we’re seeing is drought exacerbated by over-pumping is what is killing our springs.”  

     “I have given my heart to the springs, and I see that I am in a unique and powerful position to be an effective voice for the springs.  Pictures have a way of reaching people that words alone cannot, and I see that I am uniquely positioned to leverage the power of the image.  In my case, the power of a collection dating back 30 years, and put those to good use in service to the cause of clean water in Florida.”  

     John is currently devoting his talents to telling the story of our springs through the Springs Eternal project, which features a Florida Museum of Natural History exhibition of John’s spring photography.  In addition to the exhibition, Lesley Gamble, a University of Florida professor of art history, has launched the Urban Aquifer initiative, which enlarges and wraps some of John’s photographs on city buses, a literal moving representation of our aquifer flowing through city streets and avenues.   

Sprigs of hydrilla drape over my paddle in an area of the Ichetucknee where invasive aquatic plant life has thrived and obscured the surface.

     The Springs Eternal exhibit functions as a living document depicting the change that has occurred over a brief amount of time to the springs.  In some images, where there were once teens diving from platforms into aqua blue pools in the late 1990s, by the late 2000s, those same platforms stand empty with shallow, dark and murky waters below.  In others we see tubers on the Ichetucknee floating by a dense sludge of bright-green algae that resembles matted clumps of wet hair.  Still in others, spring vents lie barren, where only a decade prior, healthy thickets of underwater vegetation thrived.

     “Lawyers and those representing the polluters will talk your damn ear off and at the end of the day, look at the pictures I’m making and you tell me the difference.  They’re years apart.  Whatever it is you’re doing clearly is not working,” exclaims John, in exasperation.

     Back on the Ichetucknee, the wide-open spaces and fields of wild rice have given way to the river’s third and final distinctive eco-system.  Here, cypress trees, some whose diameters are the size of a compact car, tower from swampy banks, pinning us into a narrow canyon of woods and clear water.  During the height of the summer, families, couples, college students and packs of teenage friends clog this portion of the river, human flotillas relaxing and enjoying a leisurely float.  On this particular Saturday in late September, the human obstacles are few and far between as Lars gently guides us around a mother and her two young sons, the oldest of which can’t be more than 8.  Perched precariously atop his tube, he strains to get the highest vantage point possible so that his blue eyes, wide in wonder and awe, can view the aquatic world sliding by beneath him.   

     We pass a fenced off swampy nook along a bend in the river and Lars points out that it is the final protected habitat of a rare snail species.  He recounts a recent tour of the river that he gave to state officials.   

Hovering over the limestone substrate of the Devil's Eye spring along the Ichetucknee run, it's easy to become enchanted by the crystalline depths and beautiful surroundings. However, in less than twenty years, a spring habitat that was once carpeted with lush green river grass has transformed into a barren, stone strewn aquatic moonscape, devoid of the biodiversity that once thrived below the water's surface.

     “The state people said, ‘Well, there is plenty of water going by there.  The snails should be fine.’  You know, if that were the case, their range would be out in the river.  But there is something about that specific water that they like obviously.  If that spring loses its flow, that species is basically gone,” he warns.  

     With our tour completed and the kayaks put away, Lars and I sit at a picnic table on a perch overlooking the source of the Ichetucknee River.  From this deep blue, circular pool, hemmed in on all sides by a ring of oaks, seep the crystalline waters that meander south to the Santa Fe, then into the Suwannee and ultimately, to the Gulf of Mexico.  The noon-day sun hangs high overhead now, every detail of the spring’s limestone bottom spotlighted and visible in full relief.  A father swims with a laughing daughter on his back, her arms clasped tightly around his neck.  

     Looking off into the distance, Lars recalls the enchantment that his very first spring experiences had over him.

     “Blue Spring at the time was just this remote place that you had to go down these dirt roads to get to it, and then there was this little floating platform in the middle of it, up on barrels of some kind.  That was an early memory, probably the early 1960s and that was just this fantastic memory.  I always looked for this place in my later years.  Where was that place I used to go with my family?  My parents had died, so I wasn’t sure, but I remembered it was called Blue Spring.  I kind of kept an eye out for it as I grew up.  Finally one day, after I had this business, we’re talking 30 or 40 years later, I was picking some people up from Blue Spring and just saw it from one angle and said, ‘this is it!’”  

     He recalls fondly as if lost in a distant memory, “that clarity, that amazing blue water under your boat, and all those fish, just like you’re in an aquarium.”

Along the southern stretch of the Ichetucknee River, where towering cypress create the sense of being in green canyon, Lars Andersen discusses the declining health of the springs to a couple of paddlers who have hired him to guide them down the river.

     With a hint of longing and sadness, Lars adds,  “This has happened so fast that, even in my more aware lifetime, I’ve seen big changes in all these spring runs.  Silver River is just like ugh,” he remembers, dropping his head in visible exasperation.  “It’s happening so fast on Silver River you can almost just sit there and watch it.  It’s horrifying how much it’s changing and how fast it’s changing.  The algae mattes we see on top of the vegetation and such, we saw very little of that in the early day of me doing these tours, which isn’t that long.  I mean, 17 years is nothing.”

     It’s not as common as it once was, but on occasion, Lars still witnesses the visible enchantment that he had as a boy visiting Blue Spring, sweep over his adult clients.  

     “One time I had a senior with me.  I was filming her, she was in front of my boat and we were paddling down the river, and she was looking around,” he describes, more animatedly as if her enthusiasm was now flowing through him.  “And her lips started to quiver and you could just see this tear coming down and she said, ‘Oh, Lars.’  You know, she was just looking.  She was there.  She was feeling it.”

     “The challenge is you’re kind of showing them things that they are not seeing normally, but you have to let them know the perspective of what that thing is or that behavior is, if they don’t have some background information to see what they are looking at.  To know what they are looking at, it makes a big difference.  So, just like we talked about the plants looking so green and healthy, without someone telling them that there are supposed to be five or six different species in there instead of those one or two, then it looks fine,” says Lars, speaking to the challenge of giving clients an accurate frame of reference for what the springs should look like.

     Lars’s guided tours give paddlers that perspective, as do John Moran’s then and now images that fill the mobile panels and wall spaces in the Springs Eternal exhibit.  

     Regarding the ultimate power and potential of those images, John comments, “It’s a wonderful feeling to come back with a picture that I can hold up and invite the people of Florida to see what I’ve seen, to feel what I felt, and to appreciate that the glue that binds us all is the gift we share in calling Florida home.”

     As a boy and young man growing up in North Florida, I’ve fully appreciated that gift and have relied on my memories of it to take me home when I’m a world away.  My recollection of the springs remains so distinct, so vivid each and every time I choose to visit it.  Whether it is Blue, Juniper, Ginnie, Manatee or any of the other countless springs that I’ve experienced in my lifetime, if I close my eyes, I can re-take those first two steps into the spring.  I can feel that perfect coolness of the water on my feet and ankles.  I can smell the slight sweetness of the water.  I can see the vivid greens of the swaying vegetation above and below the water, the mature, majestic overhanging oaks, and I can see that clear blue vent before me.  The exciting feeling of anticipation of exploring this cool aquatic world is overpowering.

A shaft of sunlight streaming between the cypress canopy high overhead illuminates a spot of appearant health, where vibrant rivergrass bends and sways gently in a lazy current.


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