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 in time there are a great many environmental challenges competing for our attention, but few as immediate as those connected with food and water. I have to admit that not so long ago I managed to keep myself oblivious to the environmental crises now escalating in Florida and elsewhere. It’s common to want to overlook social and environmental issues up until the moment we feel the reality of a direct impact. For me transformation began when a I became aware that there were growing threats to the health of Warm Mineral Springs here in Sarasota County and realized an imminent need for the preservation, protection and depth study of this unique and valuable natural resource---issues which are still not being addressed by the stewards (City of North Port.)
I began to look around for like-minded people, and discovered an article in the Herald Tribune entitled PROTECT WARM MINERAL SPRINGS’ FLOW by Jono Miller, a respected local environmentalist and educator. Miller’s article inspired me to look around the state to learn more about the ecology of springs in 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 real issues that concern Florida springs and water resources.
Springs have a magic and a 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 think it’s because springs bring to the surface the lifeblood of Mother Earth and sometimes, as is the case with Warm Mineral Springs, this lifeblood is prehistoric---or at least very old.
My globetrotting has permitted me to visit springs and cenotes all around the world. 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. The water has no thermal value, nor significant mineral properties, nonetheless attracts Catholic religious pilgrims from near and far who hope for a curative experience. In this particular case, whatever the spirit and nature of place, the original mythos has been overshadowed by a great deal of hype inclusive 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 indigenous people of New Zealand and the New Zealand Government, both of which take great pride and care to protect and preserve 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 great blessing , which provided a never to be forgotten impression of deep beauty, but 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 were to wonder what pure nature would have looked like in Florida a hundred years ago, visit Te Waikoropupu, and if you have a heart for nature you will probably weep. For you will see and feel the sacred character of a spring manifest in both a physical and spiritual sense. The concept of preservation and protection is taken very seriously among New Zealanders.
Not so much in Florida, where the sacredness of the natural world is, for all practical purposes diminished or entirely missing. 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. There is plenty of evidence of disdain as 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 north and central Florida as are most of the existing interest groups with the desire and impetus to protect them. Development, pollution and demands on levels of the Florida aquifer continue to take a heavy toll on the health of springs despite the efforts of many organizations and individuals to get the 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 springs lovers need to become increasingly savvy and politically active if things are going to change.
The “Bowls of Light” are Growing Darker
Marjory Stoneman Douglas called Florida Springs “bowls of liquid light” but the 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 is a black fuzz that coats the bottom and sucks 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 has been the fate of many Florida springs, some like White Sulfur Springs, a once popular tourist destination located near Jacksonville, has stopped flowing, apparently due to over pumping of the ground water north of the spring. In the 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, where there were once a great many birds, little fish and turtles, there are few, and the once robust healing influence of the waters is radically diminished.
What can be done? 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, take a look at 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 immediate means at our disposal as individuals---use less water, plant floridascape, reduce or eliminate pesticides. But most of all find a spring and fall in love with it, while you have the opportunity.
This article was reprinted with permission from the author.
Celebrate Earth Day 2016 with the Florida Springs Institute on Friday, April 22nd from 5-10 p.m. at the Great Outdoors in High Springs. For more information, click here.