Ichetucknee Springs State Park
Protecting springs often requires focusing efforts on land miles from the spring itself. Learn how springshed protection helped protect Ichetucknee Springs.
Science Helps Protect a Springshed
By Peter Lane Taylor
Standing among the hammocks at the headspring of Ichetucknee Springs State Park is as close to time travel in Florida as you can get. Miles from the nearest highway and bathed in scattered rays of sunlight filtering through the forest canopy overhead, it's easy to imagine that a mastodon might soon appear to drink from the clear, blue water of the spring itself.
But instead of going back in time, I've come here today for a look into the future. I'm here to visit with park biologist Sam Cole to learn more about the pioneering ways in which the park's springshed was protected to improve quality of the water flowing from the spring.
"Forty years ago," Cole tells me, "this was a spot for locals. With the exception of some students from Gainesville and the local residents from the surrounding towns, Ichetucknee was virtually unknown."
Ichetucknee's anonymity, however, didn't last for long. Thanks to a swift current and nearly seven miles of riverfront, the main tributary flowing from Ichetucknee Springs soon became the most popular tubing river in the world, attracting over five thousand people a day during the peak summer months. But that was only the tubers. Many more came to swim and picnic at the headspring, scuba dive in the famous "blue hole", and walk among the many trails that wind through the park's hammocks and longleaf pine forests.
Dye released in Rose Sink appeared in Ichetucknee Springs offering scientific proof that pollutants entering the sink would eventually make it to the springs.
Not surprisingly, it wasn't long before Ichetucknee Springs and its famous river began showing the obvious signs of over-use. Underwater plants were trampled, native wildlife began to disappear, and bank erosion increased at an alarming rate. In response, the Park began implementing a "carrying capacity", and limiting the number of people on the river at any one time. The effect on the spring ecosystem was immediate. Vegetation began to re-grow, wildlife returned, and the once cloudy waters flowed clear again.
But, as Cole explains, overuse wasn't the only threat to the Ichetucknee Springs ecosystem. With the rapid development of nearby towns like Lake City, the springs were also showing signs of an even more disturbing degradation: a progressive decline in water quality. Studies commissioned by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection showed that nutrient levels were steadily increasing and, more visibly, swimmers and tubers began to emerge from the river with strange skin rashes, possibly caused by algae fed by nutrients introduced into the aquifer.
By the mid-1990s, the decline in water quality and its potential to affect Park visitation had become so serious that state and county agencies began to act, this time focusing their attention not on the springs where the water emerged, but more importantly, on the geographic features where the water went in. In terms of overall springs' preservation, it was a pivotal moment. For the first time, protecting an individual spring became an issue of protecting a much larger landscape.
The concept of watershed protection is nothing new. What was pioneering in terms of saving Ichetucknee Springs was using this concept as a basis for a long-term spring preservation strategy. Protecting springs where the water wells up from the ground requires more than just creating a park buffer around the head spring. It requires a springshed protection plan that also manages the activities and geographic features that affect the health of the spring recharge basin and the aquifer. With this in mind, a series of studies were initiated to determine exactly where the water flowing from Ichetucknee springs was coming from. The result was one of the most famous dye-trace experiments in the history of Florida.
The study involved releasing a dye in Rose Sink, a large, sinkhole located six miles northeast of the Ichetucknee head spring. Eight days later, the dye showed up not only in six of the seven springs within the Park, but also in the toilets and drinking water of nearby residents. It was scientific proof that foreign substances introduced into Rose Sink, either through illegal dumping or stormwater runoff, would end up in the water flowing from the spring. In response, the State purchased Rose Sink to protect it from further abuses.
Even more revolutionary than the study itself, however, was the change in perspective brought about by the study. For the first time, local residents, land-use planners, and government agencies realized that protecting the spring required them to look beyond the beauty of the spring itself to the less attractive features like sinkholes. As a result, other, larger land acquisitions to protect Ichetucknee Springs have followed, most notably the purchase of a massive limerock mine located right in the middle of the ancient Ichetucknee riverbed which scientists believe lies directly over the main underground conduits leading to the spring.
For old-time residents of the Ichetucknee springshed like Buck Williams, who owns property adjacent to Rose Sink, the state's purchase of the sinkhole could not have come a moment too soon. Over the past forty years, he's seen the degradation of Rose Sink first-hand.
"The water here used to be as clear as the Ichetucknee," he tells me sentimentally. "You could throw a stone in the water and watch it drop all the way to the bottom. I hope it'll look that way again some day."
In his own scientific way, Cole is just as hopeful.
"What we've done here," he explains from the edge of the sinkhole, "is to change the way people think about springs' protection. We can't preserve the springs just by creating parks where the water comes out of the aquifer. We've got to also protect the places that aren't so beautiful where the water goes in."