Florida’s beaches receive most of the attention, but the state’s springs are its true natural wonders. Florida boasts about 700, the largest concentration of freshwater springs in the world. This includes 33 first magnitude springs that pump at least 100 cubic feet of water per second. For thousands of years, the springs and their constant 72 degree waters have been places where people and wildlife can play, cool off, bathe, catch food, and, most importantly, drink clean water. But now all of Florida’s springs are at risk.
Icketucknee Spring is one of the better known in the state thanks to its namesake river, popular with tubers during Florida’s oppressive summers. The first magnitude spring group includes the Ichetucknee, Blue Hole, Devil’s Eye, Coffee, Grassy Hole, and Mission springs — all within the Ichetucknee Springs State Park. Most of the Ichetucknee River also flows within the state park’s limits.
According to this paper, evidence of native people within the park goes back as far as 14,000 years. Hernando de Soto passed through the area in 1539, and the Spanish established a church at Mission Spring in 1608. The Bellamy Road, built in 1824 to connect St. Augustine and Pensacola, passed the Ichetucknee, and soldiers camped along there during the Second Seminole War. Shortly before the Civil War, settlers used the spring system for both recreational and industrial purposes.
The land around the spring was logged and farmed after the war. In 1890, phosphate was first mined near the spring, a practice that would continue for the next 80 years. By then, the springs were popular with day-trippers, and landowners generally allowed them to cross their property to reach the springs. In the 1960s, the springs were a favorite hangout for University of Florida students, and drinking, nudity, and littering were rampant. Moreover, landowners along the river didn’t think twice about dumping junk into the water. The combination of anger over the destruction and better public awareness of environmental issues led to pressure to protect the springs.
In 1970, the state bought the springs and a portion of the river from a phosphate company for $1.85 million. They cleaned the property and opened it to the public. Visitors swarmed the new state park, and again the fragile ecosystem was at risk. In response, the park banned food, drink, and tobacco on the springs and river — a contrast to nearby Ginnie Springs. A limit was placed on the number of tubers per day, and tubing is only allowed from Memorial Day to Labor Day to allow plant life a chance to regrow. The regulations have proved successful.
While Ichetucknee Springs State Park is a model for Florida springs management, park managers can’t control the quality and quantity of water that bubbles out of the ground. Like the other springs that dot the state, Ichetucknee’s water comes from the Floridan Aquifer, an underground network that includes Florida and parts of Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina. Water seeps into the aquifer and stays there for approximately 15 to 50 years before it resurfaces. In recent decades, pesticides, fertilizer, and human and animal waste has infiltrated the aquifer. This has caused nitrate levels to spike and the water to lose its clarity. The nitrate also leads to algae growth, which has a crippling effect on ecosystems. What’s more, less water comes out of springs because of over pumping. Some springs have even dried up.
Yet despite the known threats, some officials continue to put short-term interests above the long-term health of the springs. The Adena Springs Ranch proposal in Marion County is one such instance. That plan puts the future of Silver Springs, another legendary Florida spring, in peril.
Florida’s springs are more than just recreational venues. They represent both the current health of the state and offer hints at its direction. Millions of people receive their drinking water from the aquifer, the same water source that supplies the springs. When the aquifer is polluted and/or tapped beyond repair, Floridians will need to find a new water supply. If they are not proactive, the economic effects will be devastating. Imagine the prohibitive costs of finding new water sources or importing from out of state because the state’s own water is too polluted or not sufficient. But there would have been warning signs.