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.