April is Springs Protection Awareness Month, and the Southwest Florida Water Management District is committed to protecting the more than 200 springs within the District. To raise awareness about the importance of these natural treasures, Chief Environmental Scientist Dr. Chris Anastasiou answers some commonly asked questions about our springs.
Q: What is a spring?
A: A spring is a natural opening in the ground where water flows directly from the aquifer to the earth’s surface. The source of this fresh water is from seasonal rainfall that soaks into the ground, where it is stored as groundwater in the aquifer. Springs form when groundwater that is under pressure flows through natural cracks or conduits in the aquifer and finds its way through an opening called a vent. A spring can occur as an individual vent but typically occurs as a complex of many spring vents known as a spring group.
Q: What is a springshed?
A: Not unlike a watershed, a springshed is an area of land that captures rainwater and recharges the aquifer that feeds a spring. A springshed can be quite large, for example, the Rainbow Springs Group has a springshed that covers several hundred square miles and extends into three counties. A healthy spring starts with a healthy springshed. Actions that occur many miles from a spring can have a direct effect on the health of the spring and the water flowing from it.
Q: Why are springs important?
A: Florida’s springs and their associated rivers and bays provide ecological, economic, recreational and aesthetic value to the state. It is often said that springs are windows to the aquifer, a major source of our state’s drinking water, and therefore both need to be protected from harm. There are many recreational options for Floridians and tourists alike, and springs contribute by providing activities like swimming, kayaking and nature watching to name a few. Along Florida’s Springs Coast, manatees are among the most famous inhabitants, with seasonal numbers in the hundreds. People come from around the nation and world to visit these gentle sea creatures, resulting in a large economic impact for the surrounding communities.
Q: What makes a healthy spring?
A: Attributes that can be used to assess the condition of springs include the quantity of flow, the water chemistry (especially the level of clarity and amount of nutrients), and the type and amount of aquatic vegetation, fish and wildlife present. Levels of spring flow affect the appearance and the ecology of the rivers and bays that are fed by these springs. Spring flow is influenced by the size, levels of rainfall and water use within the springshed. Water clarity strongly influences the visual appeal of springs and impacts the amount of light available for aquatic vegetation. Desirable types and amounts of aquatic vegetation provide habitat for fish and wildlife, help remove excess nutrients from the water and improve water clarity by filtering particles. And of course, the Florida Springs Coast provides the largest natural warm water refuge in the United States for the Florida manatee.
Q: How can I help protect Florida’s springs at home?
A: A spring is only as healthy as its springshed. Limit fertilizer use, because too much applied to landscapes can seep into the aquifer. Have your septic tank inspected every few years as tanks that are not properly maintained can pollute the aquifer. Never dump anything down a storm drain and always dispose of grass clippings, litter, motor oil and pet waste properly to avoid these items entering stormwater ponds. If you live along a water body, encourage a native plant buffer zone between your lawn and the shoreline to help filter stormwater. Always dispose of hazardous household chemicals such as industrial cleaners, solvents, automotive fluids and paints at an approved facility. Remember that if hazardous contaminants seep into the aquifer, both our drinking water and springs can become harmed.
Q: How can I help protect Florida’s springs while visiting them?
A: Whether enjoying a refreshing swim in the springs on a hot summer day or snorkeling with manatee on a cold winter morning, please make sure to tread lightly to avoid disturbing the plants and wildlife. Be mindful if weighing anchor and make sure not to drag your anchor as it may damage the aquatic plants and bottom habitats. And always remember to pack out all your trash, especially anything made from plastics. Protecting our springs and our water depends on you!
Chris Anastasiou, Ph.D.
Chief Environmental Scientist
Southwest Florida Water Management District