Green sludge mars the former white sandy bottom of the Wekiva River, strings of it waving in the current and blocking the sunlight that once glittered off the water’s ripples. Some of the slimy algae floats to the top, catching in piles along the bridge where people gather to look for fish in the clear, cool water. But it’s harder to see them now.
What was once a crystal clear, swimming hole paradise, local leaders and environmentalists say, is becoming spoiled.
On Saturday, Feb. 16, more than 1,000 nature lovers showed up to fight to save the river and its springs at the Speak Up Wekiva Rally at Wekiwa Springs State Park.
“If we don’t do something soon, we may pass the point of no return,” said Jimmy Orth, executive director for the St. Johns Riverkeeper group. “It’s urgent that we react.”
What they’re reacting to is a problem years in the making, Orth said. The Wekiva River and the springs that feed it have been declining in water quality and flow. The culprit: nitrates from fertilizers put on lawns and land used for agriculture, and sewage, that have seeped into the springs. The nitrates create an environment ripe for lots of algae and plants to grow, those plants die, and the scum you find in the Wekiva is what happens, he explained, degrading the quality and flow of the water.
Of the eight springs that feed the Wekiva River, four are impaired, including the two largest, said Robert Williams, a member of the counsel for the Center for Earth Jurisprudence’s Springs Initiative. Their flows are below the level which there would be significant ecological harm to the spring.
The Water Management District (WMD) is required by law to develop a plan if the levels are below the minimum or are projected to be in the next 20 years. Williams reached out to the WMD last year, demanding a plan to fix the problem, only to be told they’re studying it. But study after study has been done, all revealing the same information, and no action has been taken to save the river. They’ve known about the damage for a long time, Williams said.
“We’re trying to get them to follow the law,” Williams said. “We risk losing something that is really irreplaceable.”
Before the rally, that was something that Williams didn’t see happening. But the Friday before, the DEP released its “Basin Management Action Plan” to help fight pollution in the springs and river. It’s a start, he said.
Orlando Democrats Rep. Linda Stewart and Sen. Darren Soto drafted a bill together to protect the springs as well. Those that organized the rally — the League of Women Voters of Orange County, Friends of the Wekiva River, St. Johns Riverkeeper and Florida Conservation Coalition — are slowly reaching some of their goals to bring political attention to the cause.
But it’s more than just getting the river and springs back to sparkling, their health is a window into our own aquifer’s health, said Orth. Declining water flow in the springs may indicate a declining water level in the aquifer, which supplies 90 percent of Florida’s population with drinking water. Unregulated development and giving permits to businesses and farms to use the water, which is part of the springs’ problems, could be draining the aquifer too, he said.
“We’re pumping water out of the ground at an unsustainable rate,” Orth said.
There needs to be a focus on a water conservation and efficiency plan, and the public needs to elect officials who truly care about the environment, and keep them accountable, Orth said.
“It is no longer acceptable to eliminate regulation for the sake of economic development,” said Seminole County Commissioner Lee Constantine.
And really, Florida’s unique and beautiful landscapes are what feed the economy, said Bill Belleville, a local environmental writer and documentary filmmaker. The beaches, the one-of-a-kind springs and the outdoors are what bring people to visit and live in Florida, not its subdivisions and strip malls. And Belleville has made a career out of exploring those wild places, finding pieces of the Earth that are nearly untouched by people and time. The springs are some of those he loves most.
“You can feel like you’re several hundred years back in time,” Belleville said. “You’re having a very essential experience with nature.”
Williams remembers his first visit to Silver Springs in Ocala at 13, before Disney took over Central Florida, and being so amazed with what he saw. No place could compare, and he knew he’d be back.
“I thought it was the most wonderful place I had ever been,” Williams said.
And that’s what’s at the heart of those trying to save the springs. There’s nothing like them in the world, and we’ve got them right here in Central Florida. They’re a treasure worth saving, said Bob Graham, former Florida governor and U.S. senator. He couldn’t help but stop to marvel at the Wekiva’s beauty as he was driving into the park with his wife on the way to speak at the rally.
“I feel a spiritual uplift when I’m at a place like this,” Graham said.