Tag Archives: Wakulla Springs


A Song of Protection for Wakulla Springs: EcoShakespeare

Video: Titania’s fairy retinue sings a song to ward off beasts of ill omen as she goes to sleep.  Likewise, the Friends of Wakulla Springs and the Wakulla Springs Alliance work to ward off threats to America’s largest spring.  Jim Stevenson, a board member of Wakulla Springs Alliance, leads our trip, which is based on the Wakulla Springs Overland Tour he he leads with Palmetto Expeditions.
EcoShakespeare is a series of adventures through north Florida/ south Georgia ecosystems.  During each trip, adventurers view a scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, each with its own significance to the day’s habitat.  Florida State University English professor, Dr. Bruce Boehrer, ties it all together.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV
A Suwannee cooter turtle swims among mats of algae in a sinkhole connected to Wakulla Springs.

A Suwannee cooter turtle swims among mats of algae in a sinkhole connected to Wakulla Springs.

While editing the video above, I kept hearing the Standell’s Dirty Water  in my head.  It’s a strange sort of ode to Boston, with its chorus, “Love that dirty water, Boston you’re my home.”  It refers to the polluted Charles River and contains some other less than flattering Bean Town references, but that song and Sweet Caroline are staples at Red Sox games (my wife and I were married in her native Massachusetts, where both songs were loudly sung along to during the reception).    Looking at shots of algae mats, the garbage piled into Lake Henrietta, and, most sadly, algae covered turtles, I don’t feel like writing even satirically about loving the quality of the water heading south to Wakulla Springs.  Instead, I offer you a song written by William Shakespeare for A Midsummer Night’s Dream (and arranged by Southern Shakespeare Festival’s Stephen Hodges).  In it, Titania’s fairy servants call upon Philomel the nightingale to protect her as she sleeps in the woods.

We won’t be interpreting the song literally, because what’s the fun in that?  The fairies are attempting to ward off what Dr. Bruce Boehrer calls “beasts of ill omen:” spiders, snakes and snails.  In the Wakulla Springs ecosystem, though, these are important members of the food web.  Our beasts of ill omen are defined by Madeleine Carr, President of the Friends of Wakulla Springs: dark water, hydrilla, and algae.  The creatures mentioned by name in the song actually need protection themselves from these threats to the spring.

When I was meeting with our partners at the Southern Shakespeare Festival to plan EcoShakespeare, one of the themes we wanted to explore was the Victorian concept of the Great Chain of Being. I had a wonderful brainstorming session with Lanny Thomas and Laura Johnson, the Artistic and Executive Directors of the Festival, and Wakulla Springs seemed an ideal place to filter through Shakespeare’s worldview.

On thew shores of Lake Munson, Titania's fairy attendants sing a song to protect her from snakes and spiders.  Lake Munson is Tallahassee's most polluted lake, receiving nitrates filled runoff and having previously been a dumping ground for sewage and industrial waste.

On the shores of Lake Munson, Titania’s fairy attendants sing a song to protect her from snakes and spiders. Lake Munson is Tallahassee’s most polluted lake, receiving nitrate filled runoff and having previously been a dumping ground for sewage and industrial waste.  Lake Munson feeds Wakulla Springs through the Munson Slough system.

In the Victorian Great Chain, order in the world is maintained by God and queen.  It’s a top-down model.  You see this at play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Oberon and Titania, as king and queen of the fairies, are a type of nature deity.  Their marital discord upsets the skies and the seas, causing problems for plants and animals.  That upheaval moved from the top-down.  But nature often operates from the bottom-up.  Hydrilla entered Wakulla Springs State Park and crowded out apple snails, which deprived one of the park’s showy attractions, the bird on its sign, of its food. So the limpkin left, and has been gone almost two decades.  That problem moved its way up the chain, not down.  Likewise with algae.

Jim Stevenson leads our pursuit of water as it flows south from Tallahassee and collects contaminants.  One contaminant, nitrates, feed a microscopic plant, algae, which accumulates in the water.  It forms mats which block out the sun for native marine plants.  It blooms and sucks the oxygen out of the water, killing fish.  Those fish in turn are meals for birds and other larger animals, the ones tour guides point out on Wakulla Springs boat rides.

Jim Stevenson was once chief biologist for Florida's State Park Service.  In retirement, he has become a fierce advocates for the state's springs.  At the water Treatment facility on Springhill Road, he explains how sewage effluent was treated and piped to spray fields that had been feeding nitrates into the Wakulla Spring system.

Jim Stevenson was once chief biologist for Florida’s State Park Service. In retirement, he has become a fierce advocates for the state’s springs. At the water Treatment facility on Springhill Road, he explains how sewage effluent was treated and piped to spray fields that had been feeding nitrates into the Wakulla Spring system.

Of course, algae and hydrilla didn’t decide one day to become a nuisance and wreck the spring.  Hydrilla is an asian import, an aquarium decorative that found its way into American rivers.  It was introduced by humans.  Nitrates originate from people, too, often right within us.  It’s in our poop, which we like to think disappears to a fairy realm once we flush it down.  That’s just not true.  Utilities have to figure out how to sanitize and dispose of that waste, and the City of Tallahassee’s solution had inadvertently been putting nitrates directly into the aquifer.  They have spent a lot of money to fix that problem.  Nitrates also come from the synthetic poop substitute we use to make green lawns and larger tomatoes.  This assault on the aquifer starts in our homes and is carried by storm water down the streets and into lakes and streams.  Many Leon County lakes have sinkholes directly depositing water in the aquifer; many of our streams flow south into the Woodville Karst Plain, where sinkholes abound.
So, top-down and then bottom-up.

Shakespeare’s portrayal of a world controlled by the emotions of fairies is probably more fun than our reality of poop, algae, and invasive hydrilla.  Still, with his imagination, and his often wicked sense of humor, I can only imagine that he would craft something simultaneously tragic and comedic from what has happened in Wakulla Springs.  In the play, the gentle sea cow, the manatee, comes in and saves the day by coming in and eating the hydrilla in the spring run.  In reality, the power to fully save Wakulla Springs lies closer to the top of the Chain of Being, with the humans living in the Wakulla Springshed.

EcoShakespeare and the Wakulla Springshed

It just so happens that our three EcoShakespeare adventures move southward through the geological regions within the Wakulla Springshed, illustrating the different ways we interact with our aquifer depending on where we live.

EcoShakespeare 1: The Streams Region

old growth longleaf pine forestIn our first adventure, we visit the “Big Woods,” a private forest outside of Thomasville, Georgia containing a tract of old growth longleaf habitat.  This is in the heart of the Red Hills region, in which a layer of dense red clay sits atop the aquifer, slowly filtering water.  It’s referred to as the streams region of the Wakulla Springshsed because much of the rain that falls on it doesn’t actually recharge the aquifer, it just flows away on rivers like the Ochlockonee and Aucilla.  According to the Wakulla Spring Restoration Plan (released by the Howard T. Odum Spring Institute), this region adds about one inch of water per year over 770 square miles to the Floridan aquifer.

EcoShakespeare 2: The Lakes Region

BerriesWe follow Colbert Sturgeon down from Tall Timbers to Lake Iamonia (sounds kind of like ammonia), foraging for natural edibles along the way.  Lake Iamonia is one of four major sinkhole lakes in the Red Hills region.  Here, we still have that thick red clay to filter our water, but we also have four direct inputs to the aquifer that bypass the clay.  These lakes are Iamonia, Jackson, Lafayette, and Miccosukee.  This region adds eight inches a year over 250 square miles.

Last spring, we played on Lake Iamonia and hiked Klapp Phipps Park, which protects Lake Jackson.  In that video, we looked at our lakes and their relation to the aquifer with Tall Timbers and some other friends.  A couple of months later, we looked at the cleanliness of our lakes by reviewing Leon County’s 2011 Water Quality for Selected Lake and Streams report.  They have since published an updated report, which you can view here (the reports are long; you can use our blog post containing the older data as a guide to the information in the newer report).

The Cody Escarpment

Also known as the Cody Scarp, this is Florida’s ancient shoreline (and maybe, with sea level rise, its future shoreline).  This is where the Red Hills end, and our aquifer sits nearer to the surface.  This is an important dividing line when thinking about how water penetrates the limestone beneath us.

EcoShakespeare 3: The Woodville Karst Plain (WKP)

IMG_2987Even those of us living in the very south of the Red Hills see our water roll down the Cody Scarp and into the more porous WKP.  Rain is more directly in contact with the limestone aquifer here, and so that limestone is more likely to collapse and form a sinkhole.  There is little filtration here.  In the Red Hills, many contaminants are removed in the ten years or so that it takes to flow through the clay; in the Woodville Karst Plain everything flows right in.  This is the most vulnerable part of the Wakulla Springshed.  This region recharges the aquifer at a rate of eighteen inches a year over 145 square miles.

The Southern Shakespeare Festival

I’d like to take this opportunity too thank all of our partners in the venture.  Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy, Palmetto Expeditions (for whom Jim Stevenson leads the tour we feature in the video above), and the Friends of Wakulla Springs.  I’d also like to thank Colbert Sturgeon for enlightening and entertaining us, and FSU Professor Bruce Boehrer for the way in which he tied all of our crazy elements together.

Most of all, I would like to thank the Southern Shakespeare Festival.  Projects with this kind of unique twist are always great to work on, and more so when you can collaborate with people like Lanny Thomas, Laura Johnson, Kevin Carr, and Stephen Hodges.  Michele Belson designed the costumes worn by our uncredited performers, who braved some cold and windy weather to bring this project to life.  The SSF performances of a Midsummer Night’s Dream will take place from April 17-19 in the very place that the video above begins, in Cascades Park.  You can watch their groovy 60s take on my favorite Shakespeare play, and then gaze at the water flowing from beneath the stage and watch as nitrates feed algae (seriously, that’s what that waterway was meant to do.  Please do not touch it!).  It promises to be a doubly educational experience.

EcoShakespeare has been produced in association with WNET-TV's Shakespeare Uncovered.  Shakespeare Uncovered is made possible by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Major funding is also provided by The Joseph & Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, Dana and Virginia Randt, the LuEsther T. Mertz Charitable Trust, the Lillian Goldman Programming Endowment, The Polonsky Foundation, Rosalind P. Walter, Jody and John Arnhold, the Corinthian International Foundation, and PBS.

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.


This water treatment facility in Monticello, FL, uses a five-carousel system to filter human waste from wastewater. The water then travels four miles south to a lake at Simpson’s Nursery. Treated effluent accounts for about 400,000 of the 2 million gallons the nursery uses daily.

Another issue facing Wakulla Spring is an increase of nutrients in the water supply.  A problem area identified in the report are the spray fields in the south of Tallahassee, where “gray water” is sprayed on plants in a field located north of sinkholes that feed the Wakulla Spring system.  Gray water is treated sewage, with most of the “sludge” removed (What is sludge?  Watch the video.  I apologize in advance for the image).  It does still contain nitrates, an excess of which can contribute to algae growth and possibly the growth of invasive hydrilla.  Driving with springs advocate Jim Stevenson yesterday to scout our Wakulla Springs Shakespeare EcoAdventure, he did mention that improvements are being made to the wastewater treatment plant feeding the spray fields that would reduce nitrates from over 12 mg per liter to under 3 mg/L.

As you can see in the video, there is a similar arrangement in Monticello between that city and Simpson’s Nursery.  The nursery is located north of the Cody Escarpment, in the Red Hills region; the Tallahassee spray fields are located on the Woodville Karst Plain.  The Red Hills filters water and protects the aquifer; on the WKP, the aquifer is much closer to the surface and water enters more freely.  The Simpson’s Nursery arrangement seems beneficial to the nursery and to the city of Monticello.  The city is spared the expense of disposing of its gray water, and doing so in a way that keeps it out of waterways.  The nursery pumps 400,000 gallons a day less from the aquifer, saving in electrical costs.  These are the kinds of solutions that were sought at the Sharing Water Conference- private business working together with government to mutual benefit and to the benefit of our groundwater supply.


Both Turkey Hill and Full Earth farms use a compost made from fish waste and wood chips. The fish waste comes from local seafood markets, the wood chips from tree cutters. These products would otherwise have sat in landfills, but now they are used to fertilize plants on these small organic farms. #fishcompost

In the final part of the video, I included interviews I conducted for segments on the Red Hills Small Farm Alliance (watch our first Red Hills Farm EcoAdventure here).  I wanted to show alternative methods of protecting waterways.  There is a lot of noise about wetlands legislation, and it is definitely important to decide how best to conserve sensitive ecosystems.  But many of the burdens placed on our water supply can be eased by more efficient practices in our homes, businesses, and farms.  Simpson’s Nursery uses reclaimed and recycled water and reduces their withdrawals from the aquifer.  Turkey Hill and Full Earth farms fertilize their plants using materials that would otherwise sit in a landfill, creating compost that keeps nutrients in soils and out of water (not to mention saving local fish markets a trip to the dump).  These are practices that are cost effective as well as environmentally friendly.

Cost effective AND environmentally friendly.  Beneficial to business AND government.  Solutions are out there, and they don’t always have to arise from conflict, which is so often at the center of environmental debates.  Do any of you reading this know of any similar “win-win” arrangements that benefit the environment and private interests?  Let us know below in the comments section.

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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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.


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.


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.

Video: Kayaking and Canoeing the Wacissa with the Green Guides

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

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When the video above aired on dimensions, several individuals in our community took note of a statement made by George Weymouth.  He was explaining how hydrilla, an invasive plant species overtaking rivers in our state, had led to Limpkins entirely abandoning the Wakulla River (which has its source at Wakulla Springs).  He said that herbicides used to control the plant led to a die off of apple snails, the limpkin’s main food source.

The reaction to this statement started me on a quest, with the several aforementioned individuals guiding me closer, and at times seemingly further, from an answer to what happened to the limpkins at Wakulla Springs.

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