Tag Archives: Floridan Aquifer

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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.

In the final part of the video, I included interviews I conducted for segments on the Red Hills Small Farm Alliance.  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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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.

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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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Hiking Where the Land Gets Swallowed

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

Dimensions’ encore presentation on Sunday, April 15 at 10 AM/ ET on WFSU-TV

Explore the Aucilla River and Aucilla Sinks using this Google map.  Locations are approximate.

IGOR chip- human appreciation 150On this blog, we usually refer to location we visit by the kind of habitat it is, and its foundation species.  Salt marshes and cordgrass, oyster reefs and oysters, pine flatwoods and longleaf pine- you get the picture.  We think of things biologically here, which makes sense, since my primary co-contributors are biologists and because our local abundance of life draws us to the outdoors.  For the EcoAdventure airing tonight (7:30 PM/ ET on WFSU-TV’s dimensions), our draw is not biological but rather geological.  Tonight, we’re going to a place in Florida where you can see some rocks.

From caves such as this one, the Aucilla reemerges periodically in sinkholes and short river runs.

The Aucilla River takes a unique path down to the Gulf of Mexico.  It’s a good sized river that all of a sudden gets swallowed by the earth, and then reappears in what Morgan Wilbur (Aucilla Wildlife Management Area’s Chief Biologist) calls karst windows, before resuming as a fully flowing river at Nutall Rise.  So what is a karst window?  They’re sinkholes, caused by the erosion of the limestone or dolomite that underlies most of our state.  In a karst topography, rainwater moves through soil and through porous rock.  In North Florida, that water ends up in the Floridan Aquifer, which is the source of our drinking water and of bodies of water such as Wakulla Springs.  That water can wear down pieces of the rock as it passes through, causing cave ins.  As extensive as the Floridan Aquifer is (North Florida and Georgia, and parts of Alabama and South Carolina), there aren’t many places where the land behaves quite like it does at the Aucilla Sinks.  This is why Kent Wimmer of the Florida Trail Association wanted to show the area to us.

P1040383The Sinks section of the Florida Scenic Hiking Trail is where, as Kent says in the piece, “you can see Florida’s basement.”  You can see places where the trees grow sideways as the land slowly gets pulled into holes where limestone had been.  You are walking along what had once been underground caves, as evidenced by the walls of rock around you.  And every sink looks different than the last; I feel like I could have shot for days there.

Tonight’s Dimensions program also has an interview segment on the Wild About Wakulla Week.  Host Julz Graham talked with Jeff Hugo (Wakulla Wildlife Festival), Capt. James Hodges (Certified Green Guide & St. Marks Community Showcase Representative), and Dr. Madeleine Carr ( historian, “Conquistadors in the Fabled Land of the Apalachee”).  We toured the Saint Marks River with Captain Hodges last December.  You can watch that video here.