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Water's Journey Begins in the Heart of Karst Country

Water's Journey Begins in the Heart of Karst Country. The team learns about the source of springs and the importance of protecting springsheds.

Image of Wild and healthy spring ecosystems like No Name Spring are vivid reminders of what many of Florida's springs used to look like.Wild and healthy spring ecosystems like No Name Spring are vivid reminders of what many of Florida's springs used to look like. © Russell Sparkman

By Peter Lane Taylor

The late naturalist and philosopher Loren Eisley once said that, "If there is magic on this planet, it is in water." And nowhere does Eisley's statement seem more fitting than among the primeval hammocks and spring−fed rivers of northern Florida. In stark contrast to many developed areas of Florida, the spring environment is a reminder of wilderness past—a world where live oaks and cypress groves flourished undisturbed, and mastodons and saber−toothed tigers were the true kings of the jungle.

Yet, what makes Florida's springs so unique among the world's aquatic wildernesses is not simply what you see; it's what you don't see. Water in north Florida is a shy and unpredictable ghost: less a substance that we can see and touch, and more an energy that we can only briefly feel. Instead of only running over ground in rivers and lakes, much of Florida's water flows underground through a dark and uncharted geologic wilderness. Lost rivers rise unexpectedly in one place, then disappear back underground in another; sinkholes and spring−fed lakes hardwired directly to the aquifer fill one week, and then just as curiously, go dry the next.

“Water in north Florida is a shy and unpredictable ghost flowing underground through a dark and uncharted geologic wilderness.”

As a result, understanding Florida's springs and the very real threats that endanger them is no easy task. It requires cutting−edge science and technology, unprecedented exploratory courage, and an uncommon ability to look beyond the obvious features and phenomena of the landscape into the mysterious journey of water itself. It's a journey that begins with the simple marriage of hydrogen and oxygen and a single drop of water in the sky above the Florida Peninsula.

Documenting Water's Journey

Image of Wes Skiles and production assistant Joel Tower prepare to shoot a scene for the Water's Journey documentary.Zoom+ Wes Skiles and production assistant Joel Tower prepare to shoot a scene for the Water's Journey documentary. © Russell Sparkman

During our online journey, our guide through Florida's spring environment is underwater "aquanaut" and filmmaker Wes Skiles, a north Florida resident who has risen to fame by virtue of his award−winning work on documentary programs for National Geographic, Discovery and others. Among those who know him best, however, Wes' reputation is synonymous with two much more important things: cave exploration and springs conservation. For more than twenty−five years, Wes has spent countless hours probing, documenting, and educating people about the uniqueness and fragility of Florida's springs. His current project "Water's Journey" is a one−hour educational film for public television that chronicles the threats to the underground aquifer from a water's−eye perspective. And it is through the telling of this story—water's story—that we too are learning about Florida's endangered subsurface wilderness.

We joined Wes and his team to learn about the Floridan aquifer, the underground water source for 60 percent of Florida's residents. It is no ordinary field expedition, and our center of operations at Wes' 18−acre ranch is no ordinary base camp. Located five miles west of High Springs in a swath of Florida sandhills, "Camp Skiles" is a hydrological central command in the heart of karst or underwater cave country and the perfect place to get the inside story on what's happening here. Within a ten−mile radius of our location are some of the most abundant and exemplary spring systems on earth, including Ichetucknee Springs, one of the healthiest in the state, and Ginnie Springs, the top freshwater cave diving spot in the world.

Image of Spring country is also cow country with numerous ranches spreading across the landscape. Large livestock operations can contribute pollutants to the springshed.Zoom+ Spring country is also cow country with numerous ranches spreading across the landscape. Large livestock operations can contribute pollutants to the springshed. © Russell Sparkman

Yet, we are not alone in the wilderness. Within a half hour's drive of our location are many examples of human activities that have put Florida's springs at risk: dairy farms, large crop farms, limerock mines, a cement plant, a water bottling plant, and just fifteen miles east of us, the creeping tentacles of Gainesville's urban sprawl.

The location of Camp Skiles helps us understand the spring's watershed, more commonly known as the springshed, and the things that threaten springs and the aquifer. Contrary to popular belief, water's journey through north Florida doesn't begin at the spring; it begins in an area known as the recharge zone or springshed where rainfall is absorbed through sinkholes, swallet holes, and sandy soils into Florida's porous limestone bedrock. It is this same water that days, weeks, months, and even decades later mysteriously re-emerges from the ground at the springs.

Examining the Springshed

Image of Water's journey to Florida's springs doesn't begin underground in the aquifer. It begins with a single drop of rainfall - in some cases many miles from the spring.Zoom+ Water's journey to Florida's springs doesn't begin underground in the aquifer. It begins with a single drop of rainfall - in some cases many miles from the spring. © Russell Sparkman

On a large wall map of the surrounding area in Wes' office amid an avalanche of loose papers, diving equipment, and disassembled video cameras, the concept of aquifer and spring recharge is illustrated with undeniable clarity. North of Ichetucknee River and south of Ginnie Springs, there is no evidence of surface streams. Every drop of the estimated 300 million gallons of freshwater flowing from both springs each day originates underground.

Understanding the recharge area of a spring is key to understanding the things that can pollute it. As rainfall percolates underground in the spring recharge area into the aquifer, it carries with it the by−products of human activity. It isn't just water, therefore, that's welling up from deep underground months later; it also includes the things that entered the aquifer upstream−pollutants like raw sewage from faulty septic systems, chemical pesticides and fertilizers from lawns, nitrates from livestock and agriculture, and oils and other chemicals running off of roads and parking lots.

For many people, the connection between the land surface and the water that comes out of our taps or up from the spring is difficult to grasp. Once flushed out of sight, it's only logical to think that water must also go out of our lives. But as we are learning, nothing could be further from the truth. The 17th century physicist Issac Newton once said in describing the immutable laws of gravity that what goes up must come down. In the case of Florida's springs, however, Newton's law has been turned on its head: what goes down must eventually come up.

With any luck, as we explore Florida's springs with Wes and others, we might also discover what happens to it in the dark and uncharted wilderness in between.

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Image of Though not much to look at, Rose Sink has been linked through dye trace studies to six of the seven springs in Ichetucknee Springs State Park and is now partly owned by the state.

Wes Skiles describes deteriorating health of the springs

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Image of Oils and other automotive fluids run off of roads and parking lots during rainstorms and into retention ponds and the springshed.

Wes Skiles describes the human impact on springs

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Image of Minimizing the water and fertilizer requirements of large residential lawns is the first line of defense in the protecting Florida's groundwater.

Wes Skiles describes the impact of lawns on springs

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Image of A diver explores the mouth of the cave at Volusia Blue Spring.

Wes Skiles makes the case for protecting the springs

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My FloridaFlorida Department of Environmental Protection