Suwannee River Estuary: The End of Water's Journey
The expedition team explores the Suwannee River to document the downstream influence of clean spring water.
By Peter Lane Taylor
Along the lower Suwannee River, 50 miles southwest of the sinkholes that feed headsprings like the Ichetucknee, the landscape looks nothing like the Florida people see in postcards. Instead of palm-fringed beaches, life here is defined by swamp forests, wetlands, and the clean freshwater of the 197 springs that flow into the Suwannee along its 245 miles journey to the Gulf of Mexico.
On the last day of our expedition we've joined Russel Frydenborg, a biologist with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, and Rob Mattson, biologist for the Suwannee River Water Management District, to follow the journey of water through the Floridan aquifer to the end of the road and learn about the downstream influence of springs on the estuary. It's a journey that will take us 30 miles by motorboat down the final stretch of the Suwannee River from Fanning Springs State Park, along mixed tupelo-cypress swamps, through the saw grass flats of the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge and out to the fertile shellfish beds off Gulf coast communities like Suwannee and Cedar Key. Here, at the end of water's journey, the integral relationship between clean spring water, downstream habitats, and the human communities they sustain couldn't be more obvious. Just a short distance from Cedar Key, an ancient five-acre shell mound left by Florida's first humans bares witness to the fact that the health of the estuarine ecosystem was as important to humans 3500 years ago as it is today.
Though there’s not a spring in sight, everything around us—the oyster reefs, the fish, the grasses, and the people of Suwannee -- are dependent upon abundant, clean water flowing from Florida’s springs.
Russ and Rob are the ultimate guides to help us understand the relationship between springs and the river. Their encyclopedic knowledge of the plants and animals of the spring-river ecosystem and their passion to share that wisdom with others has been instrumental in helping local communities to understand that threats to the quality and quantity of the water in the aquifer doesn't just affect the health of the springs. It also impacts sensitive, downstream coastal habitats and the livelihoods of locals like marina owner George Anderson and clammer Sue Colson who rely on a steady delivery of clean freshwater from the river to keep offshore oyster, clam, and sport fisheries healthy.
"The Suwannee is an inextricably bound system," Russel explains as we journey downriver. "If you don't keep the forests and adjacent habitats upstream intact, you won't have clean water feeding into the river from the springs, and if you don't have clean water, the whole system will cease to function properly."
What's at stake here isn't just another river. The Suwannee River Basin is one of the wildest and most undeveloped river systems in the country, supporting a unique mix of sub-tropical forests, wetlands, and tidal rivers, as well as providing a last refuge for rare animals like the threatened Gulf Sturgeon and the endangered West Indian Manatee. Further downstream at the mouth of the river, where people like Sue and her husband Russell, a fifth generation Floridian, pull clams by hand from the rich sediments off Cedar Key, the Suwannee also supports one of the last vestiges of Florida.
"What we represent here in 'Clamelot' is the real Florida," Sue, the self-proclaimed 'Estuarine Queen' says with pride, "And because of the decline in water quality, we're watching a part of our history slip away."
Based on research Russel and Rob are conducting at places like Manatee Springs, the reasons that history is slipping away are as diverse as they are complex. Non-point source pollution from fertilizer run-off, development, and agricultural and cattle farms hundreds of miles upstream are introducing dangerous levels of nitrates and other pollutants into the river. Downstream at the mouth of the Suwannee, these nutrients can disrupt the delicate balance of fragile wetland communities by encouraging algae blooms which smother native vegetation, reduce dissolved oxygen in the water, and introduce toxins that kill sensitive invertebrates which are the primary food source for many fish species.
Complicating matters further, says Rob, is something called lag time. In many places within the Floridan aquifer, water can remain underground for decades before being discharged from the springs into the river. As a result, the nutrients and pollutants that are reaching the aquifer today might not reappear and impact downstream ecosystems like the Suwannee estuary until the year 2030.
"Lag time is one of the most important things to understand if we're going to protect the habitats downstream from the springs," Rob explains. "A lot of the algae blooms and other problems we're seeing here today are the result of what went into the aquifer twenty years ago."
The issue of lag time also raises another important point about large-scale watershed preservation. Protecting a spring-fed river system as massive as the Suwannee isn't as easy as protecting an individual spring. Along its 245-mile journey to the sea, the Suwannee flows through two states and eight Florida counties. As a result, for most people who live around the upper headsprings that feed the river, the oyster and clam beds of Suwannee Bay might as well be as far away as Long Island. Yet, that's precisely the disconnect that scientists like Russel and Rob are trying to address through their work. And, after spending the day with them their message is clear: the springs and the rivers they feed connect everyone together.
By the time we reach the town of Suwannee at the mouth of the river in the late afternoon to meet with marina owner and freshwater activist George Anderson, the sun is burning red over the oyster reefs just offshore through the cloud veil of an approaching front. Hundreds of miles downstream from the Suwannee's source in the Okefenokee swamp, the river here is deep and dark, discharging over ten billion gallons of water a year through a serpentine savannah of tidal marshes and shallow, grassy flats. It's a fitting end to water's journey. Though there's not a spring in sight, everything around us—the oyster reefs, the fish, the grasses, and the people of Suwannee itself—are dependent upon abundant, clean water flowing from Florida's springs.
"The reason the oyster bar is here and the oysters are so good," George explains, "is because the river's good. Man, animal, fish—all of us depend on it. And all of us depend on clean water."