Florida springs are diverse ecosystems that have a substantially positive ecological, cultural, and economic impact. Springs support many endangered species, such as the cave-dependent Putnam County Cave Crayfish (Procambarus morrisi). Manatees also use fresh water springs as a warm water refuge during the winter months.
Not only are Florida’s springs a refuge for endangered manatees, but for people as well. In fact, before Disney was Florida’s most popular tourist destination, Silver Springs held the title. Currently many of Florida’s springs offer some of the best recreational activities; freshwater SCUBA diving and snorkeling in these crystal clear springs is like being in a giant natural aquarium. Where else can you drift down a natural lazy river? Depending on the spring you visit, most offer bird watching, trail hiking, kayaking, fishing, and more.
Florida: a unique natural history
Florida has the densest concentration of springs in the world. This is because Florida’s bedrock is primarily made of limestone, a sedimentary rock that is vulnerable to dissolution. Dissolution occurs when rainwater acidifies and chemically weathers the limestone - creating caverns and sinkholes called karst topography. This kind of topography can become a spring if water levels inside the underlying aquifer are high enough when the sinkhole is formed.
Springs also have important historical sites. 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. Beneath the surface of some of these springs, Archaeologists have found a “treasure trove” of items dating over 12,000 years old and in good condition. In one restoration site-- the Chassahowitzka River-- a team found items from virtually every period of human habitation in Florida!
Springs in Peril
Even though Florida’s springs are a valuable asset in their own right, there are many threats to their survival. Pollution is a big factor in the ecological survival of a spring. Excess nitrogen and fertilizers often find their way into the groundwater and spurs the growth of toxic algae. Often outcompeting naturally established vegetation, this algae create anoxic environments under the surface and produce harmful toxins. These decreased oxygen levels can kill fish and other spring life and the resulting bacteria, in addition to the toxins, foster a concern for public health.
Florida has one of the most productive aquifers in the world
but as the state’s population continues to grow, overdraw
of the aquifer threatens this status.
Significant decreases in water flow can turn springs into stagnant pools, threatening the health of both wildlife and humans. Over-pumping the aquifer can also lead to salinization, or an increased salt content, of the water via saltwater intrusion. As more of Florida’s land is developed, more water is required to sustain growth and is often pumped out of the aquifer at an unsustainable rate, which also decreases spring flows.
This rapid development can also change the hydrology of the environment as a functioning system. Such was witnessed in the early 20th century, when development started in Florida’s Everglades. Winding rivers were straightened to speed up marine shipments and ease city planning headaches, while canals and levees were installed to aid farmers in irrigation and to control flooding. Those major environmental changes affected the flow of water through Florida and negatively impacted groundwater recharge zones, prompting one of the greatest restoration efforts in U.S. history.
But all is not lost. As concerned Floridians, we are called to work together to save these beloved natural resources from further degradation. We all have a role to play in the preservation of Florida’s unique and irreplaceable springs.