In 2014, we posted a look at the health of Leon County lakes. Noticing that a number of people are still visiting the page, we’ve produced an updated summary with current data for each major lake in the area.
Rob Diaz de VillegasWFSU-TV
Leon County has a good number of lakes where people can kayak, fish, or hike. We care about the cleanliness of these waterways because we want to play in and around healthy waters. Nature is key to Tallahassee’s quality of life, and a draw for tourists. Well maintained ecosystems and abundant wildlife are a part of that draw. Continue reading →
The striped newt is a bridge between the longleaf pine ecosystem and the many local water bodies that connect to our aquifer. If you want to know more about other longleaf species like red cockaded woodpeckers (one of whose cavity is taken over by another species in the video below) or gopher tortoises (in whose burrows striped newts may shelter during fires), you might enjoy our recent Roaming the Red Hills series. The location of our gopher tortoise video is Birdsong Nature Center, where the stars of our striped newt adventure will be leading the first ever Ephemeral Wetlands Extravaganza this Saturday, May 21 (EDIT: This is event is being rescheduled due to storms forecasted for Saturday morning. Keep an eye on the Birdsong calendar or Facebook page for more information) .
Like in Roaming the Red Hills, original music was composed for this video by local musicians. Hot Tamale has contributed music to EcoAdventures in the past. In one of the first ever posts on this blog, Hot Tamale’s Craig Reeder wrote about their song Crystal Gulf Waters, which was inspired by the 2010 BP Oil Spill. The segment below aired on the May 19 episode of Local Routes.
Rob Diaz de VillegasWFSU-TV
Ryan and Rebecca Means put the future of the striped newt species (in the Apalachicola National Forest, anyway) in the hands of young children. They didn’t intend it to be symbolic; it just seemed like it would make for nice video. And it was. The images do, however, reflect a central mission of the Means’s work with the Coastal Plains Institute: to foster a love of our local ecosystems in the young, with the hope of creating a new generation of stewards. Continue reading →
Video: Titania’s fairy retinue sings a song to ward off beasts of ill omen as she goes to sleep. Likewise, the Friends of Wakulla Springs and the Wakulla Springs Alliance work to ward off threats to America’s largest spring. Jim Stevenson, a board member of Wakulla Springs Alliance, leads our trip, which is based on the Wakulla Springs Overland Tour he he leads with Palmetto Expeditions.
EcoShakespeare is a series of adventures through north Florida/ south Georgia ecosystems. During each trip, adventurers view a scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, each with its own significance to the day’s habitat. Florida State University English professor, Dr. Bruce Boehrer, ties it all together.
Rob Diaz de VillegasWFSU-TV
A Suwannee cooter turtle swims among mats of algae in a sinkhole connected to Wakulla Springs.
While editing the video above, I kept hearing the Standell’s Dirty Water in my head. It’s a strange sort of ode to Boston, with its chorus, “Love that dirty water, Boston you’re my home.” It refers to the polluted Charles River and contains some other less than flattering Bean Town references, but that song and Sweet Caroline are staples at Red Sox games (my wife and I were married in her native Massachusetts, where both songs were loudly sung along to during the reception). Looking at shots of algae mats, the garbage piled into Lake Henrietta, and, most sadly, algae covered turtles, I don’t feel like writing even satirically about loving the quality of the water heading south to Wakulla Springs. Instead, I offer you a song written by William Shakespeare for A Midsummer Night’s Dream (and arranged by Southern Shakespeare Festival’s Stephen Hodges). In it, Titania’s fairy servants call upon Philomel the nightingale to protect her as she sleeps in the woods.
We won’t be interpreting the song literally, because what’s the fun in that? The fairies are attempting to ward off what Dr. Bruce Boehrer calls “beasts of ill omen:” spiders, snakes and snails. In the Wakulla Springs ecosystem, though, these are important members of the food web. Our beasts of ill omen are defined by Madeleine Carr, President of the Friends of Wakulla Springs: dark water, hydrilla, and algae. The creatures mentioned by name in the song actually need protection themselves from these threats to the spring.
When I was meeting with our partners at the Southern Shakespeare Festival to plan EcoShakespeare, one of the themes we wanted to explore was the Victorian concept of the Great Chain of Being. I had a wonderful brainstorming session with Lanny Thomas and Laura Johnson, the Artistic and Executive Directors of the Festival, and Wakulla Springs seemed an ideal place to filter through Shakespeare’s worldview.
On the shores of Lake Munson, Titania’s fairy attendants sing a song to protect her from snakes and spiders. Lake Munson is Tallahassee’s most polluted lake, receiving nitrate filled runoff and having previously been a dumping ground for sewage and industrial waste. Lake Munson feeds Wakulla Springs through the Munson Slough system.
In the Victorian Great Chain, order in the world is maintained by God and queen. It’s a top-down model. You see this at play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Oberon and Titania, as king and queen of the fairies, are a type of nature deity. Their marital discord upsets the skies and the seas, causing problems for plants and animals. That upheaval moved from the top-down. But nature often operates from the bottom-up. Hydrilla entered Wakulla Springs State Park and crowded out apple snails, which deprived one of the park’s showy attractions, the bird on its sign, of its food. So the limpkin left, and has been gone almost two decades. That problem moved its way up the chain, not down. Likewise with algae.
Jim Stevenson leads our pursuit of water as it flows south from Tallahassee and collects contaminants. One contaminant, nitrates, feed a microscopic plant, algae, which accumulates in the water. It forms mats which block out the sun for native marine plants. It blooms and sucks the oxygen out of the water, killing fish. Those fish in turn are meals for birds and other larger animals, the ones tour guides point out on Wakulla Springs boat rides.
Jim Stevenson was once chief biologist for Florida’s State Park Service. In retirement, he has become a fierce advocates for the state’s springs. At the water Treatment facility on Springhill Road, he explains how sewage effluent was treated and piped to spray fields that had been feeding nitrates into the Wakulla Spring system.
Of course, algae and hydrilla didn’t decide one day to become a nuisance and wreck the spring. Hydrilla is an asian import, an aquarium decorative that found its way into American rivers. It was introduced by humans. Nitrates originate from people, too, often right within us. It’s in our poop, which we like to think disappears to a fairy realm once we flush it down. That’s just not true. Utilities have to figure out how to sanitize and dispose of that waste, and the City of Tallahassee’s solution had inadvertently been putting nitrates directly into the aquifer. They have spent a lot of money to fix that problem. Nitrates also come from the synthetic poop substitute we use to make green lawns and larger tomatoes. This assault on the aquifer starts in our homes and is carried by storm water down the streets and into lakes and streams. Many Leon County lakes have sinkholes directly depositing water in the aquifer; many of our streams flow south into the Woodville Karst Plain, where sinkholes abound.
So, top-down and then bottom-up.
Shakespeare’s portrayal of a world controlled by the emotions of fairies is probably more fun than our reality of poop, algae, and invasive hydrilla. Still, with his imagination, and his often wicked sense of humor, I can only imagine that he would craft something simultaneously tragic and comedic from what has happened in Wakulla Springs. In the play, the gentle sea cow, the manatee, comes in and saves the day by coming in and eating the hydrilla in the spring run. In reality, the power to fully save Wakulla Springs lies closer to the top of the Chain of Being, with the humans living in the Wakulla Springshed.
EcoShakespeare and the Wakulla Springshed
It just so happens that our three EcoShakespeare adventures move southward through the geological regions within the Wakulla Springshed, illustrating the different ways we interact with our aquifer depending on where we live.
EcoShakespeare 1: The Streams Region
In our first adventure, we visit the “Big Woods,” a private forest outside of Thomasville, Georgia containing a tract of old growth longleaf habitat. This is in the heart of the Red Hills region, in which a layer of dense red clay sits atop the aquifer, slowly filtering water. It’s referred to as the streams region of the Wakulla Springshsed because much of the rain that falls on it doesn’t actually recharge the aquifer, it just flows away on rivers like the Ochlockonee and Aucilla. According to the Wakulla Spring Restoration Plan (released by the Howard T. Odum Spring Institute), this region adds about one inch of water per year over 770 square miles to the Floridan aquifer.
EcoShakespeare 2: The Lakes Region
We follow Colbert Sturgeon down from Tall Timbers to Lake Iamonia (sounds kind of like ammonia), foraging for natural edibles along the way. Lake Iamonia is one of four major sinkhole lakes in the Red Hills region. Here, we still have that thick red clay to filter our water, but we also have four direct inputs to the aquifer that bypass the clay. These lakes are Iamonia, Jackson, Lafayette, and Miccosukee. This region adds eight inches a year over 250 square miles.
Also known as the Cody Scarp, this is Florida’s ancient shoreline (and maybe, with sea level rise, its future shoreline). This is where the Red Hills end, and our aquifer sits nearer to the surface. This is an important dividing line when thinking about how water penetrates the limestone beneath us.
EcoShakespeare 3: The Woodville Karst Plain (WKP)
Even those of us living in the very south of the Red Hills see our water roll down the Cody Scarp and into the more porous WKP. Rain is more directly in contact with the limestone aquifer here, and so that limestone is more likely to collapse and form a sinkhole. There is little filtration here. In the Red Hills, many contaminants are removed in the ten years or so that it takes to flow through the clay; in the Woodville Karst Plain everything flows right in. This is the most vulnerable part of the Wakulla Springshed. This region recharges the aquifer at a rate of eighteen inches a year over 145 square miles.
Most of all, I would like to thank the Southern Shakespeare Festival. Projects with this kind of unique twist are always great to work on, and more so when you can collaborate with people like Lanny Thomas, Laura Johnson, Kevin Carr, and Stephen Hodges. Michele Belson designed the costumes worn by our uncredited performers, who braved some cold and windy weather to bring this project to life. The SSF performances of a Midsummer Night’s Dream will take place from April 17-19 in the very place that the video above begins, in Cascades Park. You can watch their groovy 60s take on my favorite Shakespeare play, and then gaze at the water flowing from beneath the stage and watch as nitrates feed algae (seriously, that’s what that waterway was meant to do. Please do not touch it!). It promises to be a doubly educational experience.
EcoShakespeare has been produced in association with WNET-TV's Shakespeare Uncovered. Shakespeare Uncovered is made possible by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Major funding is also provided by The Joseph & Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, Dana and Virginia Randt, the LuEsther T. Mertz Charitable Trust, the Lillian Goldman Programming Endowment, The Polonsky Foundation, Rosalind P. Walter, Jody and John Arnhold, the Corinthian International Foundation, and PBS.
Video: Interns at the Gulf Specimen Marine Lab in Panacea, FL, get hands on experience working with marine life and equipment.
Rob Diaz de VillegasWFSU-TV
We’re on a boat, speeding through Apalachee Bay on our way back to land. We’ve accompanied Cypress Rudloe and two Gulf Specimen Marine Lab interns on a trip to collect samples. Buckets full of octopus and sea urchins slosh as I take a good look to my left and right and get a firm perspective of where I am. We’re several miles from the St. Marks Lighthouse; it stands out unmistakably as it was designed to do. Smoke unfurls over it and into the Gulf, from a controlled burn on the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. I look left and see the mouth of the Ochlockonee River, and follow the contour of the land as it curls out of sight to Alligator Point. These interns are preparing for a life that keeps them in places like this. Bravo.
Of course, it’s more than merely being outdoors that they’re getting out of the deal. They’re learning about sea turtle rescue, collecting specimens in the wild, and outreach activities. This includes leading tours and taking the Seamobile out to where kids who don’t always make it to the coast can touch a horseshoe crab. The day after our trip, the Seamobile is going to Thomasville, GA for a festival. The stingray and horse conch that inhabit the tank at the rear of the mobile aquarium will be traveling dozens of miles from their home, but to a place bound to their home nonetheless. Making that connection is part of the educational outreach that interns perform.
“We take the Seamobile around and do programs on sea turtles, coastal watersheds, marine invertebrates,” Tom Harrah told me as he loaded some critters into one of its tanks. Tom manages the Seamobile and the intern program at Gulf Specimen.
Just a few miles west of Thomasville is the upper Ochlockonee River. This makes it a part of Apalachee Bay’s coastal watershed. If rivers are the strings that connect places like Thomasville to the bay, then standing on this boat I am over a knot. Two watersheds meet here, the Ochlockonee and St. Marks, rivers whose mouths I can alternately see by turning my head one way or the other. Somewhat by design, every video I’ve produced over the last few months tugs at this knot, and standing here I trace my way backwards to farms and through underwater caves.
Both Full Earth and Turkey Hill Farms compost using fish waste. The compost should release less nitrogen into waterways than synthetic fertilizers. Both farms are near rivers that drain into Apalachee Bay, so a more efficient means of fertilizing their crops helps keep the watershed cleaner, ultimately benefiting the species that provide fuel to their plants.
In our last segment we covered two farms in the Ochlockonee watershed. Full Earth Farm co-managers Katie Harris and Aaron Suko are cognizant of where their farm is in relation to the river, and it influences the way they work their land. “We don’t want to negatively impact the local waterways and the groundwater.” Aaron told me. “That’s, I’d say, one of the primary reasons we don’t use synthetic fertilizers.” In our first segment on the Red Hills Small Farm Alliance, I talked to Louise Divine. She and her husband, Herman Holley, run Turkey Hill Farm just east of Tallahassee, and near to a small waterway named Black Creek. Like Full Earth, Turkey Hill is an organic food grower. And like Aaron and Katie, Louise and Herman are well aware of their place in the watershed. “I think about it every day.” Louise said. “I think about it when I drive down the highway and I see Roundup sprayed everywhere. And I know that that Roundup ends up in Black Creek and I know that Black Creek goes into the St. Marks and I- it makes me insane.”
Excess nitrates from fertilizers figure prominently in stories we’ve done on Wakulla Springs. It runs off of lawns in Tallahassee and down streets, into sinkhole lakes like Upper Lake Lafayette or into Lake Munson, a heavily polluted waterway that drains into Ames Sink. Dye trace tests have linked Ames Sink to the springs, its water running through one of the largest underground cave systems in the country. Nine miles or so after its water emerges from Wakulla Spring, the Wakulla River meets up with the St. Marks. Wakulla Spring has suffered from an increase an algae due to excess nitrates. Perhaps due to tidal influence, the lower river’s water appears to be cleaner.
Chloe Jackson is an honors biology student at Florida State University. She interned at the Gulf Specimen Lab over the summer, and is currently using their dock for an experiment using recruitment tiles (which should look somewhat familiar for those of you who followed In the Grass, On the Reef over the last few years).
Both the St. Marks and the Ochlockonee provide an important influx of freshwater to coastal ecosystems. “There’s a high level of biodiversity in this area” Tom Harrah said. “There are a lot of rivers coming into the ocean, dumping nutrients. And there’s just animals everywhere.”*
Tom was new to the area when he volunteered at Gulf Specimen as an FSU biology major. Eight years later, he’s still here working and enjoying these natural resources. Intern Cara Borowski’s love of these natural resources manifested itself in a different way, as we cover in the video above. For her, the thrill is getting kids interested in ecology and fostering a spirit of stewardship. When she entered the program, she was aiming to be a research biologist. Now, she’s thinking more about education. Without an opportunity to host field trips and take the Seamobile to schools, she might never have considered this career path.
*If you’re confused about the roles of nutrients, which can cause lethal algal blooms but also provide a foundation for all life on earth, I’ll direct you to this blog post written by Dr. David Kimbro about the nitrogen cycle.
The above photo of an algae covered turtle swimming among algae mats was taken at a sinkhole near to Wakulla Spring. The sink is a stop on Jim Stevenson’s Wakulla Spring Overland Tour, which WFSU will be taping as part of our EcoShakespeare series. Jim uses the sink as an example of the connectivity between area sinks and Wakulla Spring, and to illustrate the high level of nitrates entering the spring. Wakulla Spring’s issues are representative of those facing the larger Floridan aquifer, through which the Wakulla Spring underground cave system runs. The Floridan aquifer was the focus of the Sharing Water Conference in Monticello earlier this month.
Rob Diaz de VillegasWFSU-TV
Are agriculture and the environment inherent enemies? Seven billion people on this planet need to eat. Industrial agriculture produces food on a large scale, but can tax water supplies and create nutrient rich runoff that can wreck marine and freshwater ecosystems. Small organic farms like those in the video above take great care to use practices that protect waterways. But can the world be fully fed by this type of agriculture? In early October, a diverse group of people gathered in Monticello to discuss issues such as these.
On October 2-4 2014, the Sharing Water Conference looked at issues facing the Floridan aquifer. Geologists, legislators, lawyers, land and water managers, farmers, and other concerned citizens gathered to learn about the aquifer and the challenges facing it. Through a series of multidisciplinary discussions, the conference looked to find innovative solutions facing this giant limestone formation that stretches from South Carolina to Orlando.
The aquifer is the source of springs and rivers. And it is also the source of the tap water within its range. Tallahassee has 27 wells that bore beneath the clay of our red hills and into well protected limestone. Cities like Tallahassee and Monticello are situated on red clay which filters pollutants from water as it sublimes into the earth. It’s great protection for the aquifer, but it also means that water fills it slowly, possibly at a rate less than that we withdraw.
In his speech at the conference and in his interview with us, State Senator Bill Montford lamented a decrease in the quality and quantity of water in our springs. As was noted in a recent report on the state of Wakulla Spring, the slow recharge rate of the Red Hills proportionate to water consumption is listed as a possible cause in the increase in the Spring’s dark water days. In other words, we may be using that clear water faster than rain can replace it. The report advocates conservation measures, and public education on better conservation practices.
This water treatment facility in Monticello, FL, uses a five-carousel system to filter human waste from wastewater. The water then travels four miles south to a lake at Simpson’s Nursery. Treated effluent accounts for about 400,000 of the 2 million gallons the nursery uses daily.
Another issue facing Wakulla Spring is an increase of nutrients in the water supply. A problem area identified in the report are the spray fields in the south of Tallahassee, where “gray water” is sprayed on plants in a field located north of sinkholes that feed the Wakulla Spring system. Gray water is treated sewage, with most of the “sludge” removed (What is sludge? Watch the video. I apologize in advance for the image). It does still contain nitrates, an excess of which can contribute to algae growth and possibly the growth of invasive hydrilla. Driving with springs advocate Jim Stevenson yesterday to scout our Wakulla Springs Shakespeare EcoAdventure, he did mention that improvements are being made to the wastewater treatment plant feeding the spray fields that would reduce nitrates from over 12 mg per liter to under 3 mg/L.
As you can see in the video, there is a similar arrangement in Monticello between that city and Simpson’s Nursery. The nursery is located north of the Cody Escarpment, in the Red Hills region; the Tallahassee spray fields are located on the Woodville Karst Plain. The Red Hills filters water and protects the aquifer; on the WKP, the aquifer is much closer to the surface and water enters more freely. The Simpson’s Nursery arrangement seems beneficial to the nursery and to the city of Monticello. The city is spared the expense of disposing of its gray water, and doing so in a way that keeps it out of waterways. The nursery pumps 400,000 gallons a day less from the aquifer, saving in electrical costs. These are the kinds of solutions that were sought at the Sharing Water Conference- private business working together with government to mutual benefit and to the benefit of our groundwater supply.
Both Turkey Hill and Full Earth farms use a compost made from fish waste and wood chips. The fish waste comes from local seafood markets, the wood chips from tree cutters. These products would otherwise have sat in landfills, but now they are used to fertilize plants on these small organic farms. #fishcompost
In the final part of the video, I included interviews I conducted for segments on the Red Hills Small Farm Alliance (watch our first Red Hills Farm EcoAdventure here). I wanted to show alternative methods of protecting waterways. There is a lot of noise about wetlands legislation, and it is definitely important to decide how best to conserve sensitive ecosystems. But many of the burdens placed on our water supply can be eased by more efficient practices in our homes, businesses, and farms. Simpson’s Nursery uses reclaimed and recycled water and reduces their withdrawals from the aquifer. Turkey Hill and Full Earth farms fertilize their plants using materials that would otherwise sit in a landfill, creating compost that keeps nutrients in soils and out of water (not to mention saving local fish markets a trip to the dump). These are practices that are cost effective as well as environmentally friendly.
Cost effective AND environmentally friendly. Beneficial to business AND government. Solutions are out there, and they don’t always have to arise from conflict, which is so often at the center of environmental debates. Do any of you reading this know of any similar “win-win” arrangements that benefit the environment and private interests? Let us know below in the comments section.
The Sharing Water Conference will be held at the Monticello Opera House on October 2 - 4. All events are free, though conference organizers encourage registration to ensure a spot.
Rob Diaz de VillegasWFSU-TV
Jack Carswell went to FSU in the 1950s. Once, sitting in a lecture hall, Jack heard a professor tell his class that a rocket could never maintain a speed great enough to escape the earth’s gravitational pull. “And there I was a few years later, sitting on my porch and looking for Sputnik.” Jack was sitting the in the WFSU lobby his fellow Main Street Monticello members, talking about water issues. He was making a parallel between the seemingly unsolvable tensions between urban growth, agricultural needs, and natural resources like springs. Aeronautical engineers figured out that they could mount one rocket onto another rocket, and ignite the second one once they were in flight to get the burst they needed. Jack is sure that this innovative thinking was a result of one engineer talking the problem through with other engineers. At the The Sharing Water Conference this week in Monticello, Jack hopes that similar conversations might take place as people discuss the future of the Floridan Aquifer.
Wakulla Spring is one of our area’s top tourist attractions, and it supports a diverse ecology as the source of the Wakulla River. However, water usage in the Wakulla springshed, which includes Tallahassee, may be degrading the quality of its water. Elevated nitrate levels have increased algae, and more dark water days have curbed the once popular glass bottom boat tours.
Taking place over three days (Thursday, October 2 through Saturday, October 4) in the Monticello Opera House, the conference will bring together geologists, lawyers, policy makers, water managers, farmers and other stakeholders to discuss a variety of issues. Just as the Floridan Aquifer is vast and complex, so too are the water needs of Florida, Georgia, and Alabama, under which the aquifer sits.
This is the water we drink. It’s the water you swim in at Wakulla Springs, kayak over on the Wacissa River, and it provides some of the freshwater needed to sustain estuaries for seafood species in Apalachee Bay. We take our water’s quantity and quality for granted,but there are issues that threaten both.
Here is a brief look at the event:
Confirmed speakers/ panelists include State Senator Bill Montford, State Representative and President of Simpsons Nursery Halsey Bashears, Audubon Florida Executive Director Eric Draper, and the executive directors of the Southwest Florida & Suwannee River Water Management Districts.
Day one covers the basics of water supply: how the aquifer works, how it is managed, and groundwater depletion. This is the more technical day of the event, but I wouldn’t let that scare you off. If you’re going to understand the policy, it helps to know the science.
Day two looks at the people side of the equation: affected groups (represented by public utilities, agriculture, industry, and environmental groups), solutions to water issues, and the Tampa area water crisis.
Day three gets a little more “hands on.” After an address by Senator Montford, there will be a field trip to Monticello’s wastewater treatment facility, where water is treated and used at Simpsons Nursery. This project is meant to offset half-a-million gallons of groundwater (aquifer) withdrawals a day by the nursery, where the tour will conclude.
On day three, from 8 am to 4 pm, there will also be an exhibit called Water Ventures, a mobile learning lab meant to engage elementary school students to learn about biodiversity, hydrology, and watershed stewardship. Conference organizer Dr. Anne Holt told me “they say it’s for fourth graders, but I think it would be interesting for anyone.” I get what she’s saying. For a lot of people, technical terms and lingo like confined and unconfined aquifer, groundwater, gray water, etc. can leave the layperson confused. This truck tackles a lot of that content visually, perhaps making it more real for those of us have to see things in our heads to “get it.”
Every meeting and panel discussion will be recorded and archived. This is the plan going forward for what will be a biennial event. Conference organizers are excited about the prospect of accumulating the knowledge and discourse shared over the years.