Renowned naturalist Archie Carr called springs "little ecologic jewels" and "the singular blessing of the Florida landscape." Marjorie Stoneman Douglas, Presidential Medal of Freedom winner, called them "bowls of liquid light." Florida's Springs of Central and North Florida are comparable to South Florida's Everglades as important state resources.
What are Springs, Springsheds, and Spring Runs?
A spring is a natural opening in the ground (a vent) where water flows directly from the aquifer to the earth's surface. The source of this fresh water is seasonal rainfall that soaks into the ground and flows underground ("groundwater") to spring vents.
A springshed is the area of land that receives rainwater that then flows underground to a spring. This area includes much more than just the land surrounding a spring and can extend for several hundred square miles. Springshed boundaries are not static. They can change with season, climate, variations in regional rainfall, and groundwater pumping. However, the primary areas in which protection measures can be effective remain generally constant.
A spring run is a central, stable channel running from a spring. The bottoms of spring runs are generally sand or exposed limestone with some decaying vegetation and (in healthy spring) a diverse mixture of healthy living vegetation and animals with limited epiphytic or mats of algae.
The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and various water management districts have mapped a number of Florida springs and spring protection areas in central and north Florida vulnerable Karst geology landscapes (Landscapes of the underlying limestone reminiscent of Swiss cheese with features such as caves, sink holes, springs, and sinking streams, through which water rapidly moves underground as the aquifer - see The Florida Speleological Society - What the Heck is Karst). For more information on specific springs and related springsheds, contact Tom Greenhalgh, the Florida Geological Survey, at Tom.Greenhalgh@dep.state.fl.us.
Florida Has the Largest Concentration of Freshwater Springs in the World
There are more than 700 large springs in Florida (and many additional smaller ones), which likely represent one of the largest concentrations of freshwater springs on Earth. Thirty-nine of Florida's 67 counties contain springs: Alachua, Bay, Bradford, Calhoun, Citrus, Clay, Columbia, Dixie, Flagler, Franklin, Gadsden, Gilchrist, Hamilton, Hernando, Hillsborough, Holmes, Jackson, Jefferson, Lafayette, Lake, Leon, Levy, Liberty, Madison, Marion, Orange, Pasco, Pinellas, Polk, Putnam, Seminole, Sumter, Suwannee, Taylor, Union, Volusia, Wakulla, Walton, and Washington.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reports that, based on the best available GIS information at this time, there are approximately 570 springs arising from the Floridan Aquifer constituting a total spring run length of about 572 miles. The Floridan Aquifer is the major source of drinking water for Floridians. The Commission lists the condition of Florida's springs as poor and deteriorating, a trend that should be reversed.
Why are Springs Important?
Florida's springs and their associated rivers and bays have tremendous ecological value, and are home to countless plants and animals including West Indian Manatees that frequent Florida waters.
Economic Value - Millions of Dollars Added to Florida's Economy
The crystal, calm flows and constant temperatures of Florida's springs make them ideal spots for a variety of recreational opportunities such as snorkeling, scuba diving, fishing, swimming, and kayaking.
The importance of clean springs and contributing groundwater to Florida's economy is increasingly evident. Studies conducted for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection between 2002 and 2004 estimated that:
- Visitor spending at Ichetucknee Springs in Suwannee County was $23 million.
- Visitor spending at Wakulla Springs in Wakulla County was $22 million.
- Visitor spending at Blue Spring in Volusia County was $10 million.
- An estimated one million visitors to the springs in Marion County alone contribute a combined annual total of over $65 million in revenue for the local economy.
- In addition, state parks associated with some of Florida's springs bring in about one million out-of-state tourists a year, which translates to a $46 million economic impact.
Challenges Facing Florida's Springs
Where springs suffer problems, often the problems are linked to two overarching issues:
- Changes in groundwater levels, e.g., incremental declines in the levels as ever-increasing volumes of water are withdrawn for human use, and
- Added pollution to the groundwater from the overlying contributory springshed lands, primarily nitrates from wastewater and fertilizers.
Spring pollution from nitrate is especially problematic. The buildup of nitrates is contributing to the loss of spring habitats, which in turn can adversely affect local economies that rely on tourist dollars from recreational opportunities Florida's springs provide. Nitrates are nutrients that dissolve like table salt dissolved in water. The water is still clear and blue as it emerges from the spring vents. As it is discharged, it hits the sun light and immediately acts as a potent fertilizer causing too much growth of algae and many exotic (non-native) aquatic plant species.
Nitrates are most notably released from:
- Septic systems,
- Wastewater treatment plant disposal to groundwater (e.g., Rapid Infiltration Basins (RIBs) and sprayfields),
- Use of treated reuse water that still has relatively high nitrate,
- Yard and agricultural fertilization where nitrate is added and soluable, and
- Stormwater runoff which also may be a significant nitrate contributor, though parsing stormwater components often leads back to some of the above-mentioned sources.
Section 163.3177(6)(d), Florida Statutes, governing the conservation element of a local government comprehensive plan, requires that local governments identify and analyze their water resources, including springs. It further requires that a local government include in its comprehensive plan principles, guidelines, and programs for conservation that;
Conserves, appropriately uses, and protects the quality and quantity of current and projected water sources and waters that flow into estuarine waters or oceanic waters and protect from activities and land uses known to affect adversely the quality and quantity of identified water sources, including natural groundwater recharge areas, wellhead protection areas, and surface waters used as a source of public water supply.
Development, roads, agriculture, and other byproducts of human development in springsheds are negatively impacting the quality of Florida's springs. Local governments can use their land use planning authority to minimize adverse effects of development on springs, springsheds, and spring runs, provide for long-term recovery of springs, and enhance the economic value of these resources for their communities. Steps that local governments can take include:
- Limiting/managing high nitrate contributory land uses and facilities in springsheds and near springs and spring runs, for example:
- Limiting the number and density of lots on septic systems.
- Requiring wastewater treatment facilities that treat to nitrate removal standards and those that do not discharge to Rapid Infiltration Basins and sprayfields.
- Regulating the placement and management of golf courses.
- Requiring that suburban/urban development in vulnerable springshed landscapes is on central sewer that can treat to advanced standards to remove nitrates.
- Where septic systems are allowed, providing for lower densities (e.g., density 1DU/10 acres or less) or requiring the use of performance-based septic systems with regular system management regimens.
- Requiring that golf courses use nutrient management plans and practices to limit the application of nitrate fertilizers.
- Implementing nutrient limiting management practices for yards/lawns and landscaping that limit the application of nitrate fertilizers.
- Requiring water conservation in the planning and design of communities to encourage the use of less water for community needs.
- Identifying where septic systems make the most sense at reasonable densities (less vulnerable Karst areas) and identify which/where septic systems ought to be upgraded to performance-based systems.
- Educating citizens on the damaging effects of nitrates on groundwater and ways they can help.
For existing developed areas, local governments can inventory wastewater treatment systems and prepare wastewater master plans that include:
- Upgrading wastewater treatment facilities to remove nitrates.
- Eliminating/restricting sludge spreading in springshed basins.
- Identifying concentrations of septic systems that can be hooked to wastewater treatment systems that remove nitrate.
Additional Information and Resources
- Bulletin Number 66 - Springs of Florida, by the Florida Geologic Survey
- Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Florida Geological Survey
- Onsite Sewage Treatment and Disposal Systems: Viruses, Mary Lusk, Gurpal S. Toor, and Thomas Obreza, 2011. Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences publication SL351.
- Sample Springs Protection Measures by County and Springshed - Samples of the springs protection measures in the comprehensive plans of 26 counties within nine of the state's 15 mapped springsheds.
- In 2002, building on the work of the Florida Springs Task Force, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the State Land Planning Agency, together with the state' regional planning councils and others, prepared a Best Practices Manual entitled Protecting Florida's Springs: Land Use Planning Strategies and Best Management Practices, which is designed to assist local governments, developers, landowners and citizens with innovative and sensible planning strategies.
- In early 2008, the State Land Planning Agency produced a document entitled Protecting Florida's Springs: An Implementation Guidebook to provide more detailed strategies and methods for local governments to consider in improving their comprehensive plans, land development regulations and design standards for protecting groundwater resources within their own jurisdictions.
- One of the many strategies discussed in Protecting Florida's Springs: An Implementation Guidebook is designation of primary and secondary springs protection areas. The City of Tallahassee and Leon County jointly adopted this and other strategies as part of their evaluation and appraisal review based amendments in January 2009 to protect Wakulla Springs in Wakulla County. For more information on Tallahassee - Leon County's springs protection measures, see City of Tallahassee - Tallahassee-Leon County Wakulla Springs Initiative.
- Additional publications about Florida's springs can be found by visiting: Florida Department of Environmental Protection - Reports and Publications.
- An objective of Marion County's Springs Protection Ordinance is to protect the environmental, recreational and economic values of Silver and Rainbow Springs. The ordinance specifies guidelines for development within identified spring protection zones. The future land use and conservation elements of the County's comprehensive plan set forth a transfer of development rights program and other measures for protecting natural resources, including high water recharge and underground drainage basins, springs, karst areas, sinkholes, sinks, and sinkhole ponds. For more information, see Marion County Planning Department.
- Wakulla County adopted a Wakulla Springs Special Planning Area and several other measures to limit nitrate loading, which has been determined to contribute to the degradation of its springs and groundwater resources. The County's conservation element includes several other measures to protect Wakulla, St. Marks and Spring Creek Springs and sections of the St. Marks, Wakulla, Sopchoppy and Ochlockonee Rivers and Apalachee Bay that have been declared by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection as Outstanding Florida Waters. Wakulla County's comprehensive plan is available on its web site at Wakulla County Comprehensive Plan.
- In 2010 the University of Florida published Ecotourism in Florida: Letting Nature Work for You, a study of private nature-based tourism businesses and how they contribute to the state's economy through local and out-of-state tourism dollars generated in rural communities like White Springs, High Springs and Fort White. Ecotourism associated with the Suwannee, Santa Fe and Ichetucknee Rivers and Ichetucknee and Ginnie Springs alone generates millions of dollars for Florida's economy each year.
- For more information on springs classification, including a Florida Springs Database and other useful tools, see Florida Department of Environmental Protection - Florida Geological Survey - Geology Topics.
- For a summary of Florida's springs and springsheds and the numerous documents produced as part of these efforts to protect them, see 1000 Friends of Florida - Springs and Springsheds.