North Florida's nature photographer laureate, John Moran, said it best when he paraphrased author Mark Twain: "The mightiest river in Florida is the River of Denial that flows through Tallahassee." Under tight control from the capital, the Southwest Florida Water Management District is telling us that the springs that feed Kings Bay and Crystal River on Florida's Nature Coast in Citrus County have more flow than they need to be healthy. But I ask: When was the last time those springs looked healthy to you?
When I first boated and swam at Tarpon Hole in 1977, the water was crystal clear. The bottom of the spring was visible in 65 feet of water. When the Florida Springs Institute completed the Kings Bay Phytoremediation Demonstration Project last year, we were lucky to see the bottom in areas with only 6 feet of water.
Not only is water clarity in Kings Bay almost entirely gone, so are the eelgrass and other native plants that historically covered the bottom of the bay. Those plants were the natural salad bar that supported large populations of game fish and manatees that are foundational for the region's tourism economy.
The Kings Bay aquatic ecosystem is not healthy. In fact, it is just one of many severely impaired water bodies in coastal Florida. Nutrients and salinity are on the rise and water clarity is in free fall. The plant community is now dominated by algae, both free-floating planktonic and filamentous benthic species that cover the sediments. The noxious blue green alga, Lyngbya, regrows almost as fast as the Rotary Club can rake and haul it out of the bay.
Repeated efforts to dredge the benthic algae and to replant eelgrass at great public cost have failed due to rising salinity in the groundwater coming from the springs, as well as from gulf storms. The Southwest Florida Water Management District has spent millions to fix Kings Bay's problems, yet the bay continues to degrade despite a plethora of additional plans and studies.
The latest insult to those who treasure Crystal River's springs is the district's draft plan to establish minimum flows. The 1972 Florida Water Resources Act required the adoption of minimum flows for the 70-plus springs feeding Kings Bay. After 44 years of injurious delay and inaction, the Water Management District has somehow concluded that an additional 12 percent decline in flows at Kings Bay/Crystal River will not cause "significant harm." This claim, brought to you at great expense by district staff and paid consultants, rings as true as recent promises by presidential candidates. Political science is the art of coercing real scientists to defend decisions being made in Tallahassee.
The U.S. Geological Survey, the most respected hydrological agency in the world, reported that the average natural historic flows of the Kings Bay/Crystal River springs system were between 916 and 975 cubic feet per second (between 592 and 630 million gallons per day). More recent measurements document that the average spring flow during the past decade has plummeted to 389 cubic feet per second (251 million gallons per day), a greater than 58 percent decline.
This well-documented flow decline at the Kings Bay/Crystal River springs is validated by the concurrent reduction in water clarity caused by free-floating, planktonic algae. These microscopic plants have more time to multiply in a stagnant water environment resulting from drastically reduced flows, and their growth is fueled by rising spring nutrients and saltwater intrusion.
The principal underlying cause of the observed flow decline, saltwater intrusion and elevated nutrient concentrations at Kings Bay/Crystal River is excessive urban and agricultural development. The only way to reverse the algae problems and restore water clarity in Kings Bay is to dial back groundwater pumping and fertilizer use throughout the Southwest Florida Water Management District.
The Crystal River springs are silent. You must be their voice if you want to see them and the entire Kings Bay ecosystem restored to health. We want Crystal River to be clear again, starting with a district-wide reduction of permitted groundwater pumping.
Remember Mark Twain's other famous words: "Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting over!"
Bob Knight is director of the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute. To learn more about restoring the Kings Bay/Crystal River Springs System, visit the institute's website at www.floridaspringsinstitute.org and visit the North Florida Springs Environmental Center in High Springs.