Two years ago, Tom Ries came upon a forgotten artesian spring that once provided water for Tampa.
"I poked around and pushed through shrubs and Brazilian pepper trees and saw clear water," said Ries, director of Ecosphere Restoration Institute, a nonprofit group specializing in environmental restoration. Ries followed the flow piped underground to the nearby Hillsborough River. There, he saw a manatee that had also found the freshwater source. Ries figured he could do better with Ulele Spring.
It is said that there are a thousand freshwater springs in Florida, more than anywhere else. These springs have drawn people since the days when we shared them with mammoths and mastodons.
Soldiers who settled in Tampa in 1824 carried water from Government Spring to Fort Brooke. Today that spring is gone. Gone, too, are Craft Springs along Six Mile Creek and one nearby that drew vacationers to cabins along the shore.
Palma Ceia Spring supplied a popular swimming pool overlooking Bayshore Boulevard throughout the early 1900s. Today, the spring flows in Fred Ball Park.
Across the state, people have tried to revive springs, fighting against an ever-growing population sucking water from the aquifer.
Gov. Rick Scott recently reinstated funding to conserve springs, but for many it's too late. They have shriveled up.
Ulele is named for a mythical Florida Indian princess who saved the life of a Spanish explorer, much like Pocahontas. It will soon be a gem within the city's Water Works Park. The Tampa Riverwalk wraps alongside the park and ends at the spring. Two bridges will span the flow to the river so visitors can gaze into the clear water.
Ries has worked for two years to restore the 1.2-acre spring, marsh and wetland. A third basin, closest to the river, will allow manatees and fish to come into the freshwater. Workers are aiming to take down the sea wall by the end of March. Ries cobbled together $676,000 to restore Ulele, including money from the Southwest Florida Water Management District, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the city of Tampa.
Active springs are rare, Ries said. "To have them dry up is a shame."
• • •
Jeff Hough pointed to a grassy green span recently.
Maybe there in that low area?
Government Spring once gurgled up here, under the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway.
Cars sped by overhead. Across from the grassy space sits Delmar Automotive, at 1318 Channelside Drive. Its walls are painted with palm trees and clouds.
The spring was once a destination for American Indians and a shrine to the Timuquan water gods, according to A Guide to Historic Tampa by Steve Rajtar.
Then, soldiers loaded water onto a wagon for the military post, the first modern settlement in Tampa.
Zachary Taylor camped here on the shores, said Hough, a geographic information systems analyst for the city of Tampa, who also has a degree in history. He overlaid current Tampa maps on a survey done by John Jackson in 1849. This is how he found the spot where the water had flowed from Government Spring.
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In 1896, Florida Brewing Company founded the state's first brewery here, and the spring became the source of La Tropical Beer.
Hough has counted 34 springs in Hillsborough County. There's a cluster near Sulphur Springs and about five just west of Orient Road.
Some are so tiny they aren't on any map.
• • •
Local lore tells of springs that once bubbled up in yards across South Tampa neighborhoods.
Early settlers wrote of Spanish Town Spring, where Indians traded with Cubans who came by boat somewhere along Tampa Bay.
Sulphur Springs became popular in the late 1800s. Tampa's streetcar line stretched to the springs, its northernmost point. But high bacteria counts closed the spring in 1986, replaced by a pool unconnected to the spring. A 2004 report found the spring polluted and too far gone to restore.
A wall around Palma Ceia Spring is inscribed with the date 1906. The spring fed two man-made pools here. The first was built in 1928 and was enlarged in the early 1940s. Then in the 1950s, the spring flow lessened and the park became rundown. The pool was covered over. In 1988, the park was renovated and a fountain added to the center of the spring.
Water that flowed from these springs and now from our faucets comes from the Green Swamp, the headwaters of four Florida rivers, including the Hillsborough.
Water in the swamp is pressurized, which pushes it toward our springs and out through karst, or porous limestone, said Sonny Vergara, former director of the Southwest Florida Water Management District.
Vergara envisions it like a sponge made of hard or soft limestone.
The problem, he said, is that "everybody's pumping from the same tub. There's too much societal dependence on the water."
He says politicians should leave oversight of the remaining springs to the state's five water management districts. But he said the springs that are gone are gone for good.
"Probably. Sadly. Probably."
If people had to carry water in 5-gallon buckets to use, they would look at water use differently, said Ries, the restorer of ecosystems. Somehow in people's minds the flow from springs has been separated from the flow from faucets.
Consider downtown Tampa's man-made fountains, including one at popular Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park.
Meanwhile, for years, natural springs have been covered over and abandoned.
"No one's looking to capitalize on what's there," Ries said.
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this story. Elisabeth Parker can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3431.