Column: Progress in protecting our water resources

Published December 12 2016

Editor's note: Bob Mercer, vice president of the board of directors of Save Crystal River, a nonprofit dedicated the preservation of natural resources, responds to "Springs in peril," the Dec. 5 column by Bob Knight, director of the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute.

Bob Knight got one thing right: We have an impending water supply crisis we need to address. But he suggests the Florida Legislature and agencies have done little to solve the problem. This is simply not the case. In addition to data collection, agencies have identified and prioritized issues and potential solutions that impact spring flow and water quality.

We agree water demand is a factor. But weather patterns are ultimately responsible for aquifer and spring recharge. In dry cycles, spring flow is decreased. In wet cycles, it's increased. But weather patterns are changing and we need to manage to accommodate them.

In attributing reduced flows strictly to demand, Knight ignores the latest U.S. Geological Survey thinking that includes consideration of tidal effects. Sinkholes are another factor. For example, we know that a sinkhole 20 years ago may have caused a drop in the flow of King Springs. Save Crystal River Inc. has removed many cubic feet of material out of spring vents. In fact, we opened up some 70 small spring vents in the process.

Another common cause of spring flow reduction is the high water table. It is relatively easy to dig into the water table, diverting water from underground into the excavation. Recently, a contractor for the Florida Department of Transportation was doing routine maintenance to a retention pond when he hit the water table filling the retention pond with what was previously underground flow.

Agencies have data. And we've used it. For example:

• Crystal River eliminated a spray field and now pipes reclaimed water to provide 710,000 gallons per day of cooling and cleaning water to Duke Energy.

• Hundreds of septic systems and several antiquated package plants near Kings Bay and Crystal River have been removed. This wastewater will be part of a central sewer system, adding to the quantity of reclaimed water available for use. This protects the environment and reduces demand for potable water.

• The Three Sisters Wetland Treatment System will remove an estimated 423 pounds of nitrogen per year from Kings Bay.

• The Southwest Florida Water Management District has completed a Surface Water Improvement and Management, or SWIM, plan that provides a list of projects to address water quality, water quantity and natural system improvements.

• The Florida Department of Environmental Protection has completed a Basin Management Action Plan that indicated management actions necessary to improve Kings Bay water quality.

• Save Crystal River has spearheaded a sediment removal and replanting project that is being done in cooperation with Swiftmud. It will have a major long-term effect on water clarity and quality by removing over 30 years of detritus from the bottom. We've seen oxygen levels increase along with many species of fish and other organisms.

• Citrus County's recent adoption of more stringent fertilizer use was one of the recommendations in the SWIM plan. And several of our golf courses now use reclaimed water, which reduces the need for potable water irrigation and fertilizer impacts to our waters.

• Many members of the Citrus County Agricultural Alliance are establishing best management practices.

We have a road map and we are implementing it as funding becomes available.

One more thing. Salinity also affects sea grass health. This year, Hurricane Hermine drove the salinity in the Hunter Springs up for about 24 hours. This killed invasive hydrilla and water hyacinth. Our sea grass planting pilot study and Swiftmud's three test plots were also affected. But our genetically modified "Rockstar" sea grass is very resilient and coming back. We've learned from this and have modified our planting to include Salty Dog eelgrass, which is even more salt tolerant.

The fact is, the project has been successful, although we are still learning and will continue to learn. The Legislature and DEP have provided funding for the past year and are expected to provide funding for the upcoming projects. The Kings Bay Restoration Project is recognized statewide as a model for public/private partnerships, which includes the city, Citrus County, Swiftmud and DEP. We hope to be as successful as the Tampa Bay Estuary program has been.

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