It is easy to understand why the homeowners around Big Blue Spring in Citrus County are upset that their dam has come down. After all, for more than 20 years, the artificial dam across the spring exit to the Withlacoochee River has provided them a clean, clear, spring-fed swimming hole and a very effective barrier against outsiders. Cloistered behind the 25-foot-thick dirt dike, they enjoyed beauty and tranquility in rare privacy.
Now, because someone or something has breached the dike, they fear that great hordes of people will come in, strew beer cans, stir up the silt and destroy their peaceful nook _ and they may well be correct.
Still, in all likelihood, Big Blue Spring will remain accessible to the public _ and that is only as it should be.
On Wednesday, an official with the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) reiterated the initial position taken by his agency in March, shortly after the dam was split: Now that it's happened, let it be.
Because the dam was built before laws were made to regulate the closure of a spring, no one could go in and destroy it any more than they could destroy filled wetlands where someone had built a home. Now that it's gone, however, current state laws prevail and the whole situation changes.
The final decision whether to keep Big Blue Spring open will be made by the governor and the Cabinet, probably in late August or September, said Bill Torres, field officer for DNR in Tampa.
Although residents have applied to reclose the dam, and DNR is analyzing the pros and cons, past instances indicate they have little chance of being successful.
Four years ago, the family who owned the 7,500 acres around Gum Slough, further up the Withlacoochee from Big Blue Spring, decided they would bar the public from their pristine stream. They pulled a cable across the entrance and chopped down trees to discourage what they called "trespassers."
Some of the same people fighting to keep Big Blue Spring open fought to keep Gum Slough open. They caught the attention of a DNR attorney, and he eventually prevailed in the Florida Supreme Court.
In May 1986, the court ruled that land under navigable waters belongs to the public. All the state has to do to keep Big Blue Spring open now is to show that the spring is big enough for someone _ trappers, Indians, loggers _ to have used it for commercial purposes in 1845. Observers say that the water is wide and deep enough for a canoe, so proving it was navigable back then should be easy.
What Big Blue Spring residents should be doing now is resolving themselves to make the best of it.
They can begin by calling a halt to the shoreline heckling of people who come inside the enclave to take a dip. Once the property owners have posted signs that their land is private and off limits, they have no right to stand and bait people who venture in to enjoy a dip in the water.
The residents, of course, do have a right to report spring users who trash the area or disturb the peace, just as spring users have a right to report property owners who threaten them.
The important point to note in this controversy is that, except in very unusual circumstances, Florida waterways belong to the public. Homeowners can pay extra to enjoy a nice view, but that doesn't give them a right to bar other residents from enjoying the water itself.
Residents of Big Blue Spring have had the unique experience of having a beautiful piece of Florida all to themselves for more than two decades. They should be grateful for that time and now quietly accept the fact that those idyllic times are in the past.