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Silver Springs pollution is reaching unsafe levels, according to expected survey results

Vegetation transect surveys in the headspring at Silver Springs. “Because people aren’t allowed to be in the spring, the vegetation is very healthy,” Bill Hawthorne said. (Courtesy of Bill Hawthorne Photography)
Vegetation transect surveys in the headspring at Silver Springs. “Because people aren’t allowed to be in the spring, the vegetation is very healthy,” Bill Hawthorne said. (Courtesy of Bill Hawthorne Photography)

Robert “Bob” Knight, the founder of FSI, said he fears Silver Springs will meet the same fate as Gilchrest Blue Spring. In July, a sinkhole opened in the spring and flooded the water with sediment. He said it’s all empty and almost dead now. Nitrate levels are at a high, and about a third of the spring’s flow is lost.

Chemical compounds in an area spring are more than three times a safe level, according to an upcoming report by the Florida Springs Institute. The compounds, called nitrates, can kill plant life, cause algae blooms and pollute drinking water in Silver Springs.

“Compared to what it used to be, [Silver Springs] is in very bad condition,” said Bill Hawthorne, an aquatic ecologist at FSI.

The Silver Springs system, and over a thousand more springs in north central Florida, supply 90% of the state’s drinking water. The Silver Springs system is the largest artesian spring group in the United States and is among the largest in the world.

FSI’s survey has calculated the compounds at 1.15 milligrams per liter. Any level greater than 0.35 causes plant death and pollutes the water, according to Hawthorne.

“The two biggest threats we’ve seen are nitrogen pollution and groundwater pumping,” Hawthorne said. “There’s been a large reduction in flow, which is vital for everything that calls the spring home.”

Prior to farming and development in the area, the chemical compounds were much lower, at 0.04 milligrams per liter, he said.

Robert “Bob” Knight, the founder of FSI, said he fears Silver Springs will meet the same fate as Gilchrest Blue Spring. In July, a sinkhole opened in the spring and flooded the water with sediment. He said it’s all empty and almost dead now. Nitrate levels are at a high, and about a third of the spring’s flow is lost.

Officials at Naked Spring, a sister spring to Gilchrest Blue, prohibited recreation in 2019 and it has since recovered, Knight said. It was suffering from the effects of erosion due to foot traffic but vegetation has since returned to the area.

Knight has decades of experience working with wetland restoration and management and he said he wants to bring national attention to the springs.

The Silver Springs ecological team conducted turtle surveys from mid-January to Dec. 31. From left to right, there is Agustin Guzman, Jeremy Geiger, Stacie Snipes, Alex Mione, Mary-Ellen Flowers, Cody Godwin, Tedd Greenwald, Peter Crawford, Haley Moody, Bob Knight, Joseph Ricketts and Bill Hawthorne. (Courtesy of Bill Hawthorne)
The Silver Springs ecological team conducted turtle surveys from mid-January to Dec. 31. From left to right, there is Agustin Guzman, Jeremy Geiger, Stacie Snipes, Alex Mione, Mary-Ellen Flowers, Cody Godwin, Tedd Greenwald, Peter Crawford, Haley Moody, Bob Knight, Joseph Ricketts and Bill Hawthorne. (Courtesy of Bill Hawthorne)

“One hundred million gallons of water come out of the aquifer per day,” he said. “There’s 27 million acres of springs. We’re going to need it forever; it shouldn’t go away.”

The health of the Silver Springs waterway has been declining since the park’s opening in 1878. Agriculture and development in the area have added pollutants like nitrate to the water and eroded the sediment in and around the springs.

Knight said protection efforts have only just begun for the Florida aquifer. FSI is the leading effort in the state to document and protect the springs, Knight said. It goes further than the state when it comes to collecting data and compiling spring health reports.

“People don’t think they’re responsible for this gift we were given at no expense,” he said. “We drove natives away, occupied that land and now treat it like it’s limitless. That’s a big mistake.”

Knight is working on getting a National Heritage Area designation for Silver Springs because they provide for Alachua, Marion and surrounding counties in important ways. The springs provide water to households and farms, house hundreds of animal species and have tourism value.

Harry Patterson moved to High Springs in 2000 and calls himself a long-term supporter of FSI. He said its location in High Springs is important to the work it’s doing, and more people should come out to learn about the springs before it’s too late.

“Changes have been slow historically, but they accelerate quickly now,” Patterson said. “We need to bring people to the center. This is the heart of the springs.”

Conservationists have taken measures to limit human impact by minimizing foot traffic on vegetation and prohibiting swimming, but agriculture and lifestyle practices nearby continue to worsen the ecosystem of the springs.

FSI’s citizen science program, SpringsWatch, provides hands-on training for volunteers by collecting data from the field. The field in this case is 11 springs throughout north central Florida. The data volunteers collect is used to add to the institute’s database along with other environmental agencies in the state.

During the survey, the team also conducted detailed apple snail egg surveys. Nonnative apple snails are invasive to the region and cause major problems to native vegetation and animals. There are both native and nonnative apple snails in the system.

Hawthorne said they did not find any nonnative eggs, and further biological surveys of native animals suggest healthy populations.

Visitors at Silver Springs can take glass-bottom boat tours and rent kayaks instead of swimming in the spring. (Marta Zherukha/WUFT News)
Visitors at Silver Springs can take glass-bottom boat tours and rent kayaks instead of swimming in the spring. (Marta Zherukha/WUFT News)

“I go to these places and see luscious plants and the clearest water in the world,” he said. “It’s right in our backyard. They’ve been evolving for millions of years; these springs deserve our protection and care.”

The amazing thing about Silver Springs is people are allowed to recreate on, but not in, the spring, he said. The vegetation is in perfect condition, even if the nitrate levels are well above the state-proposed limit.

Emily Taylor, the executive director of FSI, said Silver Springs provides more to Florida than economic and tourism value.

There are not many places where there is such a direct and immediate impact on the groundwater, Taylor said. Focus should be on recharging the spring to combat groundwater pumping and other threats to the system. Taylor recommends limiting water withdrawal and fertilizer use, alongside continuing education efforts.

“It exemplifies community,” she said. “Yes, it provides drinking water. Yes, it’s beautiful. But it’s also the most iconic and studied spring in Florida.”

The results of the Silver Springs ecological survey and report by Hawthorne and his team are expected to be completed by March 31.

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Marta Zherukha