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Hope lives, even as marker notes Polk's Kissengen Springs, dry since 1950

On the occasion of the dedication of our state's latest historical marker, I followed a lively group of elder Floridians down a weedy path to hear them reminisce about a magical place of childhood.

It had been more than 60 years since they'd splashed in Polk County's Kissengen Spring. But their memories were so crisp that one woman got a cold shiver as she remembered running down a long dock and diving into its icy-blue depths.

They'd pedaled their bicycles or saved gas coupons to carpool out to Kissengen in the 1940s, when it was a privately owned attraction. They rode horses, ate 25-cent hamburgers and wore down the dance floor in the rustic pavilion next door to the spring.

But their best memories were of the water itself. Cold and inviting, mysterious and exciting, there was no comparison to the city pool in nearby Lakeland. They plunged down Kissengen's steep slide into springwater that bubbled up from the Floridan Aquifer at the rate of 20 million gallons a day. Their cannonballs sent ripples 200 feet around them to the edge of the spring pool. They leaped from the dizzying wooden high-dive, framed by tall oaks and thick Spanish moss. It was a picture straight out of the old Tarzan movies.

Those movies were filmed here in Florida, to the north at Silver Springs, which remains the largest freshwater springs in the state. Of Kissengen, all that remains are black-and-white photographs snapped by carefree locals with no idea they were documenting a grand finale.

Kissengen went dry in 1950, the simple effect of too much groundwater pumping. Last month, Polk County and the state of Florida erected a marker to honor its history, which includes a rally for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's re-election campaign that drew thousands to the spring in 1936.

Tom Muir, curator of the Polk County Historical Museum in the old silver-domed courthouse in downtown Bartow, asked if I would give the dedication speech. I'd written a book about Florida's vanishing water that talked about Kissengen, so I was happy to accept the assignment. But it turned out to be a difficult one — a bit too close to my first job in journalism, which was writing obituaries.

I don't believe it's time to write the obituary for Kissengen Spring. Nor the Everglades, the Suwannee River or any other diminishing waters. I want to think more about water's future than water's past. And so, one Saturday morning before the speech, I brought the future to Kissengen's dead spring pool.

My son and daughter, sixth-generation Floridians, are only 9 and 7. But they are frequent fliers over the springs of Florida, just as the Polk County elders were in childhood. They fly in the same ways — by cannonball, by slide and by high-dive — and also on some newfangled contraptions called ziplines. But to them, nothing beats a thick, hanging tree vine to swing through the air and splash into a river or a spring — straight out of the old Tarzan movies.

Charles Cook, a biologist with the Department of Environmental Protection, led us into the basin — a hike through weeds so high he needed his machete to cut a path. Nature long ago reclaimed the long dock, pair of slides and dive platform. My kids were excited to find part of the berm that surrounded the spring, and some concrete steps that once descended into the pool.

But to my chagrin, their foremost emotion was to whine about the scratchy midday heat and weeds.

They complained. They inquired when we could leave. They complained some more.

Then, suddenly, they stopped. They had found some thick, hanging tree vines to swing through the air.

As always happens when children and nature connect, their mood changed like magic. But mine was wistful. Watching my daughter and son fly on those vines over parched ground — no spring to plunge into, no cold water to splash on flushed faces — I figured out what to say at the marker unveiling.

Kissengen was the first major spring in Florida dewatered by human activity. But it was not the last. In Hamilton County near the Georgia border, the town of White Springs was a spa and resort destination in the 1920s. Groundwater withdrawals dried out its stunning first-magnitude basin in the early '70s. Fenholloway Spring in Taylor County, bottled as "Fenholloway Sulphur Water" from the 1930s through 1954, also has turned to weeds. Another Taylor County spring called Hampton was home to the Hampton Spring Resort with 60 guest rooms. That spring rarely flows now. This is also the fate of Convict Spring in Lafayette County; Hornsby Spring in Alachua County; Royal Spring in Suwannee County.

In Union County, the town of Worthington Springs was once known for a walled respite by the same name, where women gathered for special "ladies only" swims. Today, all that remains is a small, stagnant caldron of algae. Few ladies — or gentlemen — would venture near.

Scientists predict the next name on this list of the fallen might be Suwannee Springs, just north of Interstate 10, site of a beautiful, ghostly spring house built of local limestone in the 1800s. Up in Suwannee County, another group of Floridians who enjoyed this spring in childhood is trying to preserve the architectural history. Perhaps they, too, will someday dedicate a marker to a spring that is no more.

But I hope not.

I'll make a U-turn to read a historical marker, and I understand the value in Kissengen's; I've talked to people who lived in Polk County 20 years and never heard of the spring. I like standing where Hernando DeSoto allegedly landed, or knowing what hurricane it was, what year it was, that brought a wave so high a county seat disappeared. I appreciate being able to show the kids where emancipated slaves built a school or founded a beachfront town.

All of that feels like the natural ebb and flow of history: Seventeenth-century conquerors fall and eighteenth-century boomtowns disappear and so, finally, did slavery. All inevitable, all profound narratives to record in the history books, dedicate the roadside markers, pass on to future generations.

But as Florida places this marker, let's acknowledge that water is different. Water gives Florida its life and its definition. These losses are not inevitable. Without question, we can stop them. We may even be able to reverse them. As a former symbol of our state's water bounty, and as the first major omen of its water limits, Kissengen Spring is the place to start.

Several years ago, a professional geologist from Polk County named Tom Jackson, who worked for the Southwest Florida Water Management District, shared with me his dream that Kissengen could flow again. His proposal was compelling and convincing. To pull it off would mean considerable reductions in the region's groundwater pumping. But nearby Tampa Bay had achieved just those sorts of reductions in less than a generation — while growing its population and economy.

The Peace River region is already well on its way to reversing the damage that dried up Kissengen. Over the past 20 years, the phosphate and agriculture sectors, two of the largest water users in the area, have made remarkable strides. In 1970, the phosphate industry withdrew 3,475 gallons of water for every one ton of phosphate rock produced. In 1990, it pumped 1,200 gallons of water for every ton of phosphate. Today, the industry requires about 600 gallons for every ton — benefitting our water resources and the mining companies' bottom lines.

Water demand is falling similarly across most industrial, agricultural and residential sectors. Last year, I took a sabbatical from Florida Trend to report on such successes around the country and the world for my new book, Blue Revolution. Here in Florida and all over the planet, people are learning to live — and live quite well — with far less water. Many farming operations have cut water use in half. Major metro areas have cut water use in half. Rainwater catchment and reuse are in vogue as people figure out that pouring drinkable water on lawns is simply not worth the price of a lost river or spring.

Tom Jackson died in 2009 at age 61, still fully optimistic in his views about Kissengen. He was ever-more convinced after 2006, when scientists watched a dry sinkhole next to the former spring slowly fill with water and begin to flow. They attribute the quenching to continued pumping reductions, and the back-to-back hurricanes that washed over Florida in 2004.

In Jackson's memory, I end with a challenge — not just to the people of Polk County, but to all Floridians: Let's make this historical marker the first in the state that has to be removed — or at least corrected — because Floridians came together and decided to change history.

More than to the past, our obligation is to the future. It is to preserve and restore Florida's water abundance — along with some of the same, wet-Tarzan jungles that our elders enjoyed in youth — for future generations.

Our call, at this moment, is not to record the history of lost water for our children and grandchildren. It is to leave the water for them.

Cynthia Barnett is senior writer at Florida Trend magazine and author of the new book "Blue Revolution: Unmaking America's Water Crisis." She'll discuss the book and sign copies at Tampa's Inkwood Books at 7 p.m. Oct. 6. This essay is adapted from Barnett's speech at the Kissengen Spring historical marker dedication ceremony Aug. 25.

Hope lives, even as marker notes Polk's Kissengen Springs, dry since 1950 09/24/11 [Last modified: Sunday, September 25, 2011 12:21am]
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