The Silencing of Florida's Springs
Photography and Text by Jason Gulley
Florida has more than 1,000 known freshwater springs, one of the densest concentrations of springs in the world. Springs are Florida’s original tourist attractions and for centuries, visitors have flocked to them to marvel at the billions of gallons of cool, clear water that gush out of the porous limestone aquifer every day
First used as water sources by indigenous Americans, Florida’s springs were visited by Spanish explorers searching for the fabled Fountain of Youth in the 1500s and became some of the state’s first tourist attractions during the 1800s. Spring houses sprang up to allow visitors to bathe in sulfur springs, which were thought to have healing properties. Glass bottomed boats plied spring runs, allowing visitors to marvel at pristine underwater worlds without having to get wet. The air-clear visibility and gleaming white sandy bottoms of Florida’s springs also attracted early filmmakers and underwater scenes from Sea Hunt, I Spy, the Tarzan films, The Creature From the Black Lagoon, and several others were filmed in their cool waters.
Over the last several decades, a combination of development, climate change, over-pumping of the aquifer and pollution from agriculture and sewage has erased much of Florida’s pristine underwater spring landscape.
Some springs no longer flow. Others are choked with algae. Scientists and water managers around the state are grappling with how to slow or reverse the damage to springs while grassroots environmentalist organizations are clamoring for changes in the laws governing Florida’s water use and protection.
Twenty years ago, the State of Florida officially recognized that most of Florida’s more than 1,000 springs were becoming polluted with excess nutrients when then Gov. Jeb Bush signed legislation creating the Florida Springs Initiative in 2001. The Florida Springs Initiative provided the first of several subsequent pools of money for research, monitoring, education and landowner assistance to reduce the flow of sewage and fertilizer into springs and address declining spring flows. A variety of other pieces of legislation have been passed to improve spring health in the 20 years since the springs initiative, however, nutrient pollution continues to soar and spring flows decline.
I’ve been documenting the declining health of Florida’s springs and the work of scientists, water managers and environmental organizations who are trying to save them using a combination of underwater, cave, aerial and land-based photography.
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