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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.

The circle is complete.  Randall was once the middle school student being led into a marsh for the first time, she now leads middle school girls in.

WFSU SciGirls “In the Grass,” Talking Science

Episode 2: Talkin’ Science

In September we’ll tour our coastal ecosystems and learn why we love them.  These next couple of weeks, we’ll get a fresh set of eyes on Randall and David’s world of research and ecology as the WFSU/ Mag Lab SciGirls visit the FSU Coastal and Marine Lab.

Dr. Randall Hughes FSU Coastal & Marine Lab

Randall explains experiment to SciGirlsWhen you think of your summer vacations during middle school, what do you think of? The first thing that comes to my mind is HOT (it was south Georgia, after all), and the next thing is Duke. I realize that is somewhat sacrilegious for someone who went to UNC-Chapel Hill for undergrad (at least if you care anything about basketball). But I spent 4 summers as a student at the Duke University Talent Identification Program, better known as TIP, and my 3 weeks spent there each summer definitely stand out in my mind.

It sounds horrible to most people – 3 weeks during summer vacation spent taking an intensive course that would typically last a semester. Although we spent a lot of time in class and studying, in many ways it was like any other summer camp, with time spent goofing off with really interesting and fun classmates from all over the country. I even crossed paths with some of my fellow TIPsters in graduate school!

SciGirls trek into the marshSo what does this have to do with In the Grass, On the Reef? In many ways, nothing. But in some ways, everything. Because one of those summers I took Marine Biology at the Duke University Marine Lab in Beaufort, NC, and it was there that I fell in love with doing research on coastal systems (and did my first experiment on fiddler crabs!). Admittedly, it still took me a while to figure out how to turn that into a career, but I’m not sure that I would be where I am today were it not for 3 weeks during the summer before 8th grade.

Enter the SciGirls. For the last 4 summers, I’ve been thrilled to participate in the SciGirls summer camp run by WFSU and the National High Magnet Field Laboratory (aka, the Mag Lab), aimed at introducing middle and high school girls to careers in science. Although the SciGirls program is structured differently from the TIP program that I participated in, it provides me an opportunity to share my love of field research with some really amazing girls, and hopefully to plant the seed in their minds that they can turn their love of science into a career too.

This year, in addition to explaining my research to the SciGirls and getting their help collecting data, we talked about the importance of being able to communicate what you’re doing to others. It turns out that explaining research to non-scientists is not something that scientists are trained to do, and it doesn’t always come easy.  So we decided to start early with the SciGirls and see what happens!   As you can see from the video, they quickly grasped what they needed to do and were quite comfortable with the camera. There were some discrepancies among the observations, but hey, that’s why we take lots of data – you can’t always see the overall pattern when you’re only looking at a subset of the information!

The circle is complete. Randall was once the middle school student being led into a marsh for the first time, she is now the one leading middle school girls in. Might this fiddler crab have inspired someone into a career in research?

After a lunch break and a look at the results of our data collection, we headed to the field. This part of the day is always my favorite – watching the girls explore, answering their excited questions, helping them pick up their first fiddler crab, assuring them their shoes / clothes will come clean.  Even a short rainstorm didn’t dampen their enthusiasm. I would venture a guess that when these girls look back on their middle school summer vacation, their memories of SciGirls will be front and center.

For more on the SciGirls’ day at FSUCML, check out their blog.  And check back next week for video of their experiences in the grass (and mud)!

Music in the video by grapes.  In the Grass, On the Reef theme music by Lydell Rawls.

In the Grass, On the Reef is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

Dr. Randall Hughes on SciGirls

During their visit to FSUCML, Randall took the SciGirls to the small marsh next to the lab. One SciGirl found this fiddler crab carrying her eggs.

This video is part of the WFSU SciGirls project. SciGirls, for those who haven’t heard of it, addresses an unfortunate reality in the world of science- there are a lot more men doing research than women.  It’s a problem that needs to be addressed as interest in science as a career has been waning overall.  Every Summer, the SciGirls camp takes groups of teen and preteen girls into labs and into the field with scientists.  After visiting Dr. Randall Hughes at the Florida State University Coastal & Marine Laboratory last Summer, a couple of SciGirls returned to conduct this interview.

Randall is a good role model for young aspiring female scientists.  Aside from the fact that she herself is a female scientist, most of her lab- and that of her colleague Dr. David Kimbro- are females as well.  If you’ve been following this blog, you’ve read about Emily Field’s graduate work on seagrass wrack and Kattie Lotterhos’ graduate work in genetics.  In David’s lab, we’ve heard from Tanya Rogers, a lab technician who keeps David’s lab organized, and who is crucial in the planning and implementation of their large field experiments.  We have more recently started hearing from Hanna Garland, Tanya’s fellow lab tech who is starting graduate school in the fall and who is looking into the abnormal levels of crown conchs on Randall and David’s Saint Augustine reefs.  And we have also heard from Cristina Lima Martinez, an intern who comes to the Kimbro lab from Spain to study the Bay Mouth Bar ecosystem.

Interested in learning more about the SciGirls?  Follow their blog!