On a recent Sunday morning in North Florida, I cleaned out the newspaper rack at the local gas station. My haul included the Gainesville Sun, the Suwannee Democrat, the Lake City Reporter and the Jacksonville Times-Union. As always when I'm out of town, I was looking for some ink-smudged intimacy with the locals. I wanted to know what was on the mind of residents of Levy, Gilchrist, Columbia, Alachua and Suwannee counties.
Admittedly, I was coming to this with an agenda. I'd been prejudiced by beauty. I'd been alarmed by a blemish.
Two days before, my family and I had kayaked down the Ichetucknee River. We'd seen manatee mothers and their calves pass underneath our kayaks. We'd seen improbably long gars nosing upstream and turtles thick like barnacles on fallen logs. That was the beauty.
The blemish came the next day, at Poe Springs, a county park nearby on the Santa Fe River. We discovered how much had changed in the few years since we'd last visited.
Not long ago the water was so clear you could see the bubbles pumping up from limestone fissures. Now it was murky and coated in algae. I asked a man who was playing in the shallows with his young son about it and he blamed the high water from recent rains. "When the water comes down," he said, "this'll all clear up."
I wasn't so sure. I asked Craig Pittman, our award-winning environmental reporter. "Poe is suffering from the exact same problems as all the other springs," he wrote. "Pollution fuels toxic algae blooms. Loss of flow lets the algae and pollution settle in without being washed away."
That pollution is coming from fertilizer, manure and overflowing septic systems. The loss of flow in the springs (at Poe, just two years ago, the volume had dropped from 30 million gallons a day to 500,000 gallons) is caused by excessive pumping of the aquifer. Man-made problems.
And this brings me back to my armload of newspapers. Did all this matter to people in the area? You bet it did.
There was an article in the Sun about a bill that would limit local control over wetlands. There was an article in the Reporter about 250 people who went to a water-conservation class at Ichetucknee Springs Park. Editorial Page Editor Nathan Crabbe wrote a piece in the Sun urging support for a bill that would route $379 million to the preservation of major springs. Ron Littlepage's column in the Times-Union rebuked Attorney General Pam Bondi for joining a suit to block cleanup efforts of Maryland's Chesapeake Bay. How about paying attention to pollution problems at home, he suggested.
So now I know what's on the minds of the people of North Florida. It's on my mind too.
Editor Bill Duryea can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8770.