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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.

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 !!

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.

Only a third of the job getting done to protect Wekiva waters

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The Wekiva River and Rock Springs Run have a pollution problem. Too much nitrogen and phosphorous are harming the rivers’ health. Algae is one symptom of choking ecosystems.

But there is a plan to clean up Wekiva as well as other polluted waterways throughout the state. Friends of the Wekiva River has been working to ensure cleanup efforts will be successful for Wekiva but is concerned that the state is not fully addressing the sources of this pollution.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection has estimated that about a million pounds of nitrogen in the Wekiva basin enter the waters each year. And it has developed detailed estimates of where it’s coming from. The major sources include septic tanks (29%), urban fertilizers (26 %), wastewater treatment facilities (17%), farm fertilizer (11 %) and sports turf fertilizer (7 %).

In 2008, FDEP set pollution limits, which are known as Total Maximum Daily Loads, for the Wekiva River, Wekiwa Springs and Rock Springs. For science types, here are the actual numbers: The TMDL is 0.286 milligrams per liter for total nitrogen and 0.065 milligrams per liter for total phosphorus. But nitrogen concentrations in the springs range from 0.8 to 1.4 milligrams per liter – about four times higher than what’s allowed. Phosphorous concentrations are about two to three times higher than the limit. Because of these violations, the state has designated the Wekiva River and Rock Springs Run as “impaired due to total phosphorus and nitrate-nitrogen based on imbalance of aquatic flora…” (Wekiva Basin Management Action Plan, October, 2015).

The Florida Springs and Aquifer Protection Act of 2016 requires FDEP to take action. One of the first steps is updating plans known as Basin Management Action Plans (BMAPs) for all first order magnitude springs and springs of regional significance, which includes the Wekiwa.  The plans outline projects that should be done to reduce pollution. The state also must identify Priority Focus Areas for each springshed and adopt a remediation plan for on-site treatment and disposal systems (septic tanks). For the Wekiva Basin, all of these elements must be completed by July 1, 2018.

FDEP started an update to the original 2015 Wekiva River BMAP in February 2016.  For the Wekiva BMAP update, the priority areas include places within the Wekiwa springshed where the travel time of groundwater within the Upper Floridan aquifer to Wekiwa and Rock Springs is one year or less.  Rainwater can take from days to thousands of years to work its way through our underground limestone labrynth and emerge in springs and rivers.

FDEP has asked stakeholders within the Wekiva Basin to propose projects that will reduce nitrogen pollution from sources such as wastewater treatment plants, septic tanks, fertilizers, etc.  However, FDEP’s current approach does not address the entire nitrogen load to the basin.   Instead, the state is focusing only on the nitrogen discharged directly from Wekiwa and Rock Springs, approximately 300,000 pounds per year, which is less than one-third of the total nitrogen load to the Wekiva Basin.

The FOWR disagrees with FDEP’s approach and has recommended that officials revise it to address the entire nitrogen load to the basin because ntrogen entering the groundwater will eventually reach the springs.  FOWR believes that the BMAP update must identify strategies to reduce the entire load to reduce the nitrogen concentrations in the groundwater that is discharged from Wekiwa and Rock Springs.

FDEP has used the same approach in draft BMAPs for other springs.  The Florida Springs Council, which is a non-profit group composed of springs experts and advocates, has expressed concerns similar to ours. To date, FDEP has not indicated that it will change the approach. This is a disservice to the Wekiva and all Floridians. The uniqueness of our springs and rivers draws locals and tourists from around the world. Yet the state is putting our valuable environmental assets at risk. FOWR will continue working with the Florida Springs Council on strategies to persuade FDEP to change its approach and do what’s right for Florida’s environment, citizens and future generations.

Go Wild!

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Wilderness Experiences

Go Wild!

Wilderness experiences are good for the mind, body and soul.

By Jay Exum

Jay is a featured columnist on environmental issues for 2017 editions of Seminole Magazine.

Wilderness. The very word conjures mixed emotions, particularly in our ever-urbanizing world. Is the term positive? Does it connote a place where you would go to experience a variety of wildlife, exquisite natural scenery and true peace? Or is frightening? Is the idea of exploring a wilderness area so inherently dangerous, so remote, so unrelatable that you wouldn’t consider it without a satellite phone and an emergency support team?

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