One of several old Florida tourist attractions that were built around first-magnitude springs, this is now a state park. It showcases native Florida wildlife, including red wolves, Florida panthers, black bears, bobcats, Key and white-tailed deer, alligators, river otters, and many others—all seen by visitors from an elevated boardwalk that winds through their enclosures in a natural setting. The main attraction is the endangered West Indian manatee.
The Homosassa Springs Group, a first-magnitude spring, is located in Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, within the town of Homosassa Springs in Citrus County. First-magnitude springs discharge a very large volume of water—at least 100 cubic feet per second (cfs), or almost 65 million gallons each day.
Archaeological evidence has shown that prehistoric Native Americans inhabited the area around the springs, as did the Seminole Indians after European settlers arrived. The word "Homosassa" is a Creek Indian word meaning "place of many pepper plants."
The Homosassa springshed, which covers portions of Citrus and Hernando Counties, is about 270 square miles in size. The springs form the head of the Homosassa River, which flows west approximately eight miles to Homosassa Bay in the Gulf of Mexico. Downstream from the springs, two small spring-fed tributaries, the southeast fork and Halls River, flow into the Homosassa River. The entire river system, including the springs, is tidally influenced, especially in winter.
Homosassa Springs is unique in that the headspring vent flows from three points underground, each with a different water quality and salinity level that blend together before exiting into the spring pool. The vents for Homosassa Springs # 1, 2, and 3 are 67, 65, and 62 feet deep, respectively. The springs issue from a conical depression, with limestone exposed along the sides and bottom of the spring pool. The spring pool measures 189 feet by 285 feet. There is a large boil in its center.
The pool is teeming with salt water and freshwater fish, and the water is clear and light blue. The surrounding land is low-lying, with thick hardwood–palm forest cover. Approximately 1,000 feet downstream, there is a fence spanning the river to keep boats out of the spring pool.
A floating observation deck in the spring pool has a submerged aquatic observation room (Figure 1). Injured and rehabilitating West Indian manatees—an endangered native species—are kept captive for year-round observation, and a barrier immediately outside the spring area keeps them in the spring pool. Wild manatees frequent the spring pool and river year-round, but are especially common in winter, when they seek warmer water during cold spells. These huge, gentle animals, averaging 1,000 pounds, eat only aquatic plants. They cannot survive for extended periods in water colder than about 63°F.
The Florida Park Service recently allowed wild manatees to enter the spring bowl at for the first time in 30 years. The park’s eight captive manatees have been placed behind a newly constructed gate in the spring pool, allowing the rest of the spring bowl to be available for wild manatees during cold spells. The gate will be closed when the wild manatees have left the spring at the end of the season, usually March, and the rehabilitating manatees will again have the entire spring pool for their use.
Homosassa Springs has been a tourist attraction since the early 1900s, when trains loaded with fish, crabs, cedarwood, and spring water would stop to let their passengers rest at the springs. It was subsequently converted to a zoolike park with exotic animals such as lions, bears, a hippopotamus, and monkeys, as well as non-native trees and plants.
The Florida Park Service purchased the springs in 1988 with funds from the state’s Conservation and Recreation Lands (CARL) Program. Several other parcels were subsequently purchased under the Land Acquisition Trust Fund and Preservation 2000 Programs. Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park currently comprises about 197 acres.
During the park’s restoration, all the exotic animals and non-native plants were removed. The only non-native animal remaining is Lucifer the hippopotamus, now 55 years old, who has been officially designated as an honorary Florida citizen.
The park is now an interpretive center for endangered West Indian manatees and Florida native wildlife education. Recreational activities include picnicking, nature study, and birdwatching. However, swimming is not allowed. A children's education center provides hands-on experiences about Florida's environment. The park also has a large and active volunteer program.
The Homosassa Springs Group consists of over 20 Floridan aquifer system springs, all tidally-influenced, which discharge directly or indirectly into the Homosassa River or its tributaries (Figure 2).
The main trunk of the Homosassa River is predominantly fed by the three Homosassa Main Spring vents, along with six other minor vents. Spring Cove, located just south of the Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park along the southeast fork of the Homosassa River, contains at least six named springs:
Pumphouse #1, MccClain, Trotter Main, Trotter #1, Belcher and Abdoney springs. Bluebird Spring, located in a county park approximately 0.7 mile southeast of Spring Cove, is included in this spring group as are the Hidden River Head and #2 springs, located about 2.2 miles south of the Homosassa Main Spring vents.
The Hidden River springs (Hidden River Head and #2 springs) discharge into Hidden River, a spring run which flows west for approximately two miles before disappearing underground. Also included are the Halls River spring vents: Halls River Head, #1 and #2 (Figure 9) springs, located about 1.7 miles to the north, which form the headwaters of Halls River, a major tributary to the Homosassa River.
The Homosassa springshed extends east across southern Citrus and southeast into east-central Hernando County (Knochenmus et al, 2001). Predominant land use consists primarily of medium-density residential communities, mostly along and extending inland east of U.S. 19-98 for about 6 miles, and upland forest within the Withlacoochee State Forest (WSF), located east of the residential communities and sitting astride the Brooksville Ridge. Pasture lands are also a significant land use, with the largest areas sandwiched between the medium-density residential areas and WSF, southeaast of Homosassa, as well as extending south of the WSF into Hernando County (Jones et al, 1997).
The combined Homosassa Main Spring vents have been sampled for major ions and nutrients as far back as 1946 by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), and the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD) has collected a large suite of water quality analytes including nutrients, field and salinity indicators at nine of the major spring vents of this Group during the period from 2002 through 2012. Tables 1-9 summarize the results for selected analytes for each major spring.
Like many Florida springs, nitrate levels in all of the monitored Homosassa River spring vents have been trending upward during the period of study (2002-2012), with an approximate increase of 0.010 mg/L nitrate + nitrite (measured as N) per year for the three Homosassa Main Spring vents. By the end of 2012, nitrate + nitrite values for these three vents were between 0.62 – 0.67 mg/L (Figure 10). The similarity in trends and nitrate + nitrite values indicates that all three Homosassa Main vents likely have adjacent or overlapping ground water sources. Looking back at the few nitrate + nitrite results collected from Homosassa Main Spring prior to the 2000’s confirms that this upward trend has been continuing for at least the past 66 years. In 1946, the nitrate concentration at Homosassa Main Spring was measured at 0.20 mg/L; in 1972 it was 0.26 mg/L, and by the 1980’s the mean value of the three samples on record was 0.30 mg/L (no nitrate + nitrite samples were reported at this site during the time period 1973 - 1984 and from 1989 – 2000).
The Spring Cove springs (Trotter Main, Pumphouse #1 springs) and Bluebird Spring also showed increasing nitrate + nitrite trends, with values increasing about 0.017 mg/L per year for the years with water quality data available (Figure 11). These trends are very similar to those measured in the three Homosassa Main vents. In addition to similar trends, the nitrate+nitrite values from these spring vents are all similar; these values ranged from 0.54 – 0.74 mg/L at the end of 2012.
The Hidden River Head and Hidden River #2 spring vents (Figure 11) also show an increasing nitrate + nitrite trend during the study period, and similarities in concentrations and trends also indicates a similar ground water source area for these two springs. Nitrate + nitrite values for these springs were in the range of 0.86 – 0.92 mg/L at the end of 2012, the highest of any springs sampled within the Homosassa area.
Nitrate + nitrite values for Halls River Head Spring range from 0.02 – 0.36 mg/L between 2005 and 2012; however, there was not enough data available to discern any trends.
Monthly rainfall measured at Tarpon Springs indicates a slight increase of 1.5 inches per year from 2002 to 2012 (Florida Climate Center, 2012). Precipitation peaks do not seem to correlate well with increasing quarterly nitrate + nitrite values; however, rainfall totals and nitrate concentrations both show long-term increases during the period of study (Figure 10).
Plotting the ratios of nitrogen isotopes (15NNO3/14NNO3) versus oxygen isotopes (18ONO3/16ONO3) in nitrate measured from ground water can reveal likely nitrate sources: inorganic (chemical fertilizers) or organic (wastewater, septic discharge, animal waste) (Roadcap et al, 2002). Nitrogen and oxygen isotopes were analyzed from single samples collected from Bluebird, Hidden River Head, Hidden River #2, Homosassa Main #1, Homosassa Main #2, Pumphouse #1 and Trotter springs in January, 2013. The results show that all values plot along a denitrification trend which, when traced back to its source, indicates an inorganic (fertilizer) nitrogen source. Denitrification was most apparent from the Bluebird Spring sample; the Hidden River Head and Hidden River #2 springs showed the lowest denitrification. As previously noted, the Hidden River spring samples also showed the highest nitrate concentrations measured in the study area.
The other macronutrient of concern in Florida surface waters, orthophosphate, is only present in low concentrations in all Homosassa-area springs, with mean values ranging from 0.015 – 0.028 mg/L (Tables 1-5) during the period of study. While elevated orthophosphate levels are problematic in many of Florida’s lakes and rivers where surface runoff carries this nutrient into these waterbodies from its sources, measured orthophosphate levels are low in springs. This is due to its attenuation within limestone aquifers where, given enough time, orthophosphate reacts with calcium carbonate to produce low-solubility calcium phosphate minerals which remain within the host rock (Brown, 1981). This effectively removes orthophosphate from the waters within the aquifer, and is the probable geochemical mechanism by which “hard rock” phosphate deposits have developed in the state.
Salinity indicators (sodium, chloride, sulfate and specific conductance) have been historically high in these springs, showing increasing values during the last decade (Figure 12), continuing an upward trend observable since 1946 at Homosassa Main Spring, when sodium was 308 mg/L, chloride was 570 mg/L, sulfate was 87 mg/L and specific conductance was 2240 µs/cm (1946 samples were taken from the Homosassa Main Spring Basin, and are a combination of values from Homosassa Main #1, #2 and #3 spring vents). Comparing 1946 data to mean values measured at Homosassa Main #1 Spring during the period 2002-2012, sodium and chloride concentrations have increased over two-fold, sulfate has increased more than seven-fold and specific conductance has increased almost two-fold. Water quality data from samples collected from the three Homosassa Main vents show that Homosassa Main #3 has the overall lowest concentration of salinity indicators, and Homosassa Main #2 has the highest. It is not known why sulfate concentrations at Homosassa Main #1 spring have increased at a higher rate than increases in sodium and chloride concentrations. There is strong temporal correlation at each spring between all of the salinity indicators. The highest overall mean salinity indicator values were found in Homosassa #1 and #2, and Halls River Head springs. The lowest values were found in the Spring Cove spring vents (Pumphouse #1, Trotter Main springs – Figure 13). The longer-term measured increases in salinity indicators reflect one or more of the following potential causes: upconing of deeper, more saline ground water due to increasing fresh ground water withdrawals from the Floridan aquifer system, decreasing precipitation patterns, or steadily rising sea level.
Dissolved oxygen (DO) levels are important for fish and other biota, and are generally measured at levels below 5 mg/L in fresh ground water issuing from spring vents. The levels measured in the Homosassa Group springs are within this normal ground water range, with mean DO values in the 2.23 – 4.29 mg/L range. Some fish species can tolerate lower dissolved oxygen levels, and thrive in spring vent environments. Dissolved oxygen levels generally rise rapidly in surface waters downstream from spring vents, due to plant respiration; however, the headwaters of the Homosassa River within Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park are largely devoid of submerged aquatic vegetation.
Boron, not known to occur naturally in high concentrations in fresh Floridan aquifer system ground water, has recently been sampled as a possible wastewater tracer in wells and springs, due to its widespread use in laundry detergents. Historic (2002-2012) mean boron concentrations from Homosassa Springs #1, #2 and #3 were compared to historic chloride concentrations (from Tables 1-3), and boron/chloride ratios were calculated:
Homosassa Spring #1: Boron/Chloride ratio = 0.000202
Homosassa Spring #2: Boron/Chloride ratio = 0.000220
Homosassa Spring #3: Boron/Chloride ratio = 0.000157
All of these values are close to, but below the mean boron/chloride ratio measured in Atlantic Ocean seawater sampled along the U.S. coastline from south of Cape Cod to Bermuda, which is 0.000240 (Rakestraw et al, 1935). If one assumes that boron/chloride ratios in the Atlantic Ocean are similar to boron/chloride ratios of the small percentage of seawater entrained in Floridan aquifer system ground water, these numbers do not indicate a human boron wastewater component present in spring discharge from the Homosassa Main spring vents. Boron results were not available for the other Homosassa Group springs.
Sucralose is used as an artificial sweetener. Because it passes through water treatment systems largely intact, it has recently been used as a potential human wastewater tracer. Only one sample of sucralose has been collected to date from Bluebird, Hidden River Head, Hidden River #2, Homosassa Main #1 & #2, Pumphouse #1 and Trotter Main springs. Very low detections (values between the laboratory method detection limit and the practical quantitation limit) were seen only at Pumphouse #1 and Trotter Main springs; at the other springs, sucralose was at concentrations below laboratory detection limits. Sucralose detections could be indicative of possible wastewater influences within the springshed.
Native wildlife that can be viewed at the park include West Indian manatees, black bears, red wolves, whooping cranes, Key deer, bobcats, white-tailed deer, American alligators, American crocodiles, and river otters.Media is missing.
Bird species in the park include flamingos, pelicans, sandhill cranes, roseate spoonbills, and shorebirds.
A new state-of-the-art facility, the Felburn Shorebird Aviary, opened in 2013. It allows visitors to enter the aviary on a walkway for an up-close, unobstructed view of the birds. Wild native species such as wood ducks, limpkins, herons, and egrets can also be observed along the park’s waterways.
Canals and seawalls constructed along the Homosassa River have affected water clarity and habitat quality for native animals and plants. In addition, increased salinity in the river, which the Southwest Florida Water Management District attributes to sea-level rise and not increased consumptive use, is altering riverine habitats. Freshwater fish are disappearing, to be replaced by saltwater fish. Trees along the river are dying due to the increased salinity, and barnacles have been observed in the river.
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According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the population of Citrus County was 12,458 in the 2000 Census. The principal land uses in the springshed consist of urban and agricultural lands, forested uplands, and wetlands.
In 2015, a year-long study was completed which looked at the potential nutrient contributions to the upper Homosassa River originating from the Wildlife Park portion of Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park (Maddox et al, 2015). Sampling results determined that Wildlife Park discharge contributed only 0.34% of the mean total nitrate+nitrite load present in the headwaters discharge. Orthophosphate contributions from Wildlife Park waters comprised 3.5% of the total Homosassa River headwaters load.
In 2014, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) determined that the Homosassa-Trotter-Pumphouse Springs Group, as well as nearby Bluebird and Hidden River springs (Figures 1; 3-8), were impaired with respect to nutrients—meaning that increased nutrient concentrations were causing an imbalance in natural populations of aquatic plants and animals. FDEP established a Total Maximum Daily Load for each spring in the form of a 63-76% reduction in average annual nitrate concentrations (Bridger et al, 2014). A TMDL is the maximum amount of a given pollutant that a waterbody can assimilate and still meet water quality standards. The restoration of ecological health in the spring and spring run depends heavily on the active participation of stakeholders in the springshed, who are required to develop projects to reduce nutrient concentrations.
The Southwest Florida Water Management District is currently developing a Minimum Flow and Level (MFL) for the Homosassa River. An MFL establishes how much water can be withdrawn for consumptive use before significant environmental harm occurs.
The district has also proposed several restoration projects for the springs and river: the Homosassa Habitat Enhancement project and Homosassa Pepper Creek Stormwater Retrofit project.
Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park has participated in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Manatee Rescue, Rehabilitation, and Release Program for 30 years, and has helped rehabilitate more than 40 injured manatees during that time.
The park is a participant in the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail, a program of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. This 2,000-mile, self-guided highway trail consists of a network of 515 sites throughout Florida selected for their excellent birdwatching, wildlife viewing, or educational opportunities. It is designed to conserve and enhance Florida's wildlife habitats by promoting birding and wildlife viewing activities, conservation education, and economic opportunity.
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Florida Department of Environmental Protection
Water Quality Evaluation & TMDL Section
Rick Hicks, PG Administrator
Contact for: General springs information
Springs Coast Water Quality Restoration Program
Terry Hansen, Basin Coordinator
Phone: (850) 245-8561
Contact for: Information on basin management action plan (BMAP)
Local Government and Water Resource Agencies
- Southwest Florida Water Management District (http://www.swfwmd.state.fl.us/)
- Citrus County (https://www.bocc.citrus.fl.us/)
- Florida Geological Survey
- U.S. Geological Survey – Florida Water Science Center (http://fl.water.usgs.gov/infodata/)
- Florida's water: ours to protect
Citizen Stakeholder and Watershed Organizations
- Gulf Coast Conservancy (http://www.gulfcoastconservancy.org/index.htm)
- Friends of Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park (http://www.friendshswp.org/)
- Save the Manatee Club (http://www.savethemanatee.org/)
Parks and Conservation Areas
- Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge (http://www.fws.gov/chassahowitzka/)
- Crystal River Preserve State Park (https://www.floridastateparks.org/park/Crystal-River-Preserve)
- Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park (https://www.floridastateparks.org/park/Homosassa-Springs)
- Homosassa Wildlife Management Area (http://myfwc.com/viewing/recreation/wmas/cooperative/homosassa)
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