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Surviving a Florida summer requires a dip in the springs

The Wildlife Forecast

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Media contact: Patricia Behnke, 850-251-2130

Florida's Paleo-Indians believed sacred water filled the springs and the magical waters held the cure to all human ills. The Timucuans roamed the shores of the spring-fed rivers of North Florida and settled there for the life-sustaining food and water the springs provided. Spanish explorers thought they had discovered the elixir for perpetual youth when they stumbled upon the crystal clear gems while exploring Florida. In the recent past, the springs have served as the backdrop for baptisms, weddings, vacation get-aways and reunions. Today, many of them are state parks and remain intertwined with our lives.

But even before the Timucuans roamed North Florida, wildlife depended upon the springs. Gar, bowfin and sturgeon - ancient living fossils - still inhabit the waters of the springs and river runs. The springs environment hosts species found nowhere else in the world. Blind cave crayfish, blind cave shrimps and other specialized cave- dwelling crustaceans are highly dependent on the system. Fish, such as American eels and catfish, take refuge in underwater caves, and striped bass seek out cooler waters of springs to escape the heat of summer river waters in Florida. The visible wildlife using spring systems - from great blue herons to deer - depend upon the ecosystem's delicate balance of all creatures living there.

The vegetation, the consistent temperature, the chemical makeup of the water and abundant sunshine provide sanctuary to one of the most biologically diverse and productive ecosystems in the world. To prevent the springs from disappearing as did the Timucuans, we need to conserve them because according to experts, our springs are in trouble.

On top of it all, some predictive models show that climate change means less rain for Florida, despite an increase in the intensity of storms.

"Less rainfall will have a direct impact on already-stressed springs by reducing average annual flow," said Kent Smith, a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) biologist who was the agency's representative to the governor's springs task force and continues to work on the interagency committee that is implementing that group's work. "The drier climate will affect the recharge of the springs, reducing the flow and increasing the concentration of nitrates because of a reduction in discharge volume."

Jim Stevenson, a retired chief biologist with Florida's Department of Environmental Protection and now coordinating the Wakulla and Ichetucknee Springs Basin Working Groups, sees the current situation with the springs as a two-fold problem.

"There are two major things that impact the health of the springs: the quantity of spring flow and quality of the water," he said. "The U.S. Geological Survey has said that the Ichetucknee's flow is down 15 percent. Hornsby Springs on the Santa Fe River is a first magnitude spring, and there are times it doesn't flow."

And then there's Fanning Springs on the Suwannee River near Chiefland, which Stevenson calls the "poster child for spring degradation."

"Fanning Springs may not even be a first magnitude spring anymore," Stevenson said.

"Human activities have led to an increase in nitrates in the springs and watershed areas," Smith said. "Those activities include maintaining the perfect lawn and gardens in our own yards."

If we live in a spring recharge area, we play a part in the health of the springs and ultimately the water we drink from the Floridan aquifer.

"We've been sloppy housekeepers of the springs, messing them up with fertilizer and endless irrigation," Stevenson said. "Individuals must stop treating water as if it's free and limitless."

This is the perfect time to do all we can to take responsibility for our springs and give them the perpetual life Ponce de Leon thought he had discovered. We can start by looking at our lawns and gardens and become better housekeepers for the water, for our wildlife and ultimately for ourselves.

The Suwannee River Water Management District provides nine tips to creating a Florida yard that will lessen our water usage and eliminate the need for pesticides on our grass, plants and shrubs. Go to www.swfwmd.state.fl.us/yards to find out about planting the right plants in the right place, using mulch and much, much more. Another great site on smart landscaping can be found at FloridaYards.org.

So instead of watering your lawn and adding pesticides to your plants, go dive into one of the many springs still flowing and enjoy the best thing about a Florida summer. Be sure to marvel at the abundant wildlife in our midst, just as the Native Americans once did.



FWC Facts:
Breeding season for Florida black bears is summer, with the peak occurring from about mid-June through July.

Learn More at AskFWC