Florida's ailing springs subject of clash over how much water to divert for development

A manatee swims near the entrance to Three Sisters Springs on Kings Bay.
A manatee swims near the entrance to Three Sisters Springs on Kings Bay.
Published May 24, 2017

BROOKSVILLE — All over Florida, clashes are erupting over how much water can be diverted from the state's springs to keep development going. The latest battleground was Tuesday's meeting of the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

Despite opposition from more than 30 speakers, the water district's board voted 9-1 to allow the flow of Crystal River and the 70 springs that make up Kings Bay to be cut by up to 11 percent.

The agency's staff believes it can increase the pumping of groundwater to cut the flow by that much without causing "significant damage" to the environment. Of particular concern in Crystal River and Kings Bay: the ecosystem is home to hundreds of manatees that seek refuge in the bay.

A 2016 state law has pushed Swiftmud and the other water districts around the state to set "minimum flows" for Florida's iconic springs before July 1. But each time, springs advocates, environmental activists and neighbors of the springs have contended that the springs are already too impaired to allow any more water to be diverted to development.

During Tuesday's meeting, opponents of Swiftmud's 11 percent proposal talked about how Kings Bay and Crystal River have already seen a steep drop in their flow, and how that has fueled an increase in pollution and toxic algae blooms.

"If we had water quality and quantity like we did in the 1970s, we wouldn't have any concerns," said Art Jones, who has spearheaded a community effort to clean the algae bloom. But the bay's flow has declined so much since then that it can be hard to see more than 2 feet underwater, he said.

Several residents said that so much groundwater pumping is going on because of the area's development that the amount of salt in the river has risen to a noticeable level. They talked of finding saltwater barnacles on their boats, and seeing saltwater fish in what had been a freshwater estuary.

So far, most of the minimum flows that have been adopted have been unpopular. The new minimum set for Silver Springs is the subject of a legal challenge, and a similar suit is under consideration for Rainbow Springs.

Tuesday's vote on Crystal River and Kings Bay could lead to a court challenge, too.

"I think it should be challenged," said Brad Rimbey, an engineer from Homosassa who is vice president of the Florida Springs Council. "To me, an 11 percent reduction is just outrageous."

A century ago Florida's gin-clear springs drew presidents, millionaires and tourists galore who sought to cure their ailments by bathing in the healing cascades. Now the springs tell the story of a hidden sickness: They are plagued by pollution, toxic algae blooms, a loss of flow and an increase in saltiness.

Floridians each use 158 gallons of water a day, about 50 more than the national average. The state's agricultural industry draws more water out of the ground for irrigation than any state east of the Mississippi. As a result, from 1970 to 1995, withdrawals from the aquifer increased more than 50 percent. By 2005, it hit 4.2 billion gallons a day.

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As pumping grew, the flow from many springs fell. In 2006, one of the state's most powerful ones, Spring Creek Springs near Tallahassee, abruptly reversed its flow. It has never recovered.

To set the minimum flow for Kings Bay and Crystal River, the Swiftmud staff used computer modeling to figure out what those waterways could handle, then submitted it to a scientific peer review process. The peer review found that Swiftmud's approach was "thorough, scientifically reasonable and based on the best available data."

But Bob Knight, executive director of the Florida Springs Institute, said Swiftmud's computer model ignored the damage that's already been done by Swiftmud allowing groundwater pumping in that area to grow by 140 percent from the 1960s to 2010s, from 401 to 965 million gallons a day.

He also contended the agency ignored 20 years of springs flow observations by the U.S. Geological Survey, recorded before the start of major pumping of the aquifer, instead basing its findings on more recent, lower flows.

Swiftmud staffers said the earlier, higher flow measurements resulted from a faulty monitor that failed to account for wave and tidal action. Its numbers were not considered scientifically plausible, they said.

Governing board member John Henslick said the agency had to follow what its staff said was sound science.

"What do we go with if we reject science?" he said.

"Common sense!" shouted several people in the audience.

Contact Craig Pittman at Follow @craigtimes.