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Sharing Water Conference: Agriculture Solutions

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 Villegas WFSU-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.

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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.

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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.

Slide presentations from the Sharing Water Conference were uploaded to their site earlier this week.  They are packed with information for those of us who want to learn more.
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Shakespeare EcoAdventures in North Florida

Join us for one of three Shakespearian EcoAdventures!  Enjoy a short performance with Southern Shakespeare Festival actors and a guided tour through north Florida’s unique ecosystems.  It’ll be a day in nature like no other.  Spots are limited, so please enter a drawing to come along.
Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

Had William Shakespeare ever made it to Florida, what would he have written of it?   He was a man who dealt in comedy and tragedy, and he would have found no shortage of either in our fair state.  But he was also man who could capture the beauty of nature and the tumultuousness of ecological upheaval.  It gets me to thinking.  What would a canoe trip down the Wacissa River inspire within him?  What tragedy could he compose from the collapse of Apalachicola’s oyster reef ecosystems?

The wonderful thing about well-crafted language is that it can be universal.  If we remove his words from the context of their plays, or re-imagine their setting, his words could just as easily evoke Wakulla Springs or the Apalachicola National Forest.  And that’s just what we’re looking to do.

In advance of the second season of Shakespeare Uncovered on PBS, we’ll be unleashing Oberon, Titania, and their fairy retinue on the north Florida landscape.  We’re partnering with the reborn Southern Shakespeare Festival, who will be staging a Midsummer Night’s Dream this April at Cascades Park.  We’ll be taping three segments with them, tying verses from the play to our unique natural settings.  And we want you to come along.

Each field trip will feature a short performance, a guided hike, and our area’s reliably stunning visuals.  Fill out a quick form to enter a lottery to come along.  Winners will be selected and notified Monday, October 27th.  Selected participants will be sent video release forms and additional information about each trip.

Fairies sing for the natural order of the Wakulla Springshed

The Wakulla Springs Overland Tour with Jim Stevenson
Saturday November 1
8 am

You spotted snakes with double tongue,
Thorny hedgehogs, be not seen;
Newts and blind-worms, do no wrong,
Come not near our fairy queen.

In Elizabethan England, everyone and everything had its place.  There was an order to the universe, with God and queen at the apex, and lower animals like newts and worms at the bottom.  Similarly, those smaller critters exist in balance with predators and herbivores, feeding on each other and on plants, in an arrangement that brings order to nature.

But the natural order can be upset.

Join Jim Stevenson, former chief biologist for Florida State Parks, as we follow the path of water from Tallahassee to Wakulla Spring.  Urban runoff drains into rivers and lakes, and directly into our aquifer through sinkholes.  The water that emerges from the Spring contains an excess of nutrients that feed algae and invasive hydrilla, lower organisms that upset the balance of life along the Wakulla River.  They encroach on habitats like those of the apple snail.  And they may have forced an animal once emblematic to Wakulla Springs State Park, the limpkin, off of the river.

The Wakulla Springs Overland Tour is presented by Palmetto Expeditions in partnership with the Friends of Wakulla Springs State Park.

Sign up now to enter a drawing for this free EcoAdventure.

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Lake Munson, a scenic yet troubled waterway connected to Wakulla Spring.

 

Foraging for food in a longleaf forest with Puck and Oberon 

Finding food in our natural surroundings
Sunday November 2
8 am

Fetch me that flower; the herb I shew’d thee once:
The juice of it on sleeping eye-lids laid
Will make or man or woman madly dote
Upon the next live creature that it sees.

The pine flatwood communities found throughout our area, when properly burned, shelter within their grasses many succulent plants.  These flowers and weedy forbs feed a wealth of forest critters.  And they can feed us, too, if we know which ones won’t make us violently ill.

Join wilderness survival instructor Colbert Sturgeon as we forage for tasty treats in the woods north of Tallahassee.  In 2013, Sturgeon was featured in an episode of National Geographic’s Journey With Bard (That name is a total coincidence.  Too bad it’s already taken).

Sign up now to enter a drawing for this free EcoAdventure.

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Shakespeare predicts the clear cutting of the coastal plain forest

A glimpse into “Old Florida’s” forested past
Sunday November 9
8 am at Tall Timber Research Station

The ox hath therefore stretch’d his yoke in vain,
The ploughman lost his sweat, and the green corn
Hath rotted ere his youth attain’d a beard;
The fold stands empty in the drowned field,

During Shakespeare’s lifetime, he saw England’s forests harvested to feed printing presses.  A couple of hundred years later, the 90 million acre coastal plain forest of the American southeast helped to build a burgeoning nation.  Less than 3% of that original habitat remains, and most of that has been planted in the last 150 years, replacing the original growth forest.

Jim Cox is the Vertebrate Ecology Program Director at Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy.  He will guide us into rare old growth longleaf pine flatwoods in Florida’s Red Hills region.  There, we will learn about the species that have been lost or made endangered, and about the amazing productivity and diversity of the longleaf/ wiregrass ecosystem.

Sign up now to enter a drawing for this free EcoAdventure.

These segments will air in January on our Dimensions program.  The Southern Shakespeare Festival will also visit WFSQ’s Dan MacDonald to examine the musical selection of April’s production and the evolution of A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s score over the years.  Season 2 of Shakespeare Uncovered will air in late January or early February.  WFSU’s TV and radio content is funded by a grant from WNET, the PBS member station that produces Shakespeare Uncovered.

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Exploring the Small Farms of Florida’s Red Hills

Tennessee Fainting Goats and Red Zinger Tea! There are many interesting things to be found on small farms. Watch as we visit Golden Acres Ranch in Monticello and Turkey Hill Farm in Tallassee’s Baum Community.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

As I was starting preproduction for this piece, my wife Amy prepared a map of Red Hills Small Farm Alliance member farms.  It’s interesting to see the proximity of these farms to water.  Agriculture is of key importance to our water, from the withdrawals farms make from our aquifer to any runoff they might send back to waterways, into sinkholes, and back into the aquifer.  Every farm interacts with its natural surroundings in different ways.

Louise Divine harvests Roselle at Turkey Hill Farm.

Louise Divine harvests Roselle at Turkey Hill Farm.

The Red Hills Small Farm Alliance is a collective of small farms located within 100 miles of Tallahassee, mostly within what is considered to be the Greater Red Hills Region.  This range encompasses several watersheds, from the Wakulla Springshed to the Ochlockonee, St. Marks, and Aucilla rivers.  Many of these waterways have been the setting for previous EcoAdventures, and so have  the protected lands around them.  In the video above, we explore a different kind of outdoor setting that has the potential to either protect or degrade our water.

These small farms make for an interesting alternative kind of outdoor activity.  Many are open to the public to varying degrees (please do call first), and especially so during New Leaf Market’s Farm Tour.  On October 25 and 26, Red Hills farms and other local food producers will open the doors for the public to see.  Many will have rides, treats, and activities for kids.  As I mentioned in my previous post, kids are becoming increasingly out of touch with nature.  The same thing is happening with people and their understanding of where food comes from.  This is part of why these farms are welcoming visitors.  They care about how food is grown, and they often love to share it with you.

The Red Hills Small Farm Alliance has created an event that dovetails with Farm Tour, Seven Days of Local Delights.  Seven Days is a series of workshops, cooking classes, and film screenings like- shameless plug- WFSU’s Oyster Doctors playing at Tall Timbers.

Many of these farms are organic, or at the very least are dedicated to a sustainable way of growing food.  This isn’t a requirement for joining, but RHSFA CO-Executive Directors Louise Divine (Turkey Hill Farm, Tallahassee) and Katie Harris (Full Earth Farm, Quincy) make sure to offer opportunities to learn about sustainable practices through their Growers Circle workshops.  In the video above, we see a little about how Turkey Hill and Golden Acres Ranch raise their products.  Bobbie Golden decided that organic standards were a little too stringent for Golden Acres, but her animals are kept free from chemicals and hormones, and have space to roam.  On the other hand, Louise and Herman Holley at Turkey Hill are fully dedicated to organic agriculture.  And as we find in our next segment, set to air on October 29 (7:30 pm ET on WFSU-TV), Bobbie, Louise, and Herman take great care to see that their actions on the farm protect our water supply.

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Bobbie Golden reflects by her sinkhole at Golden Acres ranch.

In this next segment, we revisit the recent Sharing Water Conference win Monticello.  We visit a Monticello water treatment plant that connects directly to Simpsons Nursery.  They have a novel system for reclaiming and reusing water that intends to both conserve water usage and keep wastewater out of the aquifer.  We also revisit the farms featured in the video above.  Golden Acres has some sensitive wetlands on their property, which has Bobbie Golden thinking about water issues.  And Herman shows us how he makes compost.   His process uses materials that might otherwise sit in landfills and creates a means of fertilizing plants that minimizes the flow of nutrients into local waterways (for them, Black Creek, a tributary of the St. Marks River).

Also coming up, Shakespeare will take over the Ecology Blog for the month of January.  Details will be released soon, but it’s a different kind of project for us, one that involves biologists and actors, breathtaking vistas and the words of a man who was surprisingly into nature.  Also, I follow up on my previous post, where I took my three-year-old son kayaking on the Wakulla River.  His real water obsession is the Apalachicola River.  He and I joined RiverTrek 2014 for a couple of miles, camping and kayaking at Owl Creek.

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Father & Son Wakulla River Adventure

Having just finished a video and blog post on Wakulla Springs, WFSU Ecology Producer Rob Diaz de Villegas heads down the Wakulla River with a novice EcoAdventurer. As kid's lives become ever more entwined with technology, many have lost a connection with the outdoors that had once been a staple of childhood. With that in mind, Rob brought his son Max, hoping to build a love of water in him.
Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

“Is this the road to the Apalachicola River?” Max asks as we come to the flashing red lights where Highway 98 crosses our path.

“Well, actually, yes,” I tell him.  “But today we’re going to the Wakulla River.”

To Max, all rivers are the Apalachicola.  For five days in 2012, daddy left home and went kayaking to make some videos on that river.  I had left home for conferences and out of town shoots before, but here was something that the then one-year-old Max could understand- daddy was going down a river in a kayak.  At the end of that trip, as we rolled into Apalachicola the town, I could make out the shapes of a toddler and an adult walking down the floating dock by Veteran’s Park.  It was a sight that ranked up there with Alum Bluff, the Dead Lakes, and Sand Mountain in my mind’s Mount Rushmore of RiverTrek 2012 (an annual fundraiser for the Apalachicola Riverkeeper).  I knew then that when he was old enough, I would make the trip with him.  We’re not tackling the 106 mile Apalachicola just yet, though.  Today, we’re traversing a much more manageable six miles of the Wakulla. Continue reading

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Sharing Water Conference Tackles Aquifer Issues

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 Villegas WFSU-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.

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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.
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SciGirls at Wakulla Springs & the Wakulla Spring Restoration Plan

We tagged along with the Tallahassee SciGirls (a joint venture between WFSU-TV and the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory) as they visited Wakulla Springs. The following video explores the link between the spring, the aquifer, and the aquifers many sources of water. In the blog post below, we further explore some issues raised in the video and examine some key points in the recently released Wakulla Spring Restoration Plan.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

When I was talking to Peter Scalco in the video above, I was surprised to hear him say that manatees had largely eliminated invasive hydrilla from Wakulla Springs State Park.  How cool is that; nature comes in and cleans up the mess.  More surprising to me, however, was when he said that the removal of the hydrilla had negatively impacted invertebrates in the park.  Invertebrates are at the bottom of the food web, and losing them meant losing ducks species that ate them.

Suwannee Cooter at Wakulla SpringsIn a place whose name means “mysterious waters,” however, things are rarely so clear.  The park had also used chemical means to treat the hydrilla.  Since we interviewed the park manager during the SciGirls’ visit in July, the Howard T. Odum Springs Institute released its Wakulla Spring Restoration Plan (PDF).  In referring to the hydrilla problem, the report states that “herbicide control of hydrilla can result in unintended consequences such as invertebrate mortality, depressed dissolved oxygen levels, loss of desirable submerged plant species, and increased algal cover” (page 103, or the 118th page of the attached pdf- page numbers rarely line up in these larger documents).   This means invertebrates may have been killed by the herbicide Aquathol.  Or it may have been, as Mr. Scalco’s believes, that invertebrates lost hydrilla as a habitat and could no longer thrive in the river.  A third possibility is that Aquathol may have affected some of “desired submerged plant species” which may also have been habitat for the invertebrates.  Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s Joe Hand surveyed the river in 2001.  He noted that while the herbicide reduced hydrilla, “the cover of [native] eelgrass also decreased from 50% to 30% during this period of herbicide use.”  (65/ 79)   Based strictly on observation, and without the benefit of a controlled experiment, it’s hard to identify a definitive cause.

This call for closer study is made elsewhere in the report, when discussing the relationship between hydrilla and nitrates in the spring run.  The increase in hydrilla coincides with an elevation of nitrates over the years.  Elevations of nitrates in a body of water, often caused by stormwater runoff carrying fertilizer, can supercharge plant growth and lead to toxic algae blooms.  It seems plausible that an increased nutrient load would promote the growth of hydrilla, but in this case it just hasn’t been proven.  The report outlines options for better determining causality:

One practical approach to address this lack of knowledge is to implement restoration activities that would increase the occurrence of clear water and lower the concentration of nitrate while simultaneously monitoring the cover and spread of hydrilla. A second approach that should be combined with the first approach is the development of a detailed ecological study of the factors affecting hydrilla success in Wakulla Spring and at similar control sites.

(96/111)

In other words, at a site where every condition was the same except the elevation of nitrates, how does hydrilla grow?

Dark Water Days

noglassbottomboattoursAnother mystery is the overall darkening of the water.  When we went with SciGirls, as well as on a couple of visits with my wife and kids over the summer, the water has been pretty clear.  But, as Mr. Scalco told us, “it is a dynamic system.”  Between 1987 and 2003, the water was clear enough for glass bottom boat tours between 17- 75% of the time.  Between 2003 and 2010, it was down to 0-15% (78/ 92).  That’s a drastic increase of dark water days in Wakulla Spring over the last decade.

Dark water has historically occurred as a result of an underground connection between the Wakulla Spring cave system and that of the Spring Creek system, 14 springs located in salt marsh habitat on Apalachee Bay.  Essentially, during periods of low rainfall, Spring Creek flows with such little pressure that saltwater backflows into the spring creating what the report calls a “plug.”  Any water that does flow into the system from the aquifer is blocked, reversing the flow back to Wakulla Springs.  During these times, when it does rain,  water entering the aquifer from the Apalachicola National Forest will be dark and tannic.  As rain increases, the plug is usually removed and clear water returns to Wakulla Springs (Described in more detail on 17/ 32).  This is the usual cycle.

So how was it disrupted?

It could be sea level rise.  It could be a rise in the salinity of Apalachee Bay caused by the same drought conditions that caused the crash of the Apalachicola Bay oyster fishery, and which tend to wreak havoc on estuarine systems.  Or it could be a change in the groundwater gradient (18/33).

One concern is that those of us who live in the springshed are using too much water, water that is directly removed by the aquifer by 27 wells in Leon County.  We in the Red Hills region are said to have exceptional groundwater.  The main reason for that is that rainwater has less immediate access to the aquifer here.  There are a handful of lakes with sinkholes that feed the aquifer- Iamonia, Miccosukee, Jackson, and Lafayette (Upper Lake Lafayette, specifically).  The rest of it is left to filter through thick red clay.  As Jamie Shakar with the City of Tallahassee Utilities told us in our first Water Moves video, it can take a decade or more for water to get down to where they extract it for us to drink.  The aquifer is recharged at a rate of 8 inches a year in this region, compared to 18 inches in the area just to the south of the Cody Escarpment, known as the Woodville Karst Plain (33/ 48).  In south Leon down through Wakulla, the aquifer loses the thick clay protection and the relatively exposed limestone is pockmarked with sinkholes.  What we withdraw from the aquifer in Tallahassee is not so quickly replaced.  This could be a reason that less clear water is coming out of Wakulla Spring- we are drinking that water.  And so one solution presented by the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute is to promote conservation and education.

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Sharing Water Conference organizers hope to attract teenagers- such as the SciGirls- to attend and become interested in water issues.

Will better efficiency in the way we water our lawns or take showers help to provide more clear water to the spring?  It’s hard to say with 100% certainty.  Vast underground networks of caves are not easily studied.  And it is definitely not easy to track every drop of water as it moves, gets absorbed, and evaporates on its way to and from the surface.  From October 2 through 4, the city of Monticello hosts the Sharing Water Conference.  I had a great time chatting with the event organizers yesterday after their appearance on WFSU-FM’s Perspectives.  They are bringing together geologists, policy makers, and other stakeholders to discuss the many issues facing the Floridan Aquifer.  Registration is free, and the hope is that people from every walk can come together to have a free exchange of ideas and help to work towards some innovative solutions.

I’ll preview the event next week, and will cover it for the WFSU Ecology Blog.  Also coming up this fall, we look at some of the small farms in our area for whom water is economically vital, and whose usage of water within the Wakulla Springshed influences spring flow.  The Red Hills Small Farm Alliance encourages sustainable practices; we’ll see what that means and how these farms fit into our natural landscape.  We also have some new EcoAdventures in the works as I am just itching to get back into a kayak and onto some trails.  We have some exciting stuff in the works, so stay tuned.

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Tally SciGirls Learn Fire Ecology at Tall Timbers

Tallahassee SciGirls camp is a collaboration between WFSU and the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory.  For two weeks ever summer, middle school aged girls take over a dozen field trips exposing them to science in multiple real world settings, from the physics lab at Florida State University to the Seacrest Wolf Preserve.  We joined them for two of their ecology related adventures.  The video below is of their visit to Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy.  On Wednesday, September 17 at 7:30 pm ET, their visit to Wakulla Springs airs on WFSU’s Dimensions (look for it here shortly after).

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV
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Kellie Phillips, a graduate student at the University of Georgia’s Warnell School of Forestry, shows the SciGirls how she tracks northern bobwhite quails using radio telemetry. Bobwhites are a popular game species found in fire dependent longleaf habitat.

There is something about a well burned forest that looks clean.  The longleaf/ wiregrass ecosystem is uncluttered, with trees spaced widely enough “to drive a wagon through.”   Many of our EcoAdventures take place in or around this habitat, which covers much of our area.   A lot of our guides on these trips, whether they be land managers, ecotourism professionals, or researchers, love to talk about the habitat and how it thrives with fire.  Dr. Tom Miller looked at a plot of Apalachicola National Forest and told me that it had been burned within 18 months.  Dr. Jean Huffman looked up at longleaf pines in the Saint Joseph Bay State Buffer Preserve and told me how old they were.  For any SciGirls interested in ecology, their visit to Tall Timbers was an opportunity to get to know a diverse and productive ecosystem that is easily accessible to those of us living in or around Tallahassee.  One day they might be the ones looking forward to the next burn and guiding their local PBS producer through the woods.

As Tall Timbers’ Jim Cox told me, this ecosystem used to cover 90,000,000 acres between Texas and Virginia.  Lightning would ignite the forest every few years and, uninterrupted by roads or concrete structures, fire would spread for hundreds of miles.  It would clear almost everything between the thick barked longleaf pine trees, making way for palmettos, wiregrass, and small succulent plants that fed the many diverse forest fauna.  Today, less than three percent of that forest remains.  And, with humans occupying so much of the landscape, wildfires are more public safety hazard than promoters of diversity.

P1060981

One of several trees we saw at Tall Timbers that had been struck in a recent lightning storm. Strikes like these used to spark massive fires that kept the 90 million acre coastal plain forest healthy.

But the forest needs fire, so humans need to create and control burns themselves.  How and how often to burn is a science.  Much of Tall Timbers Research Station’s 4,000 acres is a laboratory dedicated to perfecting this science.  As much as I loved the shots of girls helping to tag a Bachman’s sparrow and letting snakes slither up their arms, my favorite part of the video above is the side-by-side comparison of the burn plots.  Here you have a visual representation of what happens to a forest that burns once a year versus once every three years.  And it lets researchers clearly see what animals use the different plots and when they leave for more open land.

As I mentioned earlier, we’ve had some previous adventures in this ecosystem.  We’ve never focused directly on the woods themselves; I enjoyed finally doing that.  The videos/ blog posts below highlight different aspects of fire climax communities:

The Carnivorous Plants of State Road 65

Thread-leaf sundew flowerIf you’re hiking in regularly burned woods and come upon a thick tangle of wood, you’re likely nearing water.  The area between the two habitats, at the edge of both fire and moist mucky areas, is where, in late Spring, you can find some very interesting wildflowers.  Dr. Tom Miller guided us to a bog the Apalachicola National Forest where we could walk among pitcher plants, thread-leaf sundews, and other flowering plants that get their nutrients not from the soil, but from animal flesh.  This is the kind of disturbed area the plants prefer.  Regularly mowed roadsides along the forest also sport carnivorous flowers.  Eleanor Dietrich took us along S.R. 65 and talked to us about her efforts to draw more people to the area to see these unique plants.

Rare Plants Thrive with Fire at the Buffer Preserve

The "Wet Savanna" of the Buffer PreserveThe Apalachicola National Forest and the private forests found on the hunting plantations of the Red Hills of Florida and Georgia house some of the largest and best preserved examples of the coastal plain forest that used to dominate the southeast.  A lesser known but equally impressive example can be found at the Saint Joseph Bay State Buffer Preserve.  Dr. Jean Huffman showed us some of the rare plants growing there, many of them found hidden among the wiregrass.  And the Buffer is also home to one of the rarest wildflowers in Florida, the Chapman’s rhododendron. The blog post that accompanies the video explains how Dr. Huffman uses tree rings to determine how often trees had historically burned, useful information in setting a burn schedule.

Also, WFSU-FM’s Nick Evans travelled to the Buffer at a different time of year, and saw a number of different rare plants.

Keep up with the latest posts, environmental coverage from the WFSU News department and more at @wfsuIGOR.

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Scalloping Saint Joseph Bay Seagrass Beds: Video

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

Double Rainbow

I figured it was a good sign that our first glimpse of Saint Joseph Bay was of it under a double rainbow.  Of course, that required me to ignore all of the rain clouds that caused the rainbows, and some of the far off lightning I saw on our drive to Port Saint Joe.  But why head into my shoot with a negative attitude?  It didn’t take long for the sun to come out after we got on Captain Bobby Guilford’s boat.  I can’t control the weather, but if I could, I’d have arranged it like it turned out.  First, some clouds and precipitation for the rainbow shot, and then the sun we needed to shoot in seagrass beds and, more importantly, to see the scallops we were there to find.  Florida weather is just as often a friend to my shoots as it is a nasty nemesis.

This was a segment I’d been wanting to do since the first summer of the In the Grass, On the Reef project.  I spent a lot of time in Saint Joseph Bay following Dr. Randall Hughes’ salt marsh research, and when scallop season started I would see people head into the bay with buckets, kayaking out with buckets, or zipping by on boats.  Scallops are some of my favorite food.   In the Grass, On the Reef could just as easily have been called Getting to Know the Places Where the Food I Like Lives.  And I did get to know about seagrass beds, and snorkel in Saint Joe Bay looking for shots of horse conchs, sea stars, and even scallops.  What I learned in my time with Randall and her colleague, Dr. David Kimbro, is that seagrass beds are really cool!

Seagrass beds are remarkable ecosystems, and they’re a big part of why I love going back to Saint Joseph Bay as well as other locations on the Forgotten Coast.  Here are some of the cool things I learned about them from my collaborators’ research:

Seagrasses and Blue Carbon

Dr. Macreadie looks through seagrass bedIn 2012, Dr. Peter MacReadie visited Randall in Saint Joseph Bay from the University of Technology in Sydney.  We talked to he and Randall about ecosystem services provided by seagrass beds, and Peter talked to us about the surprising ability of seagrass beds to store carbon from the atmosphere.  As Randall points out in a 2012 post, their storage ability is on par with forests.

Robert Paine/ Keystone Species

Horse Conch on Bay Mouth Bar

Horse Conch (Pleuroploca gigantea)

Our local seagrass beds house a wealth of diversity.  Dr. Robert Paine studied Bay Mouth Bar, just off of Alligator Point, over fifty years ago.  The bar may have the greatest diversity of predatory snails in the world. His observations of the top predator- the horse conch- and the rest of the animals on the bar when the horse conch was present versus when it left in the winter, were influential in Paine’s pioneering of the keystone species concept. The horse conch consumes other snails, keeping their numbers in check so that those snails don’t in turn consume too many clams. The clams benefit the seagrass by filtering water, and so the horse conch is of vital importance to clams and to the habitat. As we know, David Kimbro is very much interested in predators, and so it is natural that he would spend years following up on Paine’s work, even unfunded.

(The one clam that horse conchs eat is the largest you can find in our seagrass beds, the pen shell. That’s what we see Bobby and Adrianne eating in the video above.)

Predator Diversity Loss

True Tulip Snail eating a Banded Tulip Snail

True tulip (Fasciolaria tulipa) eating a banded tulip (Fasciolaria hunteria).

While it’s great that seagrass beds help combat global climate change, provide habitat for scallops and other seafood species, and help filter water, they unfortunately are a habitat on the decline. As seagrass beds shrink, they tend to house a less diverse assemblage of animals. David Kimbro’s graduate student, Tanya Rogers, used a local seagrass habitat to look at the effects of losing diversity. Specifically, the loss of a top predator. David and Tanya have been conducting a follow up to Robert Paine’s Bay Mouth Bar research in the early 1960s. Five decades later, they found that the seagrass beds there are shrinking, and certain snail species have disappeared. This includes the true tulip snail and murex, which are still plentiful in Saint Joseph Bay. The true tulip was a major predator on Bay Mouth Bar. Tanya conducted an experiment to determine how the loss of this predator would affect the clams in the sediment, and how those clams in turn affected the sediment where the seagrass grows. Did the loss of habitat force the tulip off of the bar, or did the loss of tulip (which eats clam consuming snails) help cause the seagrass habitat to shrink?

Ocean Acidification

As global temperatures rise, the ocean is acidifying. This will have increasing ramifications for the plants and animals living in saltwater ecosystems, such as the oysters, clams, and scallops whose shells will weaken. However, recent research shows that seagrass beds might fight that acidification.  Good news for the clams and scallops that live there!

Seagrass bed in St. Joseph Bay, FL

Music in the video by pitx.

marsh-sunrise

Does Diversity Matter in the Salt Marsh? A Look Back

Dr. Randall Hughes has collaborated with WFSU on this blog since 2010. We have spent years visiting her research sites in Saint Joseph Bay, where Randall conducted a multi-year study on salt marsh biodiversity funded by the National Science Foundation. The study has concluded, and Randall has published several papers on her findings. Here is what she has found.

This is Saint Joe Bay week on the Ecology Blog.  Wednesday, August 20th, at 7:30 pm ET: WFSU premieres the eighth season of Dimensions, and our Saint Joseph Bay scalloping EcoAdventure. 

Dr. Randall Hughes Northeastern University
Just a bunch of grass?  Not to the larval shrimp, juvenile mullet, pinfish, fiddler crabs, mussels, periwinkle snails, and blue crabs that make use of the habitat, or the birds and sea turtles that go hunting there.

Just a bunch of grass? Not to the larval shrimp, juvenile mullet, pinfish, fiddler crabs, mussels, periwinkle snails, and blue crabs that make use of the habitat, or the birds and sea turtles that go hunting there.

As you drive along Highway 98 towards St. Joseph Bay (SJB), one of the most common views outside your window is of the salt marsh.  From the car, it looks like a beautiful but monotonous meadow of green and/or brown, depending on the season, often intersected by tidal channels. So I won’t blame you if “diversity” is not the first word that comes to your mind as you gaze out the window. But diversity is exactly what I set out to find out about when this project first started – how much diversity is there in the marshes of St. Joe Bay, and what (if any) effects does it have? And now, several years later, I finally have answers to share!

First, let’s revisit what I mean about diversity. There are 2 main types that I have focused on for my research:

Species diversity, or the number of different species in an area. If you garden, you can think of it as the number of different vegetables or flowers you plant.

Genetic diversity, or the number of different genetic individuals (or genetic variants) in an area. Using the garden example, this would be similar to the number of different tomato varieties you plant in your garden.

Randall Hughes and Ryan Coker in an FSUCML Greenhouse

Randall and technician Ryan Coker tend to plants in an FSU Coastal & Marine Lab greenhouse. Before Randall and her team could begin to test their theories about marshes and marsh grass, they needed to create controlled marsh units of a comparable size, and needed to know the genetic identity of the grass in their plots.  Randall grew this grass for two years before conducting those experiments.

Wait – why so much talk about plants? Don’t animals have diversity too? Animals do have diversity, and this diversity matters – for one, having more species of fish on a coral reef means the corals grow better. But plants are the foundation of the marsh – if you have no plants, you have no marsh. So I have focused on the species and genetic diversity of the plants and tested how it affects the number and diversity of animals that live there (which includes animals that we like to eat, such as blue crabs). The dominant marsh plant species in many areas is cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora), and we created a greenhouse full of known genetic individuals to use in many of our experiments. Here are some of the highlights of what we have learned, with a little background on each, and links to the published articles where you can learn more if you’re interested:

1. Increasing the number of plant species in the marsh, even just from one species to two, can reduce the negative effects of a hungry periwinkle snail.

Periwinkles are really common in the marsh, and when conditions line up just right (the periwinkles are hungry, the cordgrass is already stressed from something like drought) they can mow down the cordgrass. We don’t see this happen very often in SJB, and I wondered if that was because there’s another really common plant species – needlerush – that often grows with the cordgrass, that the periwinkles also seem to like, at least for climbing on to stay out of the water and away from their predators. So we did an experiment where we planted cordgrass with and without needlerush and with and without periwinkles, and we found what I had expected: having needlerush neighbors around means the periwinkles don’t mow down the cordgrass!

Randall published these findings in the Ecological Society of America Journal.

2. Contrary to conventional wisdom that a few cordgrass individuals (also known as “clones”) rule the marsh, genetic diversity can be quite high, with as many as 9 distinct individuals living together in an area the size of a hula hoop.

periwinkles on cordgrass

Smooth cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora), the foundation species of a coastal salt marsh. Before she could understand how the genetic diversity of this species affects the health of a marsh, Randall needed to know how many genetic individuals were present within the ecosystem.

Genetic diversity is really important for the ability of plants and animals to respond to stress or change, and so it’s something we often want to know, but the bummer about it is that it’s not nearly as easy to measure as species diversity. You can’t just look at two cordgrass plants and tell whether they are the same or different genotypes! I teamed up with Dr. Katie Lotterhos to use little snippets of DNA to tell us whether the cordgrass plants we collected from the marshes around SJB were all a few closely related individuals, or whether there were lots of different individuals around. It turns out that even though they all look pretty much the same, there is a lot of genetic diversity in our marshes.

Randall and Katie published these findings in the Inter-Research Science Center’s Marine Ecology Progress Series (link is a PDF).

Monoculture plot- four genetically identical cordgrass individuals.  In this specific experiment, plots are composed off one, two, or four separate individuals.  Do plots with higher diversity fare better?

A monoculture plot of four genetically identical cordgrass individuals. In this experiment, similar to the one described to the right, plots were composed of one, two, or four separate individuals. Did plots with higher diversity fare better?

3. Changing the number of cordgrass clones living together in an area the size of a hula hoop affects how well the plants grow, as well as how many animals share that space. These effects of diversity may be particularly important when plants are first colonizing an area, such as in restoration efforts.

Once we knew how many different genetic individuals shared a hula hoop-sized area in natural marshes, we did an experiment to see how changing that number affects how well the plants grow. This experiment took a long time to prep, because we first had to grow a bunch of plants in the greenhouse so that we could keep track of who was who. After that, the experiment itself was pretty simple: plant 1, 3, or 6 different clones inside a hula hoop (well, in this case it was a modified hula hoop made of less expensive irrigation tubing) at the edge of the marsh, and watch them grow over time.

Randall published these findings in the British Ecological Society’s Journal of Ecology.

4. Just like you and me, different cordgrass clones have unique characteristics – some are tall, some are short, some do well in a crowd, and some like a little breathing room. And the animals that live amongst these plants, such as mussels and fiddler crabs, can go from being friends to enemies depending on which clone they are interacting with.

Even though I said before that all cordgrass plants look similar, it just so happens that when you grow the same clones in the greenhouse for a few years, you start to see slight differences among them. And these differences that seem pretty minor to us are really important to the small animals like fiddler crabs and mussels that live on and around the plants. So, in part to test this idea that different clones have different relationships with fiddler crabs and mussels, and in part just to do an experiment with fiddler crabs because I think they are cool, we set up an experiment using different cordgrass clones growing with just fiddlers, just mussels, or both. And although typically mussels and fiddlers are both “friends” with cordgrass (in that they provide it with nutrients and oxygen in the sediment to help it grow), that is not a universal truth – some cordgrass clones did not benefit (or even were harmed) by having mussels and fiddlers around.

Randall, her graduate student Althea Moore (whose investigation of a similar relationship between mussels and another marsh plant we covered in 2013), and Randall’s oyster collaborator Mike Piehler published their findings in the journal Oikos.

It’s a little disconcerting that ~ 4 years of work can be boiled down into these 4 highlights. Of course there are loads of details I’m leaving out, as well as other ongoing projects that will tell us even more about the effects of diversity in the salt marsh. That’s how the scientific process works – you gain some answers, and those answers lead to new questions! Job security for a curious mind…

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Number 1161194.  Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Keep up with the latest posts, environmental coverage from the WFSU News department and more at @wfsuIGOR.

Saint Joseph Bay scallop, shucked and ready to eat

Shucking a Saint Joseph Bay Scallop: Video

Wednesday, August 20th, at 7:30 pm ET: WFSU premieres the eighth season of Dimensions.  Tune in to watch our Saint Joseph Bay scalloping EcoAdventure.  We snorkel  seagrass beds, see some fun critters, and breathe underwater with the Snuba.  We also eat some tasty scallops.  But you can’t taste these guys if they’re still in their shells.  Below, Captain Bobby Guilford of Break-A-Way Charters shows us how to shuck our catch.  Captain Bobby took us out on the water in July, and he gave us this quick demo:

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

Another season of EcoAdventures is so close we can almost taste it.  Next week, it’ll taste like bay scallops as we return to Saint Joseph Bay not for science, but to enjoy the products of the seagrass bed ecosystem.  Saint Joe Bay is of course where we’ve been partnering with Dr. Randall Hughes to explore the inner workings of salt marshes and seagrass beds.  Just a bunch of grass?  Not if you like seafood.  Randall will have more about what she’s learned from Saint Joe Bay next week.

P1060980This summer we also spent some time with the WFSU/ FSU Mag Lab SciGirls.  Their annual two week whirlwind through the many aspects of science takes them on a few choice EcoAdventures of their own.  We accompany them to Tall Timbers Research Station as they get to know pine flatwoods ecology in the best way possible- by trapping birds and handling snakes, of course!  Our area is blessed with some of the best examples of longleaf pine forest, an ecosystem that thrives with fire.  We’ll see how various animal species (like those birds and snakes) benefit from burning.

Pied billed grebe at Wakulla SpringsWe also soak the SciGirls in our Water Moves game.  In our last video centering on the game, we followed water from urban Tallahassee to Wakulla Springs, passing through troubled waterways Munson Slough and Lake Munson.  That piece spent most of its time on the game and learning about the Leon County side of the Wakulla Springs watershed.  In our upcoming video, we visit Wakulla Springs itself.  It is an ecological marvel that’s had it’s share of troubles, but can still wow you with impressive sites and an abundance of wildlife.

And there’s more to come.  This year it’s all about connectivity- between lands and waters, between people and the natural spaces around them.  You can see from our new video open that we’ve seen some cool stuff over the last few years.  What would you like to see coming up?

In next week’s video, Captain Bobby also shucks one of these…

Dr. Randall Hughes holds large clam in St. Joe Bay

Keep up with the latest posts, environmental coverage from the WFSU News department and more at @wfsuIGOR.