Photograph Credit: Eugene Kelly
Crystal River is located in Citrus County and runs from the town of Crystal River west seven miles toward the Gulf of Mexico. Crystal River Springs is a cluster of 50 springs designated as a first-magnitude system. A first-magnitude system discharges 100 cubic feet or more of water per second, which equals about 64 millions of gallons of water per day! Because of this discharge amount, the Crystal River Springs group is the second largest springs group in Florida, the first being Spring Creek Springs in Wakulla County near Tallahassee.
Kings Bay is Crystal River's point of origin, or its headwaters. Many of the river's springs are 20 to 30 feet deep and the water is clear enough to see a dime resting on the bottom! Coming from deep within the limestone aquifer, the spring water is 72 degrees year-round, offering a cool break during the hot summers and a natural, warm bath during the winter months. Because of the water clarity and because it is a major habitat for endangered manatees, scuba diving and snorkeling are popular pastimes in the area. Crystal River is also the home of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. This refuge, which is made up of 46 acres of islands and the Kings Bay basin, is the only federal preserve in Florida that is devoted to the endangered manatee. The refuge is important because large numbers of manatees make their winter homes in Crystal River, enjoying the spring because of the water's consistently warm temperatures. This warm water is crucial to their survival during the colder months.
Recent studies of Crystal River and Kings Bay have shown that nitrate levels have risen in these water bodies. Nitrate is a form of nitrogen that is found in inorganic fertilizers. Inorganic fertilizers are made from nonliving things, such as chemicals. When people use too much of these fertilizers throughout the landscape, excess nitrate is washed into water bodies during rainfalls or seeps through the ground and into the aquifer. After many years of traveling through the aquifer, the fertilizer can end up in springs and affect water quality. Typically, fertilizer makes plants grow, but increased nitrate levels in rivers can make aquatic vegetation and water plants, such as algae, begin growing out of control. Although most algae are good, too much algae form "blooms" that can block sunlight that other plants need or use up all of the oxygen in the water. Without enough sunlight or oxygen, fish and other plants will die.
Thankfully, many people are starting to realize the damage that too much fertilizer, or improper use of fertilizers, can do to Florida's groundwater supply and, ultimately, its spring systems. Through public education and increased awareness, many homeowners are beginning to use fertilizers correctly, use less fertilizer or have switched to organic fertilizers that do not contain nitrates.
Next stop: Homosassa River