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Saving Wakulla Springs with Jim Stevenson

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AUDUBON OF FLORIDA NEWS
"Florida’s Special Places: Wakulla Springs State Park"
posted on December 1, 2011 in FL Special Places,Water Issues

The latest nominee for Florida’s Special Places comes from Jim Stevenson, the former chief biologist for Florida State Parks. Mr. Stevenson’s outstanding dedication for our one-of-a-kind springs was recognized by the Governor and Cabinet when they dedicated the Department of Environmental Protection’s highest award the “Jim Stevenson Resource Manager of the Year Award“. The award is given annually to the most deserving state lands manager. We are so happy that he has chosen to nominate the beautiful Wakulla Springs State Park for Florida’s Special Places. Enjoy:

bald cypress"I moved to Tallahassee forty two years ago as the new chief naturalist of Florida’s state parks. Our first family excursion was to visit Wakulla Spring.  The spring and surrounding property was owned by tycoon Ed Ball and used as his personal retreat.  He managed the area at the spring as a private park for swimming, picnicking and boat tours. Within minutes of our arrival I told my family that this place should be a state park. My premonition came true seventeen years later. The clear blue water of this massive spring, the forlorn call of the Limpkins and the abundant fish swimming through the waving eel grass were magical.  Regrettably these remarkable natural values were soon to be lost through human activities up-gradient in the spring basin.

alligatorWakulla Spring is one of Florida’s largest springs. It is located 15 miles south of the state capital and Florida State University.  In 1837, John Lee Williams, who selected Tallahassee to be the capital of Florida stated “Wakulla Spring is the finest spring in Florida, if not the world.”  The spring is a foremost wildlife viewing area with waterfowl, wading birds, manatees and alligators easily observed from the river tour boats.  The historic lodge built in 1937 overlooks the spring and is a popular dining area for Tallahasseeans and tourists. In 1986 the state of Florida purchased Wakulla Spring and established the state park. Up to 200,000 park visitors generate $22 million per year for the local economy.

glass bottom boat
Glass bottom boat tours have been popular as far back as 1875 when local black men sealed a window pane in the bottom of a row boat and took tourists over the spring for 25 cents.  The glass bottom boats were steadily improved and became a major attraction. One could see 100 feet to the bottom of the spring where numerous fish and turtles were clearly visible. Wakulla Spring’s cultural history is fascinating.

B.K. Roberts, a former Florida Supreme Court Justice, said that it was commonly boasted that if a candidate for governor did not announce his campaign at Wakulla Spring he stood no chance of winning the race. In addition to the early glass bottom boats, synchronized swimming shows were performed by Florida State University Tarpon Club.  During World War II, the U.S. Army conducted infantry and frogmen training in the spring.  Several movies were filmed in Wakulla Spring because of the crystal clear water.  During the 1940s-70s, it was an underwater set for movies including the Creature from the Black Lagoon, Airport 77,and a series of Tarzan movies.

creature black lagoon
The spring’s discharge of 250 million gallons per day creates the nine-mile Wakulla River, three miles of which is protected in the state park. Wakulla Spring has long been known among birders as a center of Florida’s Limpkin population whose eerie cry was a common call-of-the-wild along the spring and river.  In 1998, manatees arrived in the spring and their numbers have steadily increased to over thirty in 2011.

The National Park Service designated Wakulla Spring a National Natural Landmark in 1977.  In 1986 a National Geographic dive team conducted the first expedition to explore and map the spring’s immense underwater cave system.  Another team of cave divers has been exploring these caves for over 20 years and has set world record cave dives in the process. This is the longest and deepest underwater cave system in the world.

While serving as chief naturalist for twenty years, I was involved in protecting the natural values of our state parks, including springs. We had long thought that the way to protect a spring was to buy it and make it a state park.  The state of Florida bought its first spring, Manatee Spring, in 1949 and purchased sixteen more major springs since then.  However, buying a spring protects the geological feature where the water flows from the ground, it does not protect the water. Without the water, all we have is a hole in the ground.

In 1992 I realized that the glass bottom boat tours were unable to be used as often as before because the water flowing from the spring was often too dark for viewing. I formed the Wakulla Spring Basin Working Group in 1992 which was composed of all the federal, state and local government agencies that had responsibilities in the Wakulla Spring Basin (springshed, aquifer). Other stakeholders were also involved including independent scientists, environmental organizations and private citizens. Our purpose was to determine what was happening to the water in the spring’s 1,300 square mile aquifer before it reached the spring.  This was the first spring basin working group to be formed and six more would follow.
underwater wakulla springs

The working group learned an immense amount during the following 19 years. The cave explorers led the way by mapping 32 miles of underwater caves.  In 2001 Governor Bush established the Springs Protection Initiative to fund education, research and best management practices. Wakulla Spring received more funding for scientific research than any other spring.  In 2010 there were 20 research and monitoring projects underway in this spring basin. The cave maps and other research results enabled us to educate the public and government agencies about the threats to Wakulla Spring.

A well educated population occupies the spring basin. The working group has sponsored numerous activities to educate the public about the spring including: a Walk for Wakulla Spring, a Run for Wakulla Spring, the Florida Springs Rally at the Capitol, field trips of the spring basin, workshops and evening events.  We also established the Wakulla Spring Ambassador to educate local residents about the threats to the spring.

limpkinIn 2000 the Limpkins disappeared from the spring and river because its primary food, the apple snail was gone due to the degradation of the ecology of the springs and river. We also noted a reduction of other birdlife, and the glass bottom boat tours rarely operated because of the increasing dark water. We determined that increased nitrate is feeding an infestation of algae and the non-native Hydrilla that has altered the ecology. Also increased pumping of groundwater in Tallahassee and Leon County is reducing the flow of the spring. Dye trace studies confirmed that Tallahassee’s wastewater sprayfield is the primary point source of nitrate.  Non-point sources include stormwater, septic tanks and lawn fertilizer.

Although we believe education is the most important spring protection strategy, regulations and legal action are occasionally necessary to change human behavior.

A law suit brought by the Florida Wildlife Federation, the Florida Attorney General and Wakulla County against the City of Tallahassee and Department of Environmental Protection was necessary to overcome the wastewater contamination problem. The city agreed to upgrade wastewater treatment to Advanced Wastewater Treatment (3 mg/l nitrate) at a cost of $225 million and implement other needed changes. The Florida Wildlife Federation and the Attorney General also sued Wakulla County to require the commission to follow their Comprehensive Plan to protect the spring.  Wakulla County established the first Spring Protection Zone in Florida and Leon County followed their lead by establishing a protection zone to protect Wakulla Spring. Wakulla County is the first county to require nitrate reducing septic systems.

limpkinWhile there have been many accomplishments for the restoration of the water flowing from Wakulla Spring, all is not well. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection has eliminated the Florida Springs Task Force, the Springs Protection Initiative, the Wakulla Spring Basin Working Group and the Wakulla Spring Ambassador. In order to partially fill this void, the Wakulla Spring Alliance has recently formed to provide education, research and advocacy to continue efforts to protect and restore the spring.  The work to save Wakulla Spring is on-going and can never end because of the increasing population and development in the spring basin.  Quitting is not an option.

Although degraded, it remains one of Florida’s Special Places.
Last Updated ( Friday, 28 December 2012 18:03 )