Monday, May 28, 2012

Completing a long, watery circuit

I spent the first day of Memorial Day weekend like so many other Floridians, on the water. My kayak buddy and his wife and I drove to Hontoon Island State Park near DeLand and embarked on an eventful journey around the island covering about 12 miles. We headed upstream on the north-flowing St. Johns River towards Blue Spring State Park, hugging the shoreline to avoid motorboat traffic. A foggy morning soon turned into a sunny day as we paddled the four miles to the spring. Along the way we had wonderful encounters with osprey, herons, a bald eagle and even a flock of turkeys. And due to a no-wake zone extending most of the way, the effects of the motorboats were minimal.

The beautiful St. Johns River, Florida's largest
Spider web on channel marker

The spring, like the river, was packed with holiday traffic and I overheard someone say the state park ran out of rental canoes. Kayaking Blue Springs run was a highlight for me; I'd only seen it from observation platforms above previously. This new perspective allowed me to get close to schools of gar that didn't seem to mind the intrusion of a 10 ft. yellow kayak. I also saw schools of catfish, mullet and bream. Oblivious to the hordes of swimmers, an otter enjoyed a fish dinner on the far bank, to the delight of many. After a quick dip into the green waters we crossed the St. Johns again to try to find the quickest route up the western side of the island.

Blue Spring Run

Catfish swim over an algae-coated spring run
Mullet in the green water of Blue Springs
The most direct routes were said to be covered with vegetation but we tried them anyways. Snake Creek which heads northwest to Dead Hontoon River, seemed impassable by our estimation. We tried Smith Canal, an east-west artery linking the two rivers, but were deterred by a large alligator and heavy coverage of plants on the water. Our only path, other than backtracking, was heading further south to another canal, which we were warned was a "very long paddle". And it was. With aching shoulders and a huge sense of accomplishment, we eventually hooked up with the St. Johns again. As one my fellow kayakers said of Hontoon Island, "it's a big island." My estimate is that we covered 12 miles and spent 6 hours in our boats. Not bad for three middle-aged weekend adventurers. Fantastic weather, incredible nature and a chance to spend the day on a few of Florida's most picturesque waterways made it all worth it. Seeing so many other Floridians enjoying the outdoors along with us was encouraging to me. To me there is nothing like the sense of freedom one feels on the water –  on Memorial Day weekend enjoying ones freedom seems like a good way to honor the sacrifices others have made.

Cypress Knees on the Dead Hontoon River

Boaters enjoying the holiday weekend

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

What I saw at Silver Springs

Friday I took the day off to canoe up the Silver River to Silver Springs. I observed more wildlife on that stretch of river than I did on my all my other kayak trips this year combined. I saw hundreds of turtles, fish, birds and alligators. I again noticed signs of the drought – lots of exposed tree roots and cypress buttresses that are normally underwater. I also noticed the only places along the river with a sandy bottom were spots where fish had fanned out beds – otherwise a layer of algae coated everything underwater. But the most dramatic sight was that the surface of the water above the springs was as smooth as a reflecting pond with no boil interrupting the surface.

My trip began when I rented a canoe at Silver Springs State Park where a three-person Old Town Canoe rents for $7/hr. It's a half mile walk from the parking lot to the river, so if you want to bring your own canoe or kayak, you'll need a a cart. The path down to the river is a beautiful walk, but the star of this park is obviously the river which flows from Silver Springs to the Ocklawaha. The first hour of the rental is free to allow for the time it takes to walk the path to and from the river.

While the water wasn't as crystal clear as I remember from childhood, the visibility is still good enough to see fish floating below. It seemed like bream followed the canoe as I took underwater photos. It was almost visual overload as there was beauty in all directions; amazing flora and fauna on land, in the water and in the air. Despite the drought and the water issues, this river is absolutely gorgeous, a natural treasure worthy of protection.

Throughout the river there were deep spots where the color of the water appeared to change to a vibrant cyan and the bottom was no longer visible. Had their been a boil on the surface of the water it would have been apparent that these were springs. But because the surface was smooth I was unsure.

As I approached the springs at the beginning of the river, a glass bottom boat floated over a spot where millions of gallons of fresh clear water bubble up, and there was no surface evidence whatsoever of the spring's existence. I heard that week that the flow levels were lowest ever recorded. I also noted what I had seen in my last visit in 2010 – lots of algae and reduced water clarity. What I saw on this day was that the health of the springs where suffering.

The State Park Ranger who rented me the canoe said the way back would be quicker than going upstream due on the current from the springs. But the wind offered more resistance than the current which seemed relatively insignificant on this day. The trip up and back, with multiple photo stops, took me 4 hours. I learned that taking photos while trying to negotiate a canoe by yourself is no easy task!

Two days after my trip, the attorney for Frank Stranach, the Canadian Billionaire requesting the right to pump millions of gallons a day from Florida's aquifer, published a long editorial in the Gainesville Sun entitled "Adena Springs permit won't hurt Silver Springs." He said: "environmental stewardship needs to be based on science and facts and not emotion or fear."

My response is to take a look at these archival images from the State Archives and compare them to the ones I took on Friday. My concern is that those who have no point of reference will think the current conditions of the spring are acceptable. Those of us who witnessed the glory and grandeur of this natural wonder when it was relatively unspoiled must be heard. These springs are in critical condition. Even now, regardless of what happens with Adena Springs Ranch, they need our help. Should the permit be approved, there is strong possiblilty Silver Springs could end up like Wakulla Springs, where the glass bottom boats rarely leave the dock. From what I witnessed, Silver Springs are not far from that now.

If you'd like to help join the movement to push back against those who would put Silver Springs at risk, here's how you can help:

Silver Springs Facts 

(from Dr. Robert Knight, Director of the H.T. Odum Florida Springs Institute)

Flows have declined by 32% during the past decade and 50% since 1965s
This is not due solely to drought. Regional spring flow has decreased by 40% over the past 30 years, while rainfall has decreased by only 15%. As groundwater users increase and recharge areas decrease, the Adena draw of 13 MGD would deplete the springs even further, endangering sustainable flow and intensifying the problem of rising levels of groundwater nitrate pollution.

Waste created from a large number of cattle, a meat processing plant, and excess nutrients from fertilizers used on the Adena property could reach the groundwater that ultimately discharges from Silver Springs, exacerbating the existing problem of elevated nitrate nitrogen levels in the spring.

Despite its Outstanding Florida Water (OFW) designation, Silver River is already severely impaired, before Adena. Note: the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) “may not issue permits for indirect discharges that would significantly degrade a nearby waterbody designated as an OFW.” 

Moreover, if Silver Springs dies, Marion County stands to lose an estimated $61.45 million dollars in direct revenue per year, including over 1,060 jobs with wages of $12.61 million per year. The projected number of jobs created by Adena Ranch is 100. If our water officials do nothing to save Silver Springs, they will be responsible for an economic as well as an environmental disaster.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Opposing Adena

Adena Springs Ranch is a 30,000 acre cattle ranch being developed by Canadian car parts billionaire Frank Stronach in Marion County. Stronach's concept is to raise is 30,000 head of beef on grass and in order to do so, he has requested a permit from the St. Johns Water Management District (SJWMD) to withdraw 13 million gallons of groundwater a day from the Floridan Aquifer. That is more than the largest city in the area, Ocala, uses in an entire day. The ranch is located within the springshed of Silver Springs, meaning that the ranch would share the same source of water as Florida's iconic springs. With the water amount flowing through Silver Springs already at record lows, due to drought and increased demand on the aquifer, the approval of Stronach's request could doom Silver Springs as we know it.

In addition to the amount of water being requested, cow waste and fertilizers from the ranch would add to the problem of increased nitrogen levels at the spring which results in more unhealthy algae growth in the springs. I documented the increase in green slime on my last trip to the attraction the end of 2010.

As my own personal journey has led me to be more active in the preservation of these aquatic jewels of Florida, I have come into contact with others involved in springs preservation efforts. Naturalists, photographers, artists and concerned citizens, mostly in North Florida, are mobilizing to try to save Florida's springs. At the request of a couple springs activists whose work I admire, including photographer John Moran, I created artwork based on my imagery, to lend to the cause. The first design, combining a vintage postcard and a photograph of a dried lake bed at Goldhead Branch State Park, was used for postcards by the St. Johns Riverkeeper organization based out of Jacksonville.  Later I helped execute John Moran's concept of a cow and a tombstone at Silver Springs.

Silver Springs has been an a attraction in Florida since the steamboat days of the 19th century. Harriet Beecher Stowe, Ulysses S. Grant and even William Bartram were in awe of its beauty. A historical, cultural and natural wonder, it is a U.S. Heritage site and beloved by Floridians. To allow it to be destroyed it would be akin to Arizona spoiling the Grand Canyon or Wyoming ruining Yellowstone. Should we allow its demise, future generations will wonder why we didn't do more to preserve it.

So I felt a strong a calling to participate in the a protest in Marion County, across from a new facility built by the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Studies with $1.5 million dollars donated by Frank Stronach. I joined about 100 other protesters of all different ages to have our voices heard on this issue. It was sunny and hot and we chanted and yelled at each car that entered the gate for the VIP dedication that was abruptly closed to the public. Leaders of my Alma mater were visibly perturbed by our efforts, and we made our case known as local media coverage of the event focused on the protest, not the dedication. Stronach himself seemed to be effected and he said he said “I hope that we can find a good solution, I want to be a good corporate citizen here ... We should do everything we can to make sure we don't do damage to our water resources." To me it sounds hopeful, and perhaps Mr. Stronach has a conscience. But as one fellow protester said, the proof is in the permit, and we will have to see if he withdraws his request for such an exorbitant amount of water.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

What to make of Lake Maitland

Lake Maitland is the largest in the Winter Park chain of lakes that are connected by New Deal era canals. I had been hankering to kayak it for several reasons: it has canals linking it to other lakes inside the city of Maitland; it contains the Isle of Sicily, a small island of exclusive homes where noted architect James Gamble Rogers' home used to sit; but most of all I wanted to photograph the Cypress trees in the middle of the lake. 

Satellite view of Lake Maitland
I put in at Fort Maitland Park right off 17-92 at the site of the Seminole War era stockade from which the city of Maitland derives its name. Arriving shortly after 8 am, the parking lot was full of trucks with empty boat trailers, so I knew this experience would be much different from my previous two kayak expeditions, where I never encountered another boat. That contrast was even more apparent as soon as I put in the water and paddled behind large condominium complexes and large mansions that seem to dominate the lakefront. It was kind of like paddling through people's backyards, although I saw few people enjoying their million dollar views on this lovely Saturday morning.

My first target was a large island in the middle of the lake. Narrowly missing a fast moving racing shell, I crossed over to the undeveloped island and deduced it must be a popular party spot by the beer cans strewn about. But this morning the only occupant appeared to be a Great Blue Heron who seemed irritated as I paddled around the corner and disturbed his breakfast hunting.

Island in Lake Maitland
Great Blue Heron
From the island I crossed over to the west side of the Isle of Sicily and made my way to the narrow spot where the iconic Cypress emerge from the middle of the lake. Hugging the shore to avoid speeding motorboats, I was struck by the size of the bases of the trees that are now visible due to low water levels. I've been so caught up in studying the beauty of the root systems of these fascinating trees, that it hadn't dawned on me that the reason why so much is exposed is because of drought. The evidence of this can be seen on the base of these Cypress where the normal water level is three or four feet higher than it is now.

The iconic Cypress (opportunistic Osprey on the right)
Note the normal water level indicated by the green area on the tree base
Large lakefront home framed by Cypress
The bridge to the Isle of Sicily
More evidence of the drought became apparent as I paddled through the canal to Lake Nina and attempted to get to Lake Minnehaha. Despite boathouses with ski boats hanging from the rafters, it was very clear that only a kayak or a canoe could get through these shallow canals with the water this low. On the smaller and quieter Lake Nina I saw turtles basking in the sunlight, irritated Wood Ducks and gorgeous water lily blossoms. But as I attempted to paddle through the canal to Lake Minnehaha to the north, the water disappeared into mud, and I could proceed no further.

The widest part of the canal between Lake Maitland and Lake Nina
Officially Florida has been a drought for years, but I hadn't really seen physical evidence of it until I saw dried up lakes at Goldhead Branch State Park and near Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings home in North Florida at the end of last year. That part of the state seems to be hardest hit as many lakes are completely dried up and several springs have stopped flowing very recently. While the lack of rain is a large part of the problem, the strain we have put on the aquifer is also to blame. Down here in Central Florida, our lakes still have water, but the size of the shoreline appears to grow daily. It will be interesting to see if the rains of summer restore our lakes to their normal levels.

Exposed Cypress knees show low water levels

Lake Nina water lily