a comprehensive learning resource for understanding Florida springs.
- Understand what springs are and where they come from.
- Understand the Floridan Aquifer system, how it works, and how humans and springs rely on it.
- Understanding other geological features that aid in the recharge of the Floridan Aquifer and its springs.
- Learn about the natural diversity of plants and wildlife found in springs.
- Learn why springs are some of the most essential wildlife habitat in Florida.
- Understand the differences between a healthy spring and an unhealthy spring.
- Learn about human impacts to springs and our responsibility to prevent further harm to them.
- Learn about the economic benefits of healthy springs.
- Learn what you can do to protect springs.
Getting to the Source of Springs
To understand Florida’s springs and their importance as natural resources, we must first understand the water cycle and aquifer that sustains them.
Contrary to popular belief, Florida’s springs are not the source of freshwater; they are but one step on water’s long journey from the atmosphere, to the land surface, into the ground through what is known as the Floridan Aquifer, and finally back to the land surface completing the cycle. Learn about the water cycle and the flow of water through the aquifer to gain a better understanding of the source of Florida’s springs. Also, learn more about how humans impact the quality and quantity of groundwater in the aquifer that ultimately discharges through the springs and water supply wells.
Water Cycles Around
On the earth’s surface and in its atmosphere water occurs in three distinct states – gas (water vapor), liquid water, and solid (ice). Read below to learn about the water cycle and how it includes springs and spring runs!
Rainfall is a function of various atmospheric and physical factors, including humidity, temperature, and gravity. Relative humidity is a measurement of the amount of water the air can hold at a given temperature. Water vapor measured as humidity condenses as droplets at lower temperatures in the atmosphere. As the tiny water droplets within a cloud merge together into larger, heavier drops, they eventually overwhelm the relative level of atmospheric humidity that keeps them airborne. Scientists have recently determined that once these drops reach a diameter of twenty millimeters, rain will begin to fall. On average about 150 billion gallons per day of rain falls in Florida, with more summer rain than any other state in the nation.
Evaporation and Condensation
Water’s journey to the atmosphere begins with a process called evaporation whereby water stored in lakes, rivers, and the ocean is converted into water vapor by the heat of the sun. The sun’s heat also warms the saturated air, moving it upward through the process of convection. When this warmer, wetter air comes into contact with cooler, higher atmospheric air, it eventually condenses into tiny liquid water droplets. Collectively, these tiny droplets are called clouds.
In addition to evaporation, a significant percentage of the water on the earth is released into the atmosphere by trees and plants in a process called transpiration. In order to facilitate photosynthesis, plants absorb liquid water from the soil through their roots, a process that can also clean water by filtering out nutrients and pollution. They then transpire this vaporized water back into the atmosphere through their leaves and stems. On average about 70 percent of rainfall in Florida returns to the atmosphere as water vapor through the combined process called evapotranspiration.
Rainfall that is not absorbed directly into the soil, through the roots and leaves of plants, or accumulated into existing bodies of water such as lakes or rivers is called surface or stormwater runoff. In areas where the underlying geologic formation is impervious to water, as in the case of clay, runoff is a natural process, directing water over land, into lakes, rivers, wetlands, and the ocean.
In Florida, where loose sandy soils and porous limestone bedrock are common, rainfall that reaches the surface of the earth often soaks directly into the ground. Water that percolates downwards through the tiny spaces between rocks and soil particles, and within the “Swiss cheese” structure of the limestone is called recharge. The water eventually saturates the underlying limestone in much the same way water fills the tiny holes of a sponge. Rainfall and surface water that recharges the groundwater replenishes Florida’s aquifers and is the source of the water flowing from our springs.
Up Next: From Aquifer to Spring
The Floridan Aquifer
The source of much of Florida’s drinking water and the crystal clear water bubbling up in artesian springs is the Floridan Aquifer, nature’s underground water storage system. But to understand the Floridan Aquifer, we must first understand what an aquifer is and why it’s referred to as “the lifeblood of springs”.
Definition: Aquifer [ak–wuh-fer] noun: an underground layer of permeable rock, sand, or gravel that holds water.
Aquifers are natural underground reservoirs where water is stored. They fill up from rainwater that percolates down through sand and soil. The water contained in an aquifer is called groundwater.
Spaces in the rock, sand, or gravel hold the water in storage until it naturally flows out of the ground at a spring or is pumped out of the ground via a drilled well. Since most of the water human’s use in Florida (about 90%) comes from these groundwater aquifers, it is important to understand how we can conserve and protect this valuable resource.
The largest aquifer in the southeastern U.S. is the Floridan Aquifer System, approximately 100,000 square miles in extent and underlying all of Florida and portions of Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina (see map below). Though the Floridan Aquifer is large, it isn’t the largest aquifer in the world. It is, however, one of the most productive aquifers in the world! It is estimated that there are over a trillion gallons of water stored in the Floridan Aquifer.
Some caves inside the Floridan Aquifer are so large that cave divers are able to access and travel through them for many miles underground. The above picture shows a cathedral sized room that could easily hold an airplane! The Floridan Aquifer consists of thousands of feet of carbonate stone that is penetrated by a vast web of interconnected conduits, caves, and cracks that store and transfer water underneath our feet.
There are multiple aquifer systems utilized for water supply in Florida. In addition to the Floridan Aquifer, these include the Sand and Gravel Aquifer of Panhandle Florida, the Biscayne Aquifer of South Florida, the Anastasia Aquifer of Florida’s east coast, the Intermediate Aquifer of Southwest Florida, and various smaller and unnamed geological formations that may be surficial or intermediate in depth. The aquifer systems in Florida are complex, with many layers of shell, sand, gravel, and rock all functioning a little bit differently. These images show a simplified model of Florida’s aquifer system, focusing on two major groundwater systems: The Surficial Aquifer System and The Floridan Aquifer System. A surficial aquifer generally exists wherever impermeable clays or rock are near the ground surface. In these areas the Floridan Aquifer is said to be confined. Where the limestone aquifer is overlain just by permeable sand, the Floridan Aquifer is described as unconfined.
The rocks of the Floridan Aquifer System are classified as either limestone or dolostone. Some areas of rock are thicker than others and form various layers in the aquifer. Over much of its extent the Floridan Aquifer is a single contiguous mass of permeable rock with no separation into different layers. In some places, the Floridan Aquifer System is made up of three levels, commonly referred to as the Upper Floridan Aquifer, the Intermediate Confining Layer, and the Lower Floridan Aquifer. In these areas, water movement between the Upper and Lower Floridan Aquifers is somewhat retarded.
Cross Sectional View of Florida's Aquifer System
The Surficial Aquifer supplies freshwater to areas of Florida where water from a deeper aquifer is not easily accessible, or is salty. The Surficial Aquifer consists mostly of unconsolidated sand and shell, and ranges from approximately 50 to 400 feet thick. Regional sections of the Surficial Aquifer supply freshwater to large municipalities (such as the Sand and Gravel Aquifer in the panhandle and the Biscayne Aquifer in south Florida). Water enters the Surficial Aquifer as rainfall and either evaporates, discharges into streams, or percolates down into the Floridan Aquifer as recharge.
A confining layer is a layer of sediment or rock that has low or no permeability and does not allow water from the surface to easily percolate downward. An unconfined aquifer is an aquifer where there is no confining layer present, allowing water from the surface to move freely into the aquifer. In this model, the Upper Confining Unit has been separated into areas where the confining layer is thick (more than 100 feet), where the layer is thin (less than 100 feet), and where the layer is completely absent. In areas where the confining unit is absent, the aquifer will readily recharge with rainwater.
The Floridan Aquifer is comprised mostly of a deep series of carbonate rock formations, named (youngest to oldest) Suwannee Limestone, Ocala Limestone, Avon Park Formation, and Oldsmar Formation. The Floridan Aquifer is the primary source of fresh groundwater for Florida’s 1,000+ artesian springs and is used by more than 11 million Floridians. The Floridan Aquifer ranges from 250 feet thick in Georgia, to around 3,000 feet thick in South Florida. The Floridan Aquifer may be confined or unconfined, and at times may be in direct contact with the Surficial Aquifer.
As we’ve learned, the source of our drinking water and the crystal clear water in springs is the same – namely the Floridan Aquifer, nature’s underground water storage system. We learned about the process by which our aquifer is recharged in Chapter 1: The Journey of Water. The natural acidity in the rain dissolves Florida’s soluble limerock as it percolates down from the land surface, forming cracks, holes, and dents, some of which, eventually become underground caverns and rivers. These underground rivers find sinkholes connecting to the land surface where the groundwater flows out and forms a spring. Read below to learn more about how springs are formed.
Water begins its journey underground to the aquifer by a process known as recharge whereby rainfall seeps underground to infiltrate the limestone below. The overall land surface area where water seeps underground and contributes rainwater to a specific spring is called a spring’s recharge basin. About 25 million acres of North and Central Florida recharges the freshwater portion of the Floridan Aquifer and all of that area is a recharge basin for Florida’s 1,000+ artesian springs.
Percolation is the physical process by which rainwater falling within a given recharge basin slowly travels underground through the tiny spaces between rocks and soil particles. Florida’s unconsolidated, sandy soils as well as the porous nature of the limestone aquifer itself provide the ideal conditions for unrestricted percolation. Yet, depending on the type of soil and the depth of the limestone aquifer, some areas allow water to percolate water underground faster than others, resulting in different recharge rates. Areas of high recharge occur in only 15 percent of the state, mostly in the sandy highlands of west and west-central Florida.
Speleogenesis is a big word that describes the formation of caves. In Florida, speleogenesis occurs underground through a simple chemical reaction. As rainwater falls through the atmosphere and percolates through the soil, it combines with carbon dioxide in the air and decaying vegetation to form a mild carbonic acid that slowly dissolves the limestone, enlarging small cracks and pores. Over thousands of years, these small pores and cracks expand to become underground caves and caverns. Collectively, these interconnected caves are the pipes through which groundwater flows within the aquifer to the springs.
Gravity is the major force in groundwater movement in the aquifer. Under natural conditions, groundwater moves “downhill” until it reaches the land surface at a spring or through a seep in a riverbed, lake or wetland. The speed with which water flows through the aquifer is also dependent upon the porosity and permeability of the limestone. In other words, water flows more quickly if the spaces or holes in the limestone are larger and if these spaces are closely connected to allow water to flow through.
Sinkholes are depressions in the land caused by dissolution of the limestone near the surface or the collapse of an underground cave. Once these “windows” to the aquifer are open, they may provide direct access to the conduits through which water flows from the recharge basin to the springs themselves. As a result, they are one of the most common points of entry for cave divers seeking to explore and study the underground aquifer.
Springs form where groundwater is forced up and onto the surface through openings in the ground. This is caused by the differences in the slope or “hydraulic gradient” in the aquifer. As rain falls and percolates underground, it exerts pressure on the water already in the aquifer, forcing some to the surface through natural openings. The highest concentration of springs in Florida lies in the north-central part of the state where the aquifer is least confined.
The volume of water flowing from a spring is dependent upon a variety of factors: the water pressure in the aquifer beneath it, the number of caves leading to the spring vent or opening, and the size of the vent itself. Springs are classified or categorized based on the amount water discharge. Florida’s largest springs, for example, Wakulla and Silver Springs, discharge around 65 million gallons of water a day – the equivalent of about 1.3 million bathtubs full! Florida’s springs are the largest by volume in the world, giving birth to and supporting entire river ecosystems like the Suwannee and the Santa Fe. Collectively, Florida’s springs historically discharges over 10 billion gallons of fresh groundwater each day.
Florida’s 1,000 + freshwater springs are scaled and categorized by the average amount of water that they discharge. These categories are also known as magnitudes. Florida’s springs can range anywhere from large first magnitude springs to small eighth magnitude springs!
>65 million gallons/day
That’s more than 100 cubic feet/second! A few examples of 1st magnitude springs are Wakulla Spring, Silver Spring, Troy Spring, and Manatee Spring.
6.5-65 million gallons/day
That’s between 10 – 100 cubic feet/second! A few examples of 2nd magnitude springs are Gilchrist Blue Spring, Wekiva Spring, Ichetucknee Head Spring, and Salt Spring.
0.65-6.5 million gallons/day
That’s between 1 – 10 cubic feet/second! A few examples of 2nd magnitude springs are Peacock Springs, Convict Springs, Ruth Spring, and Johnson Spring.
<0.65 million gallons/day
That’s less than 1 cubic foot/second! Many springs that are 4th-8th magnitude have been given generic names (such as Gil928972) that indicate their county (Gilchrist County, Florida).
Up Next: Karst Features of Florida
Karst Features & Florida Hydrogeology
The geology in Florida consists of limerock formations known as karst terrain. Rainwater is naturally slightly acidic, dissolving Florida’s soluble limerock as it percolates through the surface. Cracks, holes, and dents eventually become underground caverns and rivers, storing Florida’s groundwater and accounting for one of the most productive aquifers in the world. Below are 6 of the most commonly found karst features in Florida, click the dropdowns to learn more about each karst feature.
Artesian springs make up the majority of Florida’s 1,000+ freshwater springs. Artesian springs are areas where pressure in the aquifer causes groundwater to discharge from a karst opening in the land surface.
Caves are formed when water dissolves karst. Most of Florida’s cave systems are underwater but some caves are dry. The photo above is an example of a dry cave that was once filled with water that formed it. Underwater caves are extremely difficult and dangerous to explore and only highly trained cave divers should do so. You can experience Florida’s dry caverns through a guided tour at Florida Caverns State Park.
A river sink, also known as a swallet, is an area where surface water goes directly underground into the aquifer. The area where it emerges again is a feature known as a river rise. In the above photo, a river runs underground for several miles before it returns to the surface at its river rise. Not all river sinks have a waterfall, some look just like a sinkhole. The difference between a river sink/swallet and a sinkhole is that river sinks/swallets are connected to a flowing body of water such as a river or stream.
Sinkholes are depressions in the land caused by dissolution of the limestone near the surface or the collapse of an underground cave. Once these “windows” to the aquifer are open, they may provide direct access to the conduits through which water flows from the recharge basin to the springs themselves. As a result, they are one of the most common points of entry for cave divers seeking to explore and study the underground aquifer.
A karst window is an area where a cave has collapsed and exposed a segment of groundwater that is flowing through the aquifer. As karst windows provide direct access to the aquifer, contaminants from surface water runoff will enter the aquifer directly from here.
A polje is a large, flat basin formed by the coalescence of many sinkholes. An example, shown here, is Paynes Prairie in Gainesville. This polje is connected to the Alachua sink, a sinkhole. At times of heavy rainfall and high aquifer levels, the prairie looks more like a lake.
Up Next: Life In A Spring
For tens of thousands of years, Florida’s springs have been hotspots of biological diversity. Based on fossils discovered during the past century, we know that the spring ecosystem once provided water, food, and habitat for many of North America’s most spectacular animals including the mastodon, the saber-toothed tiger and the giant sloth.
Today, what makes springs remarkable is that they are one of the only natural areas in the state that you can encounter so many of Florida’s resident plants and animals in one geographic area. A single visit to a spring can reveal species like the american alligator, river otter, and limpkin. Beneath the surface, underwater natives like the loggerhead musk turtle, manatee, and Florida gar! At certain springs, many of these species can be seen right from the nature trail along the spring run.
Clean, clear water flowing from the aquifer at a constant temperature are the essential ingredients that support the variety of life found in and around a spring. This chapter will give you an overview of the flora and fauna you can expect to see in a Florida spring and will also take us deeper into spring ecosystems explaining how these plants and animals rely on clean water and one another to thrive.
Springs biology is the in-depth study of primary producers (aquatic plants, algae and mosses), and consumer groups including invertebrates, fish, reptiles, amphibians, birds and mammals that inhabit Florida’s freshwater springs. The primary producers of Florida springs include various groups of algae (diatoms, filamentous algae and chara), true mosses, submerged aquatic vegetation, and emergent wetland vegetation as well!
Drawing of a great soft-shelled tortoise by famous 18th century explorer and naturalist, William Bartram.
Springs Flora & Fauna
A Deeper Look: Springs Ecology
There are many different types of organisms inhabiting Florida’s springs such as plants, insects, and fish. Each of these organisms are dependent on each other in different ways! For example, snails depend on algae for food while fish depend on vegetation for habitat structure. All of these different plants and animals interacting with each other, as well as their physical environment (rocks, soil, water, etc.), make up what we call an ecosystem. Ecosystems are often characterized by specific roles played by each living and non-living thing – each member of the ecosystem has the potential to directly affect the ability of another to survive. Commonly one organism will depend on other organisms as their source of food. The organisms in an ecosystem are often categorized by degrees of consumption or trophic levels. Each trophic level represents a step further removed from the earth’s original energy source, the sun.
The most basic trophic level is occupied plants and other photosynthetic organisms that we call producers. Producers capture the energy from the sun’s rays to make their own food in the form of sugars. By converting energy from sunlight into chemical energy/food, plants and other photosynthetic organisms “produce” usable energy for the rest of the ecosystem. The next step up from producers are the primary consumers. These organisms feed solely on producers to get their energy. From there we have secondary (2°, feed on primary consumers) , tertiary (3°), and quaternary (4°) consumers, which feed on other consumers of equal to lower level. Springs have what scientists call a “high level of primary production”, meaning these hard working ecosystems are able to support a very diverse amount of invertebrate and vertebrate consumer groups, should they be protected and left to thrive on their own. See how the organisms in a spring ecosystem rely on one another in the food web graphic below!
Springs Food Web
The food web to the right demonstrates how energy flows between organisms in a healthy spring ecosystem. The arrows point towards the source of energy or “food source” for each living thing. Notice how each organism depends upon another for their food source. If one of these organisms were to “disappear” from the web, every other organism would be affected as a result. We call this process a trophic cascade. Spring ecologists are observing negative changes in water quality that are causing trophic cascades, mainly due to an over-abundance of filamentous algae as well as declines in aquatic plant cover and snail abundance. With the loss of submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV), other species are negatively impacted due to loss of habitat structure and food source – SAV and the epiphytic algae that grows on its surface. When you look at the springs food web, see if you can identify which species are impacted the most by the loss of SAV!
Up Next: History of Florida Springs
A Look into the Past
Long before theme parks, Florida’s springs were the original tourist attractions drawing people from around the country to experience their clear, cool waters. The simplest reflection of springs influence in history can be found in the names of many Florida towns like DeLeon Springs, Silver Springs, and High Springs, just to name a few. Some of the springs for which these towns are named no longer exist, but some still do and they are an intense wealth of cultural significance and economic benefit. Before us, springs were watering holes and hunting grounds for ancient mankind and megafauna like the mastodon, ground sloth, bison, and dire wolf. Beneath the surface of some of these springs, Archaeologists have found a “treasure trove” of items dating over 12,000 years old! In one spring restoration site, the Chassahowitzka River, a team found items from virtually every period of human habitation in Florida. Springs offer endless insight into life before us.
Explore the interactive timeline below to learn more about the history of springs!
Spring History Timeline
The oldest rocks exposed at the surface in Florida are limestones and dolostones that were deposited in a shallow, warm sea during the Middle Eocene age. These rocks consist of the remains of marine organisms (foraminifera, mollusks, echinoids) that died and settled to the bottom of the sea. These limestones comprise part of the Floridan aquifer system, one of the most productive aquifers in the world and the source for most of Florida’s spring water.
Main Image: Remains of marine organisms (foraminifera, mollusks, echinoids) that died and settled to the bottom of the sea 40 million years ago. © FDEP – Harley Means
30 Million Years Ago
In response to a global sea-level decline, the Florida Platform emerges from the sea. While the Florida Platform is exposed above sea-level, the process of karstification begins forming the void spaces in the limestone, some of which would later become Florida’s springs. Fossil remains of the first land mammals that found their way into Florida during this time can be found in sinkhole deposits today.
2.6 Million Years Ago
The beginning of the Pleistocene epoch otherwise known as the ice age. Massive continental glaciers advance and retreat causing sea-levels to fluctuate widely. Florida is undergoing further karstification and the Floridan aquifer system repeatedly fills with and drains with fresh water. Many of our springs are actually formed during this time as sinkholes and as water levels in fluctuate, some begin to discharge water becoming springs.
Humans arrive in Florida
Humans arrive in Florida in search of fresh water, game and fish, and chert resources, all of which are commonly found at springs! Evidence of their arrival in the form of bone and chert tools and the butchered remains of Pleistocene animals, is commonly found at Florida’s springs. Some of the earliest known human artifacts to date have come from Silver Springs, Wakulla Springs and the Wacissa River (which is spring-fed) among others.
Florida’s First Spanish Explorer
Juan Ponce de León landed along Florida’s east coast near St. Augustine, naming the new land “La Florida” (“Place of Flowers”). One goal of his exploration in the region was to locate Bimini, whose legendary spring, referred to by Native Americans as the “fountain of youth”, was believed to make older people young again. His interaction with the Calusa Indians in 1521 ended badly when Juan was shot with an arrow. He would later die of this wound in Cuba.
Fossilized Mastadon Recovered from Wakulla Springs
Fossil bones of a mastodon are recovered from Wakulla Spring. The fossils were later rearticulated and the skeleton is currently on display at the R.A. Gray Building in the Museum of Florida History in Tallahassee. 1930s- Glass bottom boats became widely used to enhance the Silver Springs attraction. Herpetologist Ross Allen brings alligator, snake, and turtle shows to Silver Springs as part of the “Ross Allen’s Reptile Institute”.
Edward Ball Purchases Wakulla Springs
Edward Ball, brother-in-law of chemical tycoon Alfred DuPont, purchases Wakulla Springs. Construction of a Spanish-style twenty-seven room lodge at Wakulla Springs begins in order to create an exclusive resort. The Silver Springs attraction is enhanced by the addition of a Seminole Indian Village.
Tarzan and Monkeys at Silver Springs
Colonel Tooey imports rhesus monkeys and releases them on an island in the middle of the Silver River. Colonies of their descendants populate forests around the Silver Springs attraction. Johnny Weissmuller stars in Tarzan Finds a Son, which is filmed at Silver Springs.
First Study of Florida Springs by FGS/ USGS
The first comprehensive study on Florida’s springs titled “The Springs of Florida” is published by the Florida Geological Survey and US Geological Survey. This 196 page volume describes over one hundred springs, their location, flow, and water chemistry data.
Mr. Peabody and Mermaid at Weeki Wachee Spring
Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid is a 1948 fantasy film starring William Powell and Ann Blyth in the title roles. Irene Hervey played Mr. Peabody’s wife. The film was based on the 1945 novel Peabody’s Mermaid by Guy and Constance Jones. Sequences were shot at the Weeki Wachee Springs in Florida.
Manatee State Park Established
Manatee Springs is the first large spring acquired as a Florida State Park! Seventeen additional state parks will be created between now and 2008, with Weeki Wachee State Park established in 2008.
Scuba Comes to Florida Springs
An unnamed National Speleological Society diver is believed to be the first person to use SCUBA in a Florida spring, diving into the Ichetucknee Blue Hole (Jug Spring) to retrive a pair of prehistoric alligator skulls for a biology professor at the University of Florida. In 1953, Charles McNabb, Bill Ray and Frank DenBlykker make the first documented exploratory cave dives in Florida using SCUBA, in the Main (Mammoth Spring) vent at Silver Springs.
Gary Cooper in Distant Drums at Silver Spring
Gary Cooper and Mari Aldon star in Distant Drums, filmed at Silver Springs. The film was set in the everglades in the 1840s during the Second Seminole War. The Creature from the Black Lagoon, starring a gruesome gill man played by Ricou Browing is filmed on location at Wakulla Springs, Silver Springs, and Green Cove Springs. It was one of the first films filmed in 3-D.
Landmark Ecosystem Characterization at Silver Springs
Landmark ecosystem characterization is performed at Silver Springs by Dr. Howard T. Odum, whose studies of trophic energy flows would later greatly influence the development of the field of ecosystem ecology.
Before Florida’s population skyrocketed in the 1960’s and the mass development, deforestation, and farming of land came as a result, Florida’s springs looked a bit different than the springs we see today. Most people who see the springs for the first time are blown away by their beauty, but some of those who experienced them years ago have a different story. The following collection of images offer a glimpse into what springs used to look like and what they look like today. The contrast between images speak volumes to our actions in the past 20-30 years.
Up Next: Spring Impacts
Main Threats to Springs
Five decades of population growth have taken a toll on our aquifer and its springs. In this section we will learn about some of the problems facing our groundwater supply and the springs. To understand how our springs are threatened, we have to consider the actions in our everyday lives that could be affecting our groundwater.
The major issues impacting the health of the springs include population growth, urban sprawl, growing demand for groundwater and introduction of fertilizers, pesticides and other pollutants to our ground surface. Threats to the quality and quantity of water in Florida’s aquifer and springs can be classified into three different categories: inputs or the contaminants we put in; outputs or the amount of water we take out of the aquifer; and impacts or the physical damage we cause to a spring itself.
In 2015, an estimated were withdrawn from the Floridan Aquifer.
Issues That Need to be Addressed
Water Consumption and Overuse
Although it is known around the world as “the Sunshine State”, Florida could very well be called “the Water State”. Yet, Florida’s abundance of aquatic environments does not mean that we have water to spare. Every day, over three billion gallons of groundwater for the state are consumed to satisfy the demands of municipal and public water supply, agriculture, industry, power plants, and development, and as a result, we are depleting our water resources faster than they can be replenished. Excess groundwater use does not simply mean we may one day run out of water. It also has a direct, negative impact on the biological communities of springs as well as possibly leading to the collapse of the underground geologic structures and the formation of sinkholes. We can do our part by reducing our water use every chance we get.
Landscaping & Lawn Care
The quest for the perfect weed-free, green lawn has major negative impacts on the environment and our water. The typical Florida yard seems to be little more than a “postage stamp” on the land. Yet, the collective impact of an estimated three-million postage stamp lawns is having a significant impact on both the quality and quantity of water in the aquifer. Many homeowners use varieties of grass requiring large amounts of fertilizer that contribute to high levels of nitrates in the aquifer, our source of drinking water. These nitrates in the water contribute to nuisance algae growth and can endanger fragile plants and wildlife species in the springs. The same lawns along with landscaping with non-native plants also require daily watering and frequent applications of chemical pesticides to keep them healthy and disease-free. Nearly fifty percent of all water withdrawn for public supply is used solely to water residential lawns and landscaping.
Development & Sprawl
Florida’s expanding population has put pressure on the natural spaces that filter and recharge our springs and drinking water source. The rapid increase in population since the 1950s has led to dramatic changes in land use, transforming rural areas that were once dominated by forests and native grasslands into residential developments, shopping centers, and industrial parks. The increase in pavement, roads, and other impervious surfaces associated with development prevent rainwater from percolating into the aquifer and increase the amount of harmful chemical pollutants making their way underground into our water.
Human waste has very high levels of nutrients as well as pharmaceutical and hormonal contaminants such as antibiotics, hormones, and opiates. These contaminants find their way into our surface waters and groundwater. In many large cities around the state, sewage spills caused by failing wastewater infrastructure systems are leading to pollution in springs, rivers, lakes, and beaches. Insufficient wastewater management isn’t just an issue in large cities either. Onsite sewage treatment and disposal systems, commonly referred to as septic systems, are used by 30 percent of Florida’s population. Poorly maintained, they leak and overflow of human waste. That waste then makes its way into the groundwater beneath. Often times, ending up in the same water that comes back out in your tap, should you have well water access. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends septic systems be inspected every 1 to 3 years. While this is recommended, most Florida residents remain unaware of that responsibility. Only about 100,000 septic tanks in Florida are inspected/pumped yearly.
Row Crop Agriculture
Row crop agriculture is an important part of the state’s economy. However, intensive methods of farming can introduce harmful fertilizers and pesticides to our water supply.
Row-crop agriculture is a $5.5 billion dollar business in Florida. Yet, row-crop agriculture can have a detrimental impact on both quality and quantity of Florida’s groundwater. Every year, millions of tons of fertilizers and pesticides are applied to fields to improve crop yields, kill insects and prevent disease. Unfortunately, some of these pesticides and fertilizers leach directly underground or enter the aquifer through sinkholes and surface rivers. Like chemicals used in residential landscaping, agricultural fertilizers and pesticides can pollute our drinking water and harm sensitive biological communities at the springs. Row-crop agriculture is also Florida’s second largest consumer of groundwater, accounting for a significant percentage of the more than 1.7 billion gallons withdrawn from the aquifer for agriculture each day.
Each year, pollutants from tons of animal wastes from livestock and poultry farms make their way into the aquifer and springs.
Florida’s dairy and livestock industry is one of the largest in the country, occupying over 700,000 acres of land. However, livestock farms can have a significant impact on both the quality and quantity of the water stored in Florida’s aquifer. Each year, over 400,000 tons of animal wastes enter our groundwater through surface streams, sinkholes, and swallet holes, and through direct infiltration into the soil. Weeks, months, and sometimes even years later, these contaminants end up in our drinking water and in the springs themselves where they can negatively affect sensitive underwater plant and invertebrate species. Crops like sorghum and corn which are grown to feed Florida’s livestock also require fertilizers and pesticides and water withdrawals for irrigation.
Runoff and Stormwater
Stormwater run-off and pollution represents one of the most serious threats to the health of Florida’s groundwater. As stormwater flows off of highways, county roads, parking lots, and residential developments, it carries with it heavy metals, petroleum by-products, pet wastes, and pollutants. Stormwater primarily affects surface waters, however some of these contaminants may reach the aquifer. These contaminants may be putting stress on native plants and animals, and endangering endemic underwater invertebrates that exist nowhere else in the world. Stormwater that is directed into karst features like sinkholes without any form of pre-treatment can have an even greater direct impact on groundwater quality and the springs.
Publicly-owned springs are open for everyone to enjoy, but each year millions of visitors damage spring environments by trampling vegetation above and below water and by carelessly discarding trash. Springs recreation and attractions are a multi-million dollar industry in north Florida. Due to their immense popularity as locations for camping, swimming, tubing, diving, and canoeing, some springs are being “loved to death”. During the peak summer months, for instance, Ichetucknee Springs State Park’s daily limit of 750 tubers on the upper river can be reached within an hour after the park opens. Such concentrated human use can have a direct impact on the springs as well as the animals and plants that live there. Tubers and swimmers can unknowingly trample native vegetation and increase turbidity or cloudiness of water, while on the edges of the springs and spring runs uncontrolled foot traffic can increase bank erosion. Trash and other human refuse left behind at the springs can also introduce pollutants into the water and harm native wildlife such as turtles and manatees which might mistake plastic bags and wrappers for food.
Florida’s golf courses occupy more than two hundred thousand acres of land. Much of this land is covered with varieties of grass that are fertilized and treated with pesticides that may leach into the aquifer. Over fifteen hundred golf courses exist in Florida, more than any other state in the country, and the number continues to grow each year. Like other development in natural open spaces, golf courses can have a negative impact on Florida’s aquifer by altering traditional, rural land uses within spring recharge basins as well as increasing nutrient loads and water withdrawals. In many areas of Florida, golf courses are also associated with residential “country club” communities that introduce additional threats to the springs by increasing residential landscaping, household water use, and direct recreational impacts.
Invasive plant species like hydrilla and water lettuce are choking many springs and spring runs. Hydrilla is a major problem in some springs, growing rapidly and replacing native eelgrass and eliminating the open areas of the spring. Spirogyra and Lyngbya, native but potentially troublesome algae, grows quickly in response to the elevated nitrate levels, forming mats that smother the native aquatic vegetation on the spring floor. Control of these invasive species requires labor-intensive manual removal in some cases.
Up Next: Springs Management
Water Management in the State of Florida
To understand how springs are managed, we must first understand how our water resources are managed in the state of Florida. Environmental resource management can be difficult to understand but we’ve broken it down for you in the following chapter. We hope that with a greater understanding of water management you can go on to become an educated and effective springs advocate for our state.
Florida springs are managed by five government agencies, the first is the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the remaining four are the water management districts that govern the Florida springs region.
Water Management Districts (WMD)
The five water management districts of Florida are Northwest Florida, Suwannee River, St. John River, Southwest Florida, and South Florida Water Management Districts. The Florida spring region reaches into parts of four water management districts (Northwest, Suwannee River, St. Johns, and Southwest Florida Water Management District). Each water management district is governed by a Governing Board made up of appointees from within their District. These board members are appointed by the Governor or Florida (Rep. Ron Desantis) and confirmed by the Florida Senate. WMD board members should represent a cross section of interests, including the environment, agriculture, local government, recreation, and business interests.
Water Management District Boards have three primary powers:
- Issue Consumptive Use Permits
- Levy ad-valorem taxes
- Set protective standards (Minimum Flows and Levels) for water resources
in their district.
Learn about how consumptive use permits and Minimum Flows and Levels
determine the protection of springs below.
Water Management District Regions
“Water management districts are the most significant entities in Florida as far as affecting the physical and growth management aspects of the state”
– Estus Whitfield, chief policy advisor to six Florida Governors
Consumptive Use Permitting Explained
A Consumptive Use Permit is required for any withdrawal of water of over 100,000 gallons per day. These permits allocate a specific amount of water, for a set period of time, under specific conditions.
To obtain a Consumptive Water Use permit, an applicant must prove the water use is:
- Reasonable and beneficial.
- Does not interfere with an existing permitted use.
- In the public interest (interpreted as having a public interest, not a net public interest).
- In cases of water shortage, governing boards are authorized to reserve water from use, or impose restrictions on existing permits.
Minimum Flows & Levels (MFLs)
Minimum Flows and Levels (MFLs) are defined as the minimum flows or minimum water levels at which further withdrawals would be significantly harmful to the water resources or ecology of the area.
Establishing MFLs is the main way our water management districts can protect our springs from significant harm. When defined correctly, MFLs protect springs, lakes, wetlands, aquifers, rivers, streams, and estuaries.
Important to know about current MFLs for outstanding Florida springs:
- In theory, MFLs can be used to protect waters from negative impacts from human impacts such as over-pumping and pollution.
- A “recovery or prevention strategy” allows the Board to deny new consumptive use permits or the reserve water from existing permits
- Despite the clear intention of the law, MFLs are currently being set at flows and levels which are not protective of the resource.
- According to research provided by the Florida Springs Institute, MFLs are being proposed which would allow increased pumping in already impacted waters.
Call to Action: Fill Our Water Management District Board Seats!
As we stand, there are an alarming amount of WMD governing board vacancies (17/40 seats are empty) in the four water management districts that govern the Florida springs region. There are currently zero environmental science or conservation representatives sitting on any four water management district boards. Encourage Governor DeSantis to appoint qualified water management district board members and fill governing board vacancies by calling his office at (850) 717-9337 and leaving a message stating:
1. Water management district boards should not make any decisions, including water use permits, until all of the vacancies are filled, and
2. It’s time to appoint some of the qualified applicants whose resumes sit on his desk – representatives from science and conservation.
Take it a step further by joining or donating to the Florida Springs Council. The Council is a consortium of member organizations from all over the state who are working together to ensure the restoration, preservation, and protection of Florida’s freshwater springs and the Floridan Aquifer through advocacy and legal action. — Updated 11/5/2019
Florida Department of Environmental Protection
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP), unlike our water management districts, is part of the executive branch and answers directly to the Governor’s Office. FDEP is run by a Secretary appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the Senate, our current FDEP secretary is Noah Valenstein (updated 11/5/2019). FDEP’s budget is decided by the Legislature in the General Appropriations Act. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection is in charge of regulating water quality across the state and oversees water management district’s decisions. FDEP’s principal mechanism for monitoring and improving water quality of springs is the Total Maximum Daily Load process and Basin Management Action Plans.
Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs)
A TMDL is a scientific determination of the maximum amount of a given pollutant that a surface water can absorb and still meet the water quality standards that protect human health and aquatic life. Water bodies that do not meet water quality standards are identified as “impaired” for the particular pollutants of concern – nutrients, bacteria, mercury, etc. – and TMDLs must be developed, adopted and implemented to reduce those pollutants and clean up the water body.
The Total Maximum Daily Load program steps:
- Assess the quality of water
- Determine if the water body is impaired
- Establish and adopt, by rule, a TMDL for each impaired water for the pollutants of concern–the ones causing the water quality problems
- Develop, with extensive local stakeholder input, Basin Management Action Plans (BMAPs) that….
- Implement the strategies and actions in the BMAP
- Measure the effectiveness of the BMAP, both continuously at the local level and through a formal re-evaluation every five years.
- Adapt–change the plan and change the actions if things aren’t working
- Reassess the quality of surface waters continuously
Basin Management Action Plans (BMAPs)
Basin Management Action Plans is FDEPs “blueprint” for protecting impaired waters by reducing pollutant loadings to meet the allowable loadings established in a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL). The plan defines a set of strategies such as permit limits on wastewater facilities, urban and agricultural best management practices, conservation programs, financial assistance and revenue generating activities, etc. – designed to implement the pollutant reductions established by the TMDL. These broad-based plans are developed with local stakeholders – they rely on local input and local commitment – and they are adopted by Secretarial Order to be enforceable.
Basin Management Action Plans should define or enforce the following:
- Sufficient projects and better management practices capable of reaching the Total Maximum Daily Load target.
- For most waters, the presence of a BMAP prohibits activities which pollute water further
- In 2016, legislation was passed requiring the adoption of BMAP’s for all 30 Outstanding Florida Springs.
- The following additional protections for all Outstanding Florida Springs in priority focus areas.
- No new septic tanks on small lots
- No new conventional wastewater treatment facilities
- New Agriculture operations must adopt best management practices
- Evaluation of BMAPs progress every 5 years
Outstanding Florida Springs
In 2016, Senate Bill 552 created the “Florida Springs and Aquifer Protection Act,” in which the Legislature designated Outstanding Florida Springs (OFS). Senate Bill 552 required that minimum flows or minimum levels (MFLs) be set for all OFS on or before July 1, 2017. Section 373.802(4), Florida Statutes (F.S.), defines “Outstanding Florida Springs” or “OFS” to include all historic first magnitude springs, as determined by the department using the most recent Florida Geological Survey springs bulletin, and the following additional six springs: DeLeon, Peacock, Poe, Rock, Wekiva, and Gemini. OFS do not include submarine springs or river rises. There are 30 OFS springs consisting of 24 historic first magnitude springs and the 6 named additional springs.
All is Not Well in the Land of a Thousand Springs
Though there are government agencies and a multitude of springs protection laws and regulations in place (some strong and some not-so-strong) Florida’s springs have continued on their downward trend. Overall, springs have experienced a -32% reduction in flow since the 1930s and 82% of Florida’s springs are considered impaired. These numbers have only worsened over the past 90 years. The state of our water is a growing health concern, a saddening environmental crisis, a looming economic disaster, and a public relations nightmare for Florida.
Protecting springs is but an added benefit to ensuring the health of our drinking water. As intelligent, civilized people, we must continue to explore ways to grow our food and dispose of our waste without depleting and polluting our water source.
The End is Near! Up Next: Make A Splash
As a water lover and every day water user, there are many things you can do to change the fate of our springs! Our voice and our actions have more of an impact than you might think. An upwelling of outdoor enthusiasts, concerned citizens, and young leaders are taking a stand together against the pollution and degradation of Florida’s springs. All it took was one person standing up and being brave enough to fight for their natural world. The rest of us follow with a strong mutual appreciation for our natural world and a common belief that our state is a better place with it’s springs flowing clean and strong. From easy lifestyle changes, to taking a brave stands against political injustice…
Together We CAN Change the Fate of Florida's Springs!
Steps You Can Take to Protect Springs:
Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary, Noah Valenstein, enjoying paddle on the Santa Fe River in High Springs, FL. This trip was a citizen organized initiative which aimed to connect political leaders with the beauty of Florida’s springs.
Photo by John Moran
The most important step of all, leveraging your power as a voter to ensure the protection of our natural resources. Many of the issues our springs and water face can be solved by political and regulatory intervention. As Floridians it’s our responsibility to protect our water, land, and wildlife for now and for future generations. Be aware of who your legislators and representatives are. Keep up to date on current policies and upcoming policy changes. Get involved in the political process. Find representatives who vow to protect our water and natural resources. Find people and organizations to learn from. Don’t be afraid to talk politics when it comes to protecting our natural resources.
We recommend connecting with the Florida Springs Council, Florida Conservation Voters, or other non-partisan groups/organizations working to educate the public about natural resource management and policy, holding elected officials accountable, and helping Floridians elect the public officials who will enact sound policies for our natural lands and water .
Reduce Your Water Use
1. Check to see if your plumbing has any leaks. Read your water meter before and after a two-hour period when no water is being used. If the meter does not read exactly the same, you have a leak.
2. Often, toilets have quiet leaks. To find out if your toilet is leaking, add a little food coloring to the tank. If the color appears in the bowl 30 minutes later, your toilet is leaking.
3. Upgrade toilets and install low-volume toilets that use half the water of older models.
4. Every drop counts, so turn off the faucet! Don’t let the water run while doing the dishes, brushing your teeth, shaving, or washing your face and hands.
5. Take shorter showers. You can save several gallons for every minute saved in the shower. Replace your showerhead with an ultra-low flow model. They’re easy to install.
6. Install aerators on all household faucets; they slow the flow of water.
7. Reuse water. Catch water while you shower and use it to water plants. Try the same technique when washing vegetables or rinsing dishes. Use rain barrels to capture and store rainwater to water plants.
8. Ensure that your septic tank and drain field are properly maintained. More on septic maintenance below.
9. Do not over-water your lawn. Use a rain gauge to determine when and if you need to water. Follow irrigation laws. Never water your lawn during the heat of the day when water easily evaporates, or during rainy season when your lawn is already receiving enough water.
10. Speak with your Homeowners Association about adopting a Florida Friendly Landscaping program for your nieghborhood.
Grow Native & Cut the Chemicals
1. Learn how you to transition to a Florida Friendly Yard. Florida friendly landscaping can save money, time, effort, and reduce your water and nutrient footprint. Plant native or drought-tolerant trees, shrubs, ground cover and flowers to minimize water use. Native plants will also attract desirable wildlife like butterflies and hummingbirds. Find out what plants are best for your part of the state here. The Florida Friendly Landscaping Program is funded by University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP).
2. Join your local Native Plant Society chapter to learn about Florida native plant landscaping and connect with others like you who are taking a responsible step towards water stewardship.
3. With the correct grass seed mix and native plants, we can completely avoid the need for fertilizers. If you must fertilize, use only slow release varieties for residential lawns and gardens. Be sure to have a soil test done to determine if fertilizers are even necessary in your region.
4. Do not over-water your lawn. Use a rain gauge to determine when and if you need to water. Follow irrigation laws. Never water your lawn during the heat of the day when water easily evaporates, or during rainy season when your lawn is already receiving enough water.
5. Only use pesticides if absolutely necessary and apply them only to the affected plants or area of lawn. A reminder, native Florida plants are naturally more resistant to pests.
6. Use mulch in plant beds and leave grass clippings on the lawn after mowing. Mulching helps prevent evaporation of moisture from the soil.
Septic System Inspections & The 3Ps
- Only flush the 3Ps: Paper, Poo and Pee! EVERYTHING else belongs in the trash, including “flushable” wipes.
- As a homeowner, it is YOUR responsibility to maintain your septic system. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends septic systems be inspected every 1 to 3 years. While this is recommended, most Florida residents remain unaware of their responsibility. Only about 100,000 septic tanks in Florida are inspected/pumped yearly…out of 30% of our population.
- Find out if you qualify for FDEPs Septic Upgrade Incentive Program. This program is for owners of existing, conventional septic systems to help pay for a repair or modification that adds advanced features to reduce nitrogen pollution. Incentives only are available in designated areas, called Priority Focus Areas, within nine counties of Florida. See if you live in one of those nine counties here!
Talk With Your Representatives
2. More often than not, representatives are unaware or misinformed about the threats facing our springs, and what they can do to protect them. If it’s our job to speak up for our wants, needs, and expectations. Approach them with a positive attitude and educate them the best that you can.
3. Calling or scheduling a group meeting with your state representative tends to be more effective than emailing or sending a mailed letter.
4. Be prepared to make a strong argument. If you’re not confident that you can communicate your issue clearly, try inviting a springs expert or someone who knows a bit more about springs than you. The Florida Springs Council is a great resource for information/guidance on springs and water policy as well. Or instead, invite a few friends, a family member, or a colleague who shares your concern and lives in the same district as you.
5. Find common ground, politicians are people too. It’s much easier and more rewarding to communicate over a difficult issue when you can find common ground to walk. Does your representative enjoy visits to the springs too? What about wildlife watching or fishing? Find any common interest you may have in restoring the resource.
6. If your health, well-being, or wallet is being affected by poor water quality, tell them HOW. Bring evidence such lab results, photos, or short videos of the state of your water.
7. If the issue is of pressing concern and enough people have brought the issue to their attention, they will be motivated to take action on the issue.
Get Involved with Organizations Fighting for Springs
Non-profit organizations who are working to protect our natural resources have the expertise necessary to lead and spearhead effective group efforts. If you don’t know where to start or want to put your time and money where it counts, volunteer or donate to a non-profit who is working hard to protect Florida’s springs. We recommend researching the following organizations.
Non-Profit Organizations working to protect springs statewide
A gentle reminder that this educational website was made possible by grants and generous donations to the Florida Springs Institute, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. We hope to keep this educational resource available for years to come. Visit our website to explore onsite educational programs, publications, volunteer and internship opportunities, or to donate today!
Does your organization or an organization you know of belong on this list? Let us know at email@example.com.
Stay Informed & Share Your Knowledge!
1. Get involved in local planning.
2. Encourage and support the county and city leaders to make stormwater and land use decisions that will safeguard the groundwater flowing to our springs.
3. Support your water management district in protecting groundwater.
4. Help teach others about groundwater issues and responsible landscaping. Volunteer and become an advocate for a spring.
5. The next time you visit a spring with your friends, family, especially your children, explain the importance of protecting these beautiful natural resources.
6. Encourage schools and teachers to educate their students about protecting our natural resources. Share this website and its many teacher resources.