Celebrate Earth Day: Visit a Florida Spring
Mar 31, 2016 07:28PM
by Juliette Jones
“Florida has more freshwater springs than anywhere else in the world.
That makes Florida the ‘Springs Heartland’ of planet earth.”
—Lucinda Faulkner Merritt
At this moment, there are numerous environmental challenges competing for our attention, but few as immediate as those connected to food and water. I admit that, not long ago, I was oblivious to the environmental crises currently escalating—both in Florida and elsewhere. It’s tempting to overlook social and environmental until we feel the reality of their direct impact.
For me, transformation began when I learned of growing threats to the health of Warm Mineral Springs here in Sarasota County and realized the imminent need for preservation, protection and depth study of this unique and valuable natural resource—issues which are still not being addressed by the City of North Port stewards.
I began to search for like-minded people and discovered an article in the Herald Tribune titled “Protect Warm Mineral Springs’ Flow” by Jono Miller, a respected local environmentalist and educator. Miller’s article inspired me to learn more about the ecology of springs throughout Florida. I was fortunate to come upon the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute (FSI) in Gainesville, founded by Dr. Robert Knight, an expert on the ecological health and restoration of springs. Becoming a member of FSI provided exposure to individuals, organizations and information essential to my understanding of the issues concerning both Florida springs and water resources as a whole.
Springs possess a magic and mystique about them—attractive to both body and soul. For some deep reason, legends and sacred mythos arise around springs in almost every culture. I believe it’s because springs elevate the lifeblood of Mother Earth to the surface, and sometimes—as is the case with Warm Mineral Springs—this lifeblood is prehistoric, or at least considerably old.
My globe-trotting has permitted me to visit springs and cenotes all around the world. For example, the famous Lourdes waters flow from a spring in France beneath the Grotto of Massabielle where, in 1858, an apparition of the Virgin Mary is believed to have appeared to a young girl named Bernadette. Since that time, miracles of healing are reported to have taken place there. The water has no thermal value, nor significant mineral properties, but nonetheless attracts countless Catholic pilgrims who hope for a curative experience. In this particular case, however, the original mythos has been overshadowed by the hype of souvenir shops, people hawking water in plastic bottles and bath cubicles “purified” by irradiation.
On the other end of the spectrum, Te Waikoropupu Springs, located in Golden Bay on the South Island of New Zealand, elicits a profound feeling of reverence and awe. Te Waikoropupu is the largest cold water spring in the Southern Hemisphere and contains some of the clearest, purest water ever measured. These waters are protected by the nation’s indigenous population, as well as the New Zealand Government, both of which take pride in protecting and preserving this treasured asset for future generations.
No one is allowed to go into Te Waikoropupu without obtaining permission. A plaque at the entrance reads as follows: “Te Waikoropupu Springs are a taonga (treasure) and waahi tapu (sacred place) for the Maori, both locally and nationally. The legends of Te Waikoropupu are told in the stories of Huiawa, its taniwa (guardian spirit). In Maori tradition, the springs are waiora (the purest form of water) which is the wairua (spiritual) and the physical side of life. The springs provide water for healing and, in the past, were a place of ceremonial blessings at times of birth and death, and the leaving and returning of travelers.” Spending time at this spring was a blessing which gave me a lasting impression of beauty and a model of community, deeply aligned in their stewardship and appreciation of this natural wonder.
The people of New Zealand observe a sacred water and springs ethic, wherein it’s commonly understood that Te Waikoropupu provides a sacred link both to the integrity of future generations and the past. If anyone wonders what pure nature would have looked like in Florida a hundred years ago, visit Te Waikoropupu. There, you will see and feel the sacred character of a spring manifest in both a physical and spiritual sense. This concept of preservation and protection is taken very seriously among New Zealanders.
Unfortunately, the opposite is often true here in Florida, where the sacredness of the natural world has significantly diminished. Despite the fact that our human physical form is composed largely of water, our culture has failed to realize the sacred relationship of water to life itself. This evidence of disdain is apparent if we observe the plight of Florida freshwater springs.
“500 years after the arrival of Ponce de Leon on his mythical search (for the fountain of youth), our real magic fountains are imperiled by pollution, neglect and the groundwater demands of a thirsty state. Some have stopped flowing, and many are choked with algae, their blue waters turning murky and green. Once a source of awe, our springs are now a source of deep concern, their future unclear.” Further, “the vast Florida Aquifer, the source of our drinking water and our springs, is neither invulnerable to pollution nor is it infinite. Withdrawals are exceeding deposits in our bank of liquid assets, and saltwater intrusion is rising” (John Moran Springs Eternal Project).
Most Florida springs are located in the north and central regions, as are most of the existing interest groups with a desire and impetus to protect them. Development, pollution and demands on levels of the Florida aquifer continue taking a toll on the health of springs—despite the efforts of many organizations and individuals to get necessary help from the legislature to guard and protect our springs and water resources. Recent announcements, citing efforts toward water protection, are flimsy in their effect and designed for political show. The state of Florida currently lacks the political will to do what is necessary to save the springs, and spring advocates need to become increasingly savvy and politically active in order for this situation to change.
The “Bowls of Light” are Growing Darker.
Marjory Stoneman Douglas called Florida Springs “bowls of liquid light,” but this light has been obscured since her observations of yesteryear. Reporter Dave Struck was raised near Wakulla Springs and writes, “The water visibility is so reduced that Wakulla now only retains one glass bottom boat. The algae are black fuzz that coat the bottom and suck up all the light. The luxurious, waving eel grass is pretty patchy. The schools of fish are mostly missing. The Wakulla Springs of my childhood swimming hole, the Wakulla Springs of jeweled luminescence, now exists only in memories.”
This and worse have been the fate of numerous Florida springs. Some like White Sulfur Springs, a once popular tourist destination located near Jacksonville, once stopped flowing, apparently due to over pumping of ground water north of the springs. Now, it is flowing again—but intermittently. Over these past twelve years, the environment of Sarasota County’s Warm Mineral Springs has changed radically. The sulfur content is greatly reduced, the (good, rare) algae of yesteryear is scarce. Moreover, where birds, fish and turtles once thrived, few remain, and the previously robust healing influence of the waters is profoundly diminished.
What can be done to reverse this effect? First, fall in love with a spring. Begin by checking out the Springs Eternal Project assembled by John Moran, Lesley Gamble and Rick Kilby. Next, check out the Florida Springs Institute website and review information on the collection of freshwater springs featured there. Take a few days and visit a spring. Find a way to be of service to the sacredness of Florida springs and water. There are also immediate means at our disposal—use less water, plant Florida-scape, and reduce or eliminate pesticides. But, above all, cherish these unique ecological wonders, while you have the opportunity.
For more information, visit SpringsEternalProject.org and FloridaSpringInstitute.org.