Nature slip-siding away for Suwannee River, Florida

Published May 14, 2012

My favorite snapshot of childhood captures joy and triumph. The boy's back is to the camera, to his parents, to a long moment of indecision: "I want to do it, but I don't know if I can! Mom, do you think I can? Dad, do you think I should?"

Yes, and yes. I snapped the photo as he let go of the rope swing and stretched his arms to meet the Suwannee River.

For years, our family and a bunch of other moms, dads and children have celebrated Mother's Day with a canoe trip we call "Rope Swings" down a kid-friendly section of the gentle Suwannee. Talk about Florida attractions. One year, I tallied them in my reporter's notebook: Countless sandbars and beaches for swimming and for mud pies. Three thrill-ride-quality rope swings. One wolf spider guarding its nest of babies. Dozens of river turtles. One gopher tortoise. Hundreds of fish and birds, from an owl to a pair of swallow-tailed kites. One cave, a limestone labyrinth big enough for kids to walk through — a hike in the aquifer.

The cave beach is our favorite stop, for the hike, the culture (one carload of teenagers from Georgia, one grandma in a Confederate-flag bikini), and the many launch pads — bluffs, tree limbs, the granddaddy rope swing hanging from a granddaddy oak. Known as "Five Holes," this is everyone else's favorite, too. People come by canoe or kayak, motorboat or car, to watch aerial athletics: Teenagers flip; dads defy gravity for a second before a big splash; the smallest bodies swing into the sky with fragile grace, my son in the snapshot.

Apparently, we've all loved this place too much. Planning this year's trip, I learned that Five Holes has been shut down to the public. On the landside, no hiking in the limestone, no parking for the teenagers. On the waterside, no swimming and no swinging.

The rope has been severed from the oak with a pole saw. Suwannee River State Park manager Craig Liney sympathized with me when he explained the "multi-agency decision," and I with him. The big swing was dangerous; law-enforcement agencies wanted it gone. The parking was "unofficial," along with everything else about Five Holes. The Florida Department of Health, for example, won't allow a public swimming area without visibility of at least 4 feet. And finally, state scientists say all the scrambling up and down the banks, and in and out of the limestone, is putting too much stress on the iconic river and all-important Floridan Aquifer, source of freshwater for Florida's people, industry and ecosystems.

It's just the sort of reasoned, multi-agency protection our groundwater, rivers and springs deserve. But as I set about finding a new Mother's Day adventure, the evidence that Florida's freshwaters aren't getting that protection was clear as the springs used to be. And I found myself wishing that the state might direct the same vigilance to utilities and agriculture — the two major users of freshwater in Florida — as to river-loving families.

We couldn't head to one former favorite, Gold Head Branch State Park to the east, for the lovely lakeside cabins, bathhouses and pavilions built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s now surround a bone-dry lakebed.

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To the west, strike out another past prize, Wakulla Springs south of Tallahassee. The deepest freshwater spring in the world has darkened and become so choked with algae the glass-bottomed boats rarely run anymore. Scientists say human sewage is primarily to blame.

We could join the flotillas on the Ichetucknee, and perhaps we should while we still can: The pane-clear river has lost 25 percent of its flow in the past 50 years. Scientists blame excessive groundwater pumping in northeast Florida and south Georgia.

Across the state, our freshwaters are under unprecedented stress from two well-understood threats: overuse, and pollution. The solutions are also well understood. Swift as a pole saw through braided rope, we could cut the groundwater extractions helping to dry up dozens of inland lakes and springs. And just as the Department of Health protects us from swimming in water with poor visibility, it could defend us against the nitrate pollution spoiling the springs.

Here's what happens instead: The Legislature passed a bill this year that reorganizes the Department of Health to streamline its duties and eliminate requirements that septic tanks be inspected every five years to ensure they're not leaking nitrates.

The multi-agency response to groundwater over-pumping looks like this: St. Johns River water managers in 2011 approved a new permit for Jacksonville's water utility to extract up to 163 million gallons a day – over the objections of Suwannee River water managers who said Jacksonville's withdrawals already present a "continued threat" to the rivers and springs in their district.

Meanwhile, as they watch that threat grow, Suwannee water managers have declined to meter all agricultural water use in their own district. The first step to conservation is figuring out how much everyone's using. But it's not as easy as it sounds when the chairman of the Suwannee River Water Management District Board is also president of the Florida Cattlemen's Association.

Like many agricultural operations, cattle and water require a delicate balance because the industry pumps as well as pollutes. Now before the St. Johns district is a 13-million-gallon-a-day groundwater application from Adena Springs Ranch, a 30,000-acre, grass-fed cattle operation that Canadian billionaire Frank Stronach plans for Marion County. (The entire city of Ocala pumps 12 million gallons a day.) Some scientists worry the withdrawal will harm Florida's famous Silver Springs. Stronach has hired water lawyer Ed de la Parte, who's responded to concerns about dwindling wells, springs and rivers with assurances familiar to anyone who lived through the Tampa Bay Water wars he helped litigate: The current declines are part of Florida's natural drought cycle. Prodigious rains will return; they always have.

The reality is that many computer-climate models show a long-term drying trend for Florida. But the models remain uncertain enough that scientists cannot say whether this year's arid spring will become tomorrow's arid future.

Rather than fight over the last available drops, the wisest way forward would be to work together to use less water and create less pollution.

Our failure to think long-term about Florida's freshwater legacy is a lot like our inability to analyze the risk versus reward of letting children be children in nature. If you think swinging on a rope or swimming in a tea-brown river is risky, consider U.S. childhood obesity, attention-deficit and depression statistics.

Whether by the intended severing of a rope swing, or the unintended ruin of a local spring, when we separate children from their natural waters, we undermine not only their individual healthy development — but the adaptability and resilience of an entire generation.

The future is going to need those traits.

Cynthia Barnett is the author of "Blue Revolution: Unmaking America's Water Crisis" and "Mirage: Florida and the Vanishing Water of the Eastern U.S."