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State to spend $300K on Fanning experiment

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By Lou Elliott Jones, Editor

State officials are banking on untested technology to help reduce nitrate pollution in Fanning Springs.

The Suwannee River Water Management District governing board voted unanimously Thursday at a meeting in Cedar Key to approve spending $300,000 in state money on two vibrating screens to remove solids in wastewater from an unidentified dairy located in the springshed, as well as a station to control the operation and the retrofitting of 11 center pivot sprayers on the farm. 

According to a district report, the project is estimated to be able to reduce nutrient loading into groundwater by about 100,000 pounds per year, which, if accurate, could be good news for Fanning Springs, the most nutrient-polluted spring monitored by the state.

Fanning Springs, when tested, regularly reaches levels higher than the state-mandated standard of .35 milligrams per liter for nitrates, as evident by the profuse growth of algae in the spring and related die-off of aquatic vegetation. In fact, levels are, on average, about halfway toward what state agencies say is unsafe for humans to drink.

Kevin Wright, a SRWMD engineer at the meeting, said the project could also decrease water use on the farm by 125 million gallons of water per year. 

Decreased flow in Fanning, attributed by many scientists to massive groundwater withdrawals, has also been an issue in the last few years, effectively removing Fanning Springs from the list of first-magnitude springs.

As of Tuesday, Wright had not responded to several emails and phone calls seeking more detail on the project, such as the specific location of the farm, the estimated percent decrease in nutrient loading from the farm and information about who had provided the estimates spoken of during the meeting.

During the meeting, Board Member George Cole, of Monticello, asked if such projects had been done with any frequency.

"We're hoping this will be a demonstration to get it done," said an unidentified man associated with the project.

"If it works as well as we hope and it saves the water at Fanning Springs, we may want to put it in our cost savings," said SRWMD Executive Director Anne Shortelle.

Hugh Thomas, of the Suwannee Valley Partnership, said proof that it works could qualify the district for more federal funding in the future.

Board Member Kevin Brown, of Alachua, asked, "How will you be able to prove it's making a difference?"

Wright said the difference, if any, could be determined by testing water from nearby monitoring wells and through increased yields seen in crops.

The water management districts are often criticized by environmentalists for implementing methods such as best management practices to address problems with springs, groundwater and rivers though unproven science.

Similarly, without a complete picture of what's going on with the Floridan Aquifer, the districts have, for the most part, shown an unwillingness to deny large consumptive use permits.

Last year, then-SRWMD Executive Director David Still said he was forced out of his job because of his opposition to a proposed 45-million-gallons-of-water-per-day increase in withdrawal by the St. Johns River Water Management District and JEA, the utility that serves the Jacksonville area. Jacksonville's drawdown is so big, according to Still, it's impacting the structure of the aquifer that feeds counties in the area governed by SRWMD.

Still, before his departure, had managed to get the two districts to agree on a comprehensive study of the aquifer and area springs, a project estimated to cost about $400,000.

That figure is equal to the $300,000 nutrient reduction project for Fanning Springs approved Thursday when one factors in the additional $100,000 included in the project for electronic water monitoring devices.

But unlike Thursdays decision and despite agreeing to the project Still had pleaded for, the districts later stated they were unable to come up with the funding.