Publication Date: 03/24/08
ORANGE CITY -- The waters of Blue Spring appear crystal clear, gushing from underground and flowing down the spring run to the St. Johns River.
More than 260 manatees this winter took refuge there, making the spring their crucial habitat.
But the waters hold something else the residue of lawn fertilizers, septic tanks and other pollutants seeping into the spring water from much of west Volusia County.
Knowing that the surrounding cities hold the key to the spring's health, state wildlife officials have started a new working group to tackle the pollution that has increased as the region has grown.
City and county officials, state agencies, environmental groups, local businesses and nearby residents have been invited to the group's first meeting, scheduled for Sunday at Blue Spring State Park.
"The group is designed to be a forum for sharing information about the spring, the health of the spring, threats to it," said Carol Lippincott, the group coordinator. "With that information, we hope to do things that will better protect the spring."
Blue Spring ranks as one of Florida's first-magnitude springs, its waters gushing at a rate of 1,174 gallons per second, or 157 cubic feet.
Thirty years ago, that spring water contained negligible levels of nitrate pollution, said Rob Mattson, an environmental scientist with the St. Johns River Water Management District.
"Now it's about six times the natural amount," Mattson said. "But the increasing levels are true in a lot of springs. It's a statewide issue."
According to a state environmental assessment, a water sample from Blue Spring showed nitrate levels higher than that found in 80 percent of Florida streams.
That spring water contains pollution is a growing problem that many people don't understand, said Jim Stephenson, an expert on Florida springs.
"People think it's pure, it's coming from the earth," he said. "But the fact is that water, in its journey across the spring basin, has picked up all sorts of contaminants."
Blue Spring is fed by rainwater, which can wash fertilizer off lawns or pick up tainted liquid from septic tanks. Wastewater-treatment plants also feed nitrates into the system because the treated sewage effluent, when it is sprayed on fields or used as reuse water, still contains the nitrates that are inherent in all waste, Stephenson said.
All those contaminants eventually percolate into the ground, down to the caverns of the aquifer, which feeds water for the spring.
That means that most of west Volusia including all of Deltona and Orange City, as well as parts of DeLand, DeBary and Lake Helen can affect the health of Blue Spring, Lippincott said.
The nitrate levels at Blue Spring haven't shown any direct effect on the manatees living there, said Kent Smith, who focuses on manatee habitat for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
But nitrates could potentially fertilize algal blooms and change the habitat, he said.
Connie Bersok, environmental administrator for the state Department of Environmental Protection's springs initiative, said the pollution problem is evident at springs surrounded by development.
For example, the nitrate levels at Silver Springs are dramatically higher than those of nearby Juniper Springs. The difference is that the drainage basin for Juniper Springs is almost entirely within the Ocala National Forest.
Lippincott said the working group offers a chance for people to discuss the spring health. The group, funded under a state wildlife grant, has no authority or power, and participation is voluntary.
However, Stephenson, who has coordinated long-running working groups for Wakulla Springs south of Tallahassee and Ichetucknee Springs in Fort White, said such groups have been very successful.
For example, the Ichetucknee group has helped organize several events to teach residents about the spring. Governments in the vicinity are upgrading dilapidated sewer pipe and the stormwater systems. Septic tanks at the state park there have been replaced with systems than can remove the nitrogen.
Organizers hope the new working group for Blue Spring can spark similar efforts and get residents involved in caring for the spring.
"The best thing the working group can do is give an opportunity to provide the message of stewardship of the spring and build more of a communal awareness for springs protection," Smith said.
Information from: The Orlando Sentinel, http://www.orlandosentinel.com
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