A prehistoric stone bowl, dozens of old bottles, a corroded cap pistol from the 1940s, discarded car tires, a shard from a 15th century Spanish ceramic plate.
Divers working on a restoration project at Chassahowitzka Springs over the summer never knew what they were going to find and bring to the surface.
The vast trove of treasures and trash — either tossed or lost — was on public display Wednesday at the Chassahowitzka River Campground as officials from the Southwest Florida Water Management District and other state environmental agencies presented a wrap-up of the first phase of a water quality improvement project intended to rid the spring of noxious algae and make it more habitable for wildlife.
"Judging from the clarity of the water, I'd say the project was a huge success," said Philip Rhinesmith, senior environmental scientist with Swiftmud and the manager of the project. "Anyone who visits the spring is going to notice a big difference."
The five-month restoration project along the coastal boarder between Citrus and Hernando counties, for which Swiftmud paid $772,000, sought to undo decades of accumulated pollution caused by street runoff and leaking septic systems. Over time, the accumulation of sediment had a negative effect on water clarity and quality and fueled the spread of lyngbya algae, an exotic plant that chokes out beneficial plants such as eel grass.
Using a low-suction vacuum dredge, work crews soured the bottom, removing tons of lyngbya and approximately 3,000 cubic yards of material containing 7,600 pounds of nitrogen and 500 pounds of phosphorus.
In the long run, the project's big winner will be underwater wildlife, including manatees, which frequent the historic spring during the winter months to feed on eel grass and other aquatic plants. Rhinesmith said that the remaining stages of the restoration will include the replanting of eel grass, which likely will prevent the further intrusion of lyngbya.
"The hope is that as we continue working toward limiting what goes into the spring, nature will take over and keep it clean," Rhinesmith said.
The historic spring, one of five first-magnitude spring groups in the water management district, is named for a Seminole word meaning "place of the hanging pumpkins" and is a favorite destination for sport fishermen, kayakers and canoers, and others who enjoy its scenic surroundings.
However, Swiftmud executive director Robert Beltran said that the recovered artifacts, which will be turned over to Citrus County, are proof that the area has been a lure to visitors long before civilization came along. Among the finds: primitive arrowheads and a bone-rendered fish hook estimated to be between 2,000 and 6,000 years old,
"This spring and others like it around Florida are rare environmental gems," Beltran said. "It is so important that we do all we can now to preserve them for future generations."
Logan Neill can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1435.