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The future of our springs

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Cooperation needed for healthy Levy County springs

By Jenna McKenna

Levy County's two major springs, Fanning and Manatee, are considered important gems in the crown of Florida's fresh water system. However, experts warn that without cooperation among planners, residents and agricultural and industrial systems, the springs could be damaged beyond repair.

At last week's meeting of the Fanning and Manatee Springs Working Group, organizer Carol Lippincott offered two scenarios which she described as equally likely, starting from today. One showed the springs as the central focus of an economically, politically and socially healthy community which enjoyed the benefits of plentiful clean fresh water. The other showed the springs as a neglected afterthought in an impoverished, politically contentious and socially downtrodden community that was suffering due to an inadequate supply of clean fresh water.

Meeting attendees, which included university scientists, local political and civic leaders and state and area regulatory workers, were given an assignment to brainstorm strategies that would make the first outcome a more likely reality.

Two weeks ago, the working group also hosted a workshop on Low Impact Development (LID), which focused on strategies to keep inevitable residential, commercial and agricultural growth from adversely impacting the springsheds. In combination, the two events exposed the current and coming dangers menacing the springs, and promoted an array of solutions for residents and leaders to pursue.

At both meetings, speakers emphasized that the Fanning and Manatee basins are the primary source of drinking water in this part of Florida, and noted that in this region there is very little clay above the limestone to slow runoff from entering groundwater. That means that toxins and pollutants on the ground, such as fertilizers, pesticides, motor vehicle fluids and domestic animal and septic waste all have the potential to end up in our drinking water.

Tom Greenhalgh, of the Florida Geological Survey, noted in his presentation that Fanning Springs has the highest rate of nitrate discharge of any of the first magnitude springs in Florida. This is a problem not only because high levels of nitrates can be dangerous to young children, but also because high nitrate loads indicate the likely presence of other pollutants. High levels of nutrient pollutants can cause algae blooms that lead to an array of problems, including health problems for swimmers, a lack of available oxygen in the water for native plants and animals, and disastrous fish kills.

Starting next year, the state of Florida will start enforcing top maximum daily loads (TMDLs) of nutrient pollutants, one of the major dangers to the springs. The Fanning and Manatee springs basins are one of the first areas to fall under TMDL enforcement, due to the speed with which runoff is absorbed into the springsheds. Don Graetz, Professor Emeritus of Soil and Water Science from the University of Florida, said the initial period of enforcement will be exceptionally difficult on some small farms in the area, particularly dairy farms, because the physical systems and regulatory requirements are expensive on startup.

Concerning nutrient pollution from fertilizer, other speakers noted that perhaps the largest source of pollutants is homeowners, incautiously applying too much fertilizer to their turfgrass lawns. In the LID session, speaker Pierce Jones, the UF/IFAS Program Director for Resource Efficient Communities, described a number of planned communities in Florida that have taken steps to engage homeowners in an understanding of resource (particularly water) protection.

These communities, some still in planning stages, others already built out and fully occupied, discourage the planting of turfgrass lawns while encouraging the use of native plants in hospitable locations. These strategies mean that, once landscape plants are established, homeowners and maintenance people can largely forgo supplemental irrigation and fertilizer. In places where irrigation is still necessary, planners are able to set up systems to use reclaimed water.

Jones and others encouraged communities to promote master gardener programs so that residents could familiarize themselves with the native plants of the area, and the best ways to use them successfully.

Other speakers described means of reducing runoff and designing runoff controls to behave more like the original topography of the land they occupy. Jon Dinges, Resource Management Director of Suwannee River Water Management District, described strategies to reduce the size of land-hogging retention ponds by using pervious surfaces where formerly impervious surfaces would be used, such as in parking lots.

This strategy is helpful, he said, because land not tied up in a retention pond can be used for more parking, or to plant trees, or other solutions. Also, smaller, better-distributed retention areas will have smaller runoff loads individually, which may make them less susceptible to the solution sinkholes that seem to open up in so many of this area's larger retention ponds.

Along with the above problems and solutions, Lippincott's best case-worst case scenario exercise will be discussed again in the next meeting of the Fanning and Manatee Springs Working Group, along with other issues exposed in the meetings. The next meeting will be August 12 at Fanning Springs City Hall at 9:30 a.m. To view a meeting agenda, visit http://share2.myfwc.com/spring/default.aspx and select “Fanning and Manatee Springs Working Group Meeting.”