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Searching for Scrubjays Hike

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At 8:00 on Saturday, Feb. 9th, 17 people gathered at Bear Pond in Seminole State Forest with park biologist, Ralph Risch. The trees were shrouded in fog but as we gathered a low flying, immature eagle flew overhead, giving us a “under-view”  of the mottling of brown and white feathers.  It was not long before a couple of mature bald eagles soared over the pond.
 
The walk around the “Bear” was quiet except for an occasional bird call. The birds were waiting for the wind to settle and the sun to break through the fog.  Pine warbles, mourning doves and white-eyed verios were spotted. A small flock of wood ducks flapped across the pond.
 
Onward to the scrub!  The Jays displayed their cerulean blue wings as they perched on the highest tips of the very short scrub oaks.  Ralph explained the specific habitat that these indigenous birds to Florida require. They live in community and each bird has a responsibility to uphold. Some take turns being the sentinel bird to warn of hawks entering the territory. Others feed the family.  Some privileged families even have caregivers.
 
As we moved out of the scrub into the pine forest many warblers were seen and heard. This time the sunlight illuminated their yellow feathers.  A red-headed woodpecker was spotted on a dead tree…probably listening for insects.
 
The hike ended with a delightful picnic under the pavilion at Bear Pond. Our take-away: A  better understanding and appreciation of what it means to manage through protection, preservation, and restoration of this unique habitat, Seminole State Forest.
          

FOWR SEEKS FUNDING FOR WEKIVA-OCALA CORRIDOR PARCELS

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For many decades, the State of Florida has been purchasing properties necessary to create an unbroken corridor of wilderness connecting Wekiva Springs State Park to the vast acreage within the Ocala National Forest through programs such as C.A.R.L., Preservation 2000, and Florida Forever. Since 1980, the state has acquired nearly 56,000 acres at a cost in excess of $183 million for the Wekiva-Ocala corridor, and more than 25,000 acres are additionally being sought. Acquisition of the land is necessary to provide a wildlife movement corridor and important refuge and habitat for many rare species such as the Florida black bear, the bald eagle, Florida scrub jays, swallow-tailed kites, Florida scrub jays, sandhill cranes, Eastern indigo snakes, Sherman’s fox squirrels, Florida scrub lizards, and gopher tortoises. Another priority is to keep development away from these lands where rain seeps underground to the Floridan Aquifer, which is the source of water for the Wekiva river and dozens of other springs in the area.

FOWR has recently been engaged in efforts to secure funding for acquisition of, and a conservation easement over, several hundred acres located within some of the fragmented parcels still being sought by the state for acquisition in the Wekiva-Ocala corridor. In connection with these efforts, FOWR has learned of a federal grant allocated to the state for a Highlands County scrub jay project where alternative funding has instead been received. FOWR has asked the state to consider allocating the funds to acquire property and establish a conservation easement over two parcels consisting of approximately 200 acres of land in Lake County. Florida scrub jays can be found on one of the parcels, and both scrub jays and Eastern indigo snakes have been documented in the scrub communities on the parcel proposed to be placed under conservation easement.

Several state agencies are involved in the process of reviewing and approving FOWR’s request either because they have a role in allocation of the funds or a role in long-term management of the properties. If re-allocation of the federal grant monies is approved, FOWR will have one year to secure additional funds in order to qualify for receipt of the monies from the federal government. The Conservation Trust for Florida has advised it is willing to assist FOWR with securing preliminary appraisals and the necessary fund-raising efforts. A representative from Florida Fish and Wildlife Service has signed off on FOWR’s request and FOWR is now waiting for permission from the remaining state agencies involved.

Results of the Christmas Bird Count 2018

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Summary of the 2018 Audubon Christmas Bird Count

for the Wekiva Count Circle

In the 2018 Wekiva Christmas Bird Count (CBC), 53 people endured a relatively rainy and very cloudy day to identify 132 species, and 14,595 individual birds. The number of species observed was slightly higher than the 128 species we have averaged over the last 10 years.

The 10 species with the highest number of individuals observed on the count were: fish crow (3607), American robin (1142), black vulture (716), tree swallow (668), white ibis (627), red-winged blackbird (575), turkey vulture (346), yellow-rumped warbler (320), boat-tailed grackle (319), and palm warbler (302). We observed more than 100 individuals of 32 species; we saw 5 or less of 38 species and only 1 individual of 18 species.

Other interesting aspects of this year’s count included:

* “Rare” birds in this year’s count included American redstart, summer tanager, northern waterthrush and yellow-crowned night heron. All these birds are commonly observed in the region or abundant in other seasons in the Wekiva basin, but their lack of regularity in the Wekiva CBC necessitated completion of a rare bird form.

* Three species of birds were not detected during the 2018 count though they had been observed on at least 20 of 28. These included northern harrier, herring gull and eastern meadowlark. There continues to be a dramatic decline in eastern meadowlarks, particularly in the last 5 years – we observed 315 in 2007!

* Black-bellied whistling ducks continue to be observed in relatively high numbers – they have now been observed in the last 9 counts, and 275 were observed this year.

* Wild turkeys, which were not common in the Wekiva basin 30 years ago, have also become firmly ensconced in the count circle, including residential neighborhoods. Nine-two were observed this year, which was near the all-time high.

* Including this year, a single horned grebe has been counted 10 times during the Wekiva count – never any more.

* We had a near low count of the highly nomadic wood stork (8), but they have been observed on every count.

* We observed high numbers of American white pelicans (43), grasshopper sparrow (5) and least bitterns (3), which have only been observed on 4 counts.

* We observed only one northern flicker. Northern flicker numbers have been declining from a high of 55, 25-years ago.

* We have not observed a hairy woodpecker in 9 years, but they were observed in 15 of the early years of the count,

* We only observed one house finch, a bird that has recently become common in central Florida – we observed a high number of 16 in 2014. I had wondered if this species would be more prevalent since it has now been observed in 10 of the latest counts.

Please join or renew your membership

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FOWR membership is invaluable because you help keep us strong. Your support helps us defend the Wekiva and educate future generations who will need to take up the work of ensuring this remains one of Central Florida’s environmental jewels.

Many thanks to those of you who have already renewed your membership, and a reminder that it just takes one click (below) for those of you who have not yet had the opportunity to do so.  We would like to recognize those who have thus far renewed at our highest membership levels:

CORPORATE – -Encore Farms

LIFE — Leslie Poole

PATRON — Dick Ashby, Curtis Duffield

Friends of Wekiva River depends upon the income received from annual dues to sustain its many important activities related to protection of the river and basin. Through our efforts, we seek to minimize impacts from fragmentation and loss of habitat, declines in spring flow and degradation of water quality.

Your dues cover administrative expenses, such as paying the rental fee for monthly meetings and insurance for the activities that we lead. Your fees are also critical to programs we sponsor, such as educational materials and research we fund on wildlife and water quality in the basin.

Please click on the following link and renew your membership for 2018-2019. The Wekiva River and the wildlife who live within the basin are depending on you!!!

www.friendsofwekiva.org/membership/

FOWR Board: Who are they? What do they do?

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We’re so glad you asked!

After organizing informally in 1978 and incorporating in 1982, The Friends of Wekiva River, Inc. began with 19 members and an even smaller number sitting on the Board of Directors. Over the 40 years that have ensued, FOWR has grown to more than 300 members residing in Orange, Seminole and Lake Counties. With the most recent election conducted at the Board of Directors meeting held on May 3rd, the Board now consists of 18 members each serving three-year terms, governed by a President, Vice President, Treasurer and Secretary.

We will be launching a series of articles in upcoming newsletters to “spotlight” and introduce each of our Directors to you, but for now we thought you might be interested in some general information about the current make-up of the Board, the different areas of expertise the Board members contribute to FOWR and its mandate, and some of the activities the Board has contributed to and is currently involved in.

Most of the Board members have lived in the Wekiva basin for many years, and several were intimately involved with obtaining designation of the river many years ago as an Outstanding Florida Water, a Florida Canoe Trail, an Aquatic Preserve, and a Wild and Scenic River. In addition to the knowledge acquired over the years from these and other activities, many of the Board members contribute technical expertise in areas relevant to protection of the river, including law, biology, engineering, landscape architecture and media.

Board members are actively engaged in programs related to water quality enhancement, black bear research, land acquisition in the Wekiva to Ocala corridor and assuring design standards for the Wekiva Parkway. We monitor and analyze projects proposed for development within the basin as well as changes proposed to local government development codes and comprehensive plans that could negatively impact the river and basin. We appear at public hearings before local government boards to advocate for the river, and participate in many hands-on projects throughout the year preparing data and analysis related to species and habitat protection, water quality issues and education.

The Board meets 6:15 pm the first Thursday of every month at:

Seventh Day Adventist Church

Markham Woods Road

Longwood, FL.

State Plan Falls Far Short of Solving Wekiva’s Pollution Problems

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Two of Central Florida’s crown jewels, Wekiwa and Rock Springs, are in danger, and a plan meant to save them is woefully insufficient.

It is well known that both springs, as well as Rock Springs Run and the Wekiva River, are suffering from high levels of nitrates and phosphorus that are causing an imbalance in the aquatic plant and animal communities, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

These nutrients have led to growth of nuisance algae and other undesirable aquatic species that are choking out vegetation that fish and other wildlife need to live.

In 2008, FDEP determined that nitrate concentrations should be less than 0.286 milligrams per liter to protect the water quality of the two springs and their runs. But the nitrate levels in Wekiwa Springs average about 3 to 4 times higher. In Rock Springs, the nitrate concentration is even higher, averaging between 4 to 5 times what DEP says it should be.

In 2016, the Florida Legislature passed the Florida Springs and Aquifer Protection Act which requires development of plans to protect water quality in outstanding Florida springs. These are called Basin Management Action Plans or BMAPs. The Act requires that FDEP develop strategies to reduce pollutants so that the water quality in the springs and their runs will meet the required nitrogen levels.

FDEP recently issued the draft Wekiwa Spring and Rock Springs BMAP, which identifies fertilizers and septic tanks within the Wekiva Basin as the major contributors of nitrogen to groundwater that reaches Wekiwa and Rock Springs. The BMAP estimated that approximately one million pounds of nitrogen reach the groundwater within the Wekiva Basin each year. Of that total, approximately 29% comes from septic tanks, 26% from urban turfgrass fertilizer, another 23% from sports turf fertilizer, agriculture and livestock wastes, and about 16% from wastewater treatment plants.

The draft BMAP is set to be finalized this summer. But it recommends that nitrogen loads to groundwater within the Wekiva Basin be reduced by only about 20 percent. – certainly not sufficient to reduce the nitrogen concentrations in the springs by more than the needed 70 – 80 percent. The Friends of the Wekiva River believe that the draft BMAP must provide more specific requirements for reducing nitrogen loads to groundwater from septic tanks, fertilizers and wastewater treatment facilities by at least 80 percent.

Drilling Down on Septic Tanks

The draft BMAP would allow new septic tanks to be installed within an area designated as the Wekiva Basin Priority Focus Area – if the permit applicant can demonstrate that “sewer connection will be available within 5 years.” (Note: the draft BMAP does not specify that connection to the sewer is required, only that sewer be available). Existing septic tanks within the Priority Focus Area on lots less than an acre would be required to be either connected to a sewer system or upgraded to provide “enhanced” nitrogen removal within 20 years from the date of the BMAP adoption.

Friends of the Wekiva River urged FDEP to prohibit any new conventional septic tanks within the Priority Focus Area to prevent any additional nitrogen loads to groundwater. The Friends also urged FDEP to require “high level nitrogen removal” (removing at least 90% of the nitrogen in septic tank effluent) for new septic tanks and existing septic tanks where sewers cannot be installed within the next 15 years.

The Friends also believe that local utilities should undertake sewer construction projects within the Priority Focus Area to eliminate septic tanks in places where groundwater is vulnerable to nitrogen pollution, as identified by the Florida Geologic Survey. The Friends believe that Orange and Seminole counties and Apopka should extend sewer service to existing homes within the areas designated by the FGS as vulnerable and more vulnerable to groundwater contamination.

Spreading the News on Fertilizers

The Friends believe that the draft BMAP should require limits on fertilizer use within the springshed. At a minimum, the draft BMAP should include the following recommendations: Allow only slow-release organic nitrogen fertilizers to be sold within Orange, Seminole and Lake counties; prohibit fertilizer application during the rainy season; ban fertilizer sales within the three-county area during the summer months; establish application rates for lawns in residential and commercial areas; prohibit fertilizer application within 10 feet of water bodies, ponds, wetlands or sinkholes; make local code enforcement officials responsible for enforcing fertilizer ordinances; enforce limits on disposal of grass clippings and debris; and require public education programs on fertilization within the three counties.

Breaking Down the Flow of Wastewater Treatment Facilities

The Springs and Aquifer Protection Act prohibits new wastewater treatment facilities with permitted capacities greater than 100,000 gallons per day within the Priority Focus Area, unless the facilities reduce nitrogen in their effluent to 3 milligrams per liter or less. The Friends recommend that no new treatment facilities of any size be permitted within the springshed. Further, the Friends recommends that all existing wastewater treatment facilities in the springshed using percolation ponds or rapid infiltration basins – both of which allow wastewater to slowly seep into the ground — should be connected to sewer or provide treatment to limit effluent nitrogen concentrations to 3 milligrams per liter or less.

What Must Be Done to Save Wekiwa

The Friends are deeply concerned the draft BMAP recommendations won’t meet FDEP’s nutrient criteria for Wekiwa and Rock Springs. The Friends believe that more stringent limits on discharges of nitrogen from new and existing septic tanks and more stringent limits on use of fertilizers and wastewater treatment facilities are needed. The FDEP should rethink these issues before the plan becomes final and step up for Florida’s future.

FDEP has already committed $50 million per year for springs restoration statewide. The Friends recognize that even more money will be needed to get the job done. The Friends will work with our FDEP and our elected representatives toward obtaining more funding so that the Legislature’s goal of restoring our springs can be met within the 20-year goal.

Cleaning up our springs will take collaboration, cooperation, concessions and additional funding. But if we don’t act now, future generations could be robbed of the crown jewels we failed to protect.

*Please note that Friends of the Wekiva River are asking for donations to help fund a formal challenge to the state plan. Donations can be made via the Pay Pal link and noting the word “Challenge” in the notes section via our website www.friendsofwekiva.org

 

FOWR Receives Grindle Foundation Grant

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Friends of the Wekiva River recently applied for, and received, from the Art and Phyllis Grindle Foundation a generous $4,980 grant to fund the continuation of an investigation of the filamentous blue-green algae, Lyngbya wollei, found in the Wekiva River basin. This algae has been a source of concern due to the rise in nutrient levels in the Wekiva River that have increased significantly over the years. Nitrogen and phosphorus are two nutrients of concern in the Wekiva River stemming from sources such as septic tanks, wastewater treatment facilities, and urban, farm and sports turf fertilizers from lands within the Wekiva basin. The proliferation of algae and exotic plants is a result of nutrient enrichment and can have the effect of choking out beneficial native plant species.

In 2008, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection set pollution limits for nitrogen and phosphorus in the Wekiva River system as part of the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) program. Data from numerous sources, including a 1998-2000 Lyngbya algae study, also funded by FOWR, was used by scientists who helped develop the TMDL criteria for the Wekiva River. These determinations, in turn, set the stage for other programs aimed at reducing nutrient impacts to the Wekiva River.

Receipt of the $4,980 grant will allow FOWR to provide a stipend for a Wekiva River Aquatic Preserve Intern to continue a study of the algae commenced and funded by FOWR in 2017 and to add additional stations in order to more closely replicate the original 1998-2000 study. The results will provide a better opportunity for comparison of recent and past data to determine whether an increase or decrease in algae biomass has occurred. Several key strategies aimed at reducing nutrient inputs to the Wekiva system have been in place for many years. The results of the new algae study made possible by the Grindle Foundation grant, in addition to review of water quality trend analysis, can help determine whether those strategies are working.

Many thanks to the Art and Phyllis Grindle Foundation for its generosity in making this very important work possible !!

In case you missed it: Legislative Roundup

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The Florida Legislature ended its most recent session with a March vote impacting two subjects of keen interest to FOWR members: Florida Forever funding for conservation projects and a vote that will affect the aquifer and water quality.

An effort to publicly fund conservation projects in Florida began more than 30 years ago when Governor Bob Martinez established the Commission on the Future of Florida’s Environment. The Commission held meetings around the State attended by citizens from all walks of life, and state agencies identified lands through this process that they saw as critical to acquire. Floridians made it clear they wanted to protect their environmental future by acquiring these “must have” properties, and the Commission decided to ask the Florida Legislature for a total of $3 billion funded over 10 years at $300 million per year in order to ensure the ecological health and open space needs of the state.

A program named “Preservation 2000” was originally approved by the Legislature in 1990 with funding sourced from a small percentage of the money collected from documentary stamps paid on real estate transactions recorded in the public records around the state. The successor to the program was named “Florida Forever,” created in 2001 with another $3 billion approved for conservation funding over a 10 year period also funded from the documentary stamp fee. With approximately 10 million acres managed for conservation in Florida, more than 2.5 million acres of land have been purchased for conservation and recreation use under the Preservation 2000 and Florida Forever programs.

When Florida Forever funding is appropriated by the Legislature, it is distributed by the Department of Environmental Protection to a number of state agencies and programs to purchase public lands in the form of forests, parks, trails, wildlife management areas and more. All of these lands are held in trust for the residents of Florida.

After the 2008 recession impacted funding, an overwhelming 75% of Florida voters passed Amendment 1 in 2014, which requires that one-third of the documentary taxes collected on real estate documents be used for purchasing and restoring conservation lands through programs like Florida Forever. Despite this clarion call from concerned citizens, Florida’s legislators consistently refused over the ensuing years to fund the program in the intended manner, instead siphoning off funds to pay for existing environmental programs previously paid for out of general revenue, and falling far short of the intended allocation for the purchase of conservation lands. In 2015, for example, the Land Acquisition Trust Fund collected more than $740 million. Lawmakers spent only $88 million of that sum on conservation efforts. In the 2016-2017 fiscal year, only $15 million was allocated to Florida Forever, a huge drop off from the $300 million annual budget received at its peak, and the amount allocated last year was zero.

After a coalition of environmental groups filed suit, the Legislature voted in March of this year to approve $100.8 million for Florida Forever as part of the 88.7 billion state budget. The State’s Acquisition and Restoration Council (which selects the properties deserving of preservation) has a shopping list of 32 properties ranging from panther habitat in South Florida to bat caves in the

Panhandle. Irrespective of the Legislature’s vote, the lawsuit filed by the coalition is set for a trial in July of this year.

Meanwhile, the Legislature also approved HB 1149 in the same legislative session, which would encourage pumping treated sewage into the state’s aquifer to offset increased withdrawals of freshwater. By injecting the effluent, the state could continue approving new water-use permits for developers as new residents continue flooding into the state.

Magical moments on our hike to find hidden springs

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Our discovery of hidden springs revealed some magical moments. Thanks to everyone who attended!
Here's a report from leader Jay Exum:
FOWR Ecology Field Course #6:
Hidden Springs of Seminole State Forest

On June 3, about 30 participants in the Friends of the Wekiva River’s sixth and final ecology field course trekked across Seminole State Forest in search of “hidden springs”. These diminutive, Magnitude 4 or 5 springs still emanate from relatively unaltered natural lands and provide much of the surface flow for Sulfur Run, a tributary to Blackwater Creek.

All these springs occur in the Wekiva basin springshed and are protected within the 25,000-acre Seminole State Forest in the Wekiva to Ocala corridor. On the Forest, management is focused on restoring the historical biological diversity of scrub and sandhill habitats. Preservation of these habitats, characterized by extremely high recharge into the Floridan aquifer, has also protected the springshed for the springs that we visited during our day in the field.

The springs occur in an area referred to as Sulfur Island, a 60-foot uprising of well-drained soils underlain by limestone. At the spring vents, groundwater is forced out of these karst formations by underground pressure. The springs bubble up at the surface and form a continuous flow of clear, low nutrient water. We visited Helene, Markee, Boulder, Shark Tooth and Palm Springs. Palm Springs was dammed by previous private landowners to provide a deeper swimming hole. After acquisition, the state removed the dam to return the spring to its natural topography and hydrology. We admired the success of these restoration efforts, and the recovery of native vegetation along the slopes of the spring. Helene Springs sits in a veritable oasis of hydric hammock under a mature canopy of bald cypress, tupelo gum, water oak, sweetbay magnolia and tuliptrees that provided a cool (albeit humid) break from the adjacent longleaf pine flatwoods. Boulder, Markee and Shark Tooth Springs emerge from sandhill and scrub communities and their relatively steep slopes provided an interesting transition from sand pine scrub across longleaf pine sandhills into the wetland community created by the springs.

This field trip allowed us the opportunity to review the information learned during previous field courses. We discussed the diversity of frogs in wetlands systems across Seminole forest, the need for fire to maintain most of the upland communities in the Wekiva basin and the unique attributes of the ecological communities that we visited during the last year. Hopefully, the FOWR field course provided a primer for some, and deeper insight for others into the benefits and beauty of natural systems in the Wekiva basin.

Ecology on the Wekiva

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Aquatic Ecology on Rock Springs Run

 

Our fifth installment of the Friends of the Wekiva River ecology field course series related to aquatic ecology. We paddled portions of Rock Springs Run on Saturday, April 19. Recent rainfall required us to reschedule, and then modify the trip, but this portion of the Wild and Scenic River system did not disappoint. We discussed Rock Springs, a second order magnitude spring, and the contribution its 40 million gallons per day provides to the surface waters of Rock Springs Run. We discussed changes in water quality at the spring and the surface waters along the Run over the last few decades and measures that can be taken to improve them. We took special note of the plants that were flowering during this spring trip. We saw bulltongue, hemlock, pickerelweed, buttonbush, spider lily, sweetbay, spatterdock and other showy flowers during our 4-mile canoe trip. We also noted flower of less conspicuous species such as cattail, rushes, beakrushes, sedges and sawgrass. We discussed the forested floodplain associated with the Wekiva River system and its importance to migratory birds. I mentioned the various warbler species that were observed migrating through central Florida over the last month, and we noted migratory species that had now arrived and will breed here. Birds that we observed or heard included pileated woodpecker, red-bellied woodpecker, Carolina wren, tufted titmouse, red-eyed vireo, white ibis, little blue heron, great egret, tri-colored heron, and a female wood duck with chicks. The rain held off for just long enough for us to finish our paddle, first through the Emerald Cuttowards Rock Springs, and then downstream a couple

 

of miles along Rock Springs Run. We felt the difference between paddling upstream against the powerful flows of a second order of magnitude spring, and the benefit of allowing it to push us downstream. This section of the Wekiva Wild and Scenic River is one of the most scenic with clear water; native, mature forested canopy; and spectacular native wildflowers. Thanks to all that participated - we hope you will continue to enjoy the river and work to sustain its values.