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2012 proves rollercoaster ride for resources

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— A recap of some of the area’s most pressing environmental issues of the year

By Mark Scohier, Staff writer

The last year has seen its ups and downs in terms of the environment in Levy County.

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The year started out in a drought, with water levels in area lakes rivers and wells breaking records for all-time lows. Weeks before the new year, a popular annual lighted Christmas boat parade on the Suwannee River  was cancelled because of lack of flow, and area fire departments braced for a busy wildfire season due to the lack of rain.

Still, despite low water levels, tourists came in droves shortly before the year closed, setting record attendance levels for state parks throughout Florida and in Levy County.

“This time of year, everyone wants to see the manatees,” said Larry Steed, manager for Fanning and Manatee springs state parks last December.

The drought continued on into February, though agriculturists at that time said it was still too early for it to have much affect on farmers in the area, who were able to get by using spray pivots to water crops.

The Suwannee River Water management District reported then that record low levels occurred at 48 upper Floridan Aquifer monitoring wells, with all-time lows at another 12 wells. 

February was also the time that the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, SRWMD and the St. Johns River Water Management District,  in a united effort with water stakeholders called the North Florida Regional Water Supply Partnership, began to have meetings throughout North Florida in what was claimed to be a method for addressing water concerns.

Ann Shortelle, then-water policy director for FDEP, told an audience of about 150 people packed into Alachua City Hall at the first official meeting that water needed to be clean, plentiful and cheap.

“It’s not easy to balance these needs in a drought, and I think we are all feeling those needs currently.”

Shortelle would a few months later become director of SRWMD as then-Director David Still, following in the footsteps of three other water district chiefs at that time, resigned from the position in the wake of residents who were "mad as hell" about the looming water crisis. Environmentalists claimed the water management districts were being shaken up by Gov. Rick Scott. in an effort to sell off Florida's water.

Two weeks after its first meeting, the relatively new water partnership came before the Levy County Commission. John Dinges, a SRWMD representative, said the goal of the collaboration was to share data and resources in an attempt to streamline the process of identifying and solving the key issues.

An audience member at that meeting asked Dinges if the water management districts ever say no to handing out water permits. Dinges said the districts do have "criteria for regulating consumptive water use," but, he added, it has to be shown that withdrawal in a specific case would do harm.

By the end of the February, experts at the University of Florida held a meeting in Cedar Key stating that the lack of fresh water coming out of the Suwannee River was responsible for a 66 percent decline on oyster populations in Cedar Key and the Big Bend Area. Later in the year, state officials were reporting huge collapses of oyster colonies in the area because of high salinity levels, warm temperatures and parasites. The story made national headlines.

In March, a bit of good news hit the area when a boat-wounded manatee was rescued from Fanning Springs and sent to Sea World to be rehabilitated. Seven month later, Bolt, so named because of the shape of the scar on his back, was released into the Suwannee River near Old Town. Bolt had gained about 200 pounds while at Sea World.

That same month, the University of Florida began a two-year study of sea level rise for the county to determine ways to deal with inevitability that is projected to change the Nature Coast in years to come. Climate change, along with having an effect on rainfall patterns, is expected to cause a 32-inch rise in seas for the area by the end of the century. The change will affect homes, city infrastructures, businesses, tourism, the ecology and the fragile makeup of the Floridan aquifer throughout the state.

In April, the severe drought hit home when Bronson Blue Springs quit flowing for the first time on record.

"It's in sad shape," said Levy County Parks and Recreation Director Matt Weldon back then. "It's the lowest it's ever been. Nobody we've talked to, old-timer wise, has ever seen it this low."

A few days later, witnesses saw river water backing into Fanning Springs, a sign that the spring, at least temporarily, had quit pumping fresh water from its vent. The 14-county water district at that time reported a rainfall deficit of about 16 inches. Several other are springs also reported low levels. Residents began reporting that their wells were running dry.

The water district blamed the lack of rain, but environmentalists said the problem was exacerbated by heavy groundwater withdrawal.

Florida is known to undergo periods of drought every few years. Still, data from both SRWMD and the Florida Geological Society, taking drought years into account, showed groundwater levels in the area trending downward since the middle of the 20th Century, suggesting increased withdrawal was, and is, having an affect.

By early May, the lack of groundwater started producing sinkholes in the area, as well as throughout the state. Still, SRWMD, a few days later, handed out yet another million-gallon-per-day-plus water permit, bringing the total of big agricultural permits from the few months prior to about 8 million gallons of water per day. The City of Chiefland, in comparison, is permitted to use 1.94 million gallons per day.

Later that month, the district issued a phase III water shortage order to take place the next month that applied to residential and agricultural water users, limiting the days and times one could irrigate. Farmers practicing aspects of Best Management Practices were exempt from the restrictions. 

By June, low groundwater levels hit Cedar Key, causing the city's well field to be plagued by saltwater intrusion and tasking federal, state and local officials to come up with a solution to the problem. 

"This problem will not get better," said David Beach, area water board chairman, at an emergency meeting. " It will get worse, unless it starts raining 40 days and 40 nights and you dam up the Suwannee River."

By the end of June, Tropical Storms Beryl and Debby, striking within weeks of each other, hit the area, causing more sinkholes to open up and making it possible for a phosphate mine on the Suwannee River to overflow. Representatives from FDEP said that the overflow would not have any environmental impact, though the agency was not able to monitor the situation directly, instead opting for reports from  mine personnel. 

Boat ramps were closed along many portion of the Suwannee because of flooding conditions. Homes and businesses in some areas were devastated with flood waters. Mosquito populations exploded, thanks to standing water, and groundwater levels started coming back up.

The average rainfall throughout the district in June, according to SRWMD, was about 18.4 inches, which set a new record.

The majority of Levy County's groundwater began to be within normal levels, though eastern portions, as well as the area surrounding Cedar Key still continued to range in the low to extremely low levels.

About half of Dixie County, on the Gulf side, was listed in the high range, while the remainder was ranked as normal. Gilchrist County showed improvement, as well, though about half of the county in its southeastern range remains low to extremely low.

Still, as groundwater levels came back and springs began to flow again, some said it was only a temporary respite.

"It's very unlikely that spring flows will come back to historic averages until we have multiple years of rainfall," said Dr. Robert Knight, director of the Howard T. Odum Springs Institute.

And Knight was right. Although groundwater levels continue to fall within normal levels for much of the county, they are gradually dropping again, along with rivers within the district, which have fallen below normal levels. November, according to SRWMD, was the driest November since 1936.

In October, sea level rise was again on the minds of some as Whitney Gray, sea level rise coordinator with the Florida Sea Grant and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, told a Gainesville audience that seas in the Nature Coast area by the end of the century were expected to move as far as 3.7 miles inland.

“We’ve had this sea level rise. What is going to stop it?” asked an audience member.

Gray responded by saying it would take a massive reduction in greenhouse gasses in the planet’s atmosphere.

“The amount (of greenhouse gasses) there now will not go away for several hundred to a thousand years,” Gray said. “So, we have a situation, and what we do will help address it for future generations.”

In November, FDEP officials said a plan to restore water quality in the Suwannee Basin was underway, though it might be more than a decade away from implementation.

Part of the plan calls for voluntary use of best management practices (BMPs) by farmers to help reduce the amount of pollutants from fertilizers and animal wastes that make it into the area's water.

Some environmentalists said they had doubts about the approach, stating that not every farmer would be willing to practice BMPs, and even if they did, state officials have little data to show that they work. In the meantime, water quality continues to get worse, or at least not get any better, in many area springs and rivers.

Although Rivers such as the Suwannee, and its associated springs and streams, continue to be plagued by low water flow and elevated levels of pollutants, volunteers for several months participated in a cleanup along the banks of the famed river to see their collective efforts pay off.

Fritzi Olson, executive director of Current Problems Inc., the organization that has put the Great Suwannee River Cleanup together each year since 2010, said in December's final cleanup of the year that trash along the shores is starting to become harder to find.

She said future cleanups would likely be to maintain what has already been done by volunteers.

Toward the end of December, SRWMD staff announced that the district, along with FDEP and SJRWMD, were moving forward with a plan to recharge portions of the aquifer with reclaimed and surface water.

The move, still in its early phases, is a part of a coordinated effort known as the North Florida Aquifer Replenishment Initiative.

State officials say they hope the recharge project will be an answer to dwindling water resources, though environmentalists say the agencies should first consider water conservation, adding that the methods for recharge are largely unproven and can be potentially dangerous in terms of adding pollutants to Florida's groundwater.