By: Brittany Bedi | WCTV Eyewitness News
April 20, 2018
WAKULLA SPRINGS, Fla. (WCTV) -- The Department of Environmental Protection marks April as Springs Protection Awareness Month. For locals who love nature, one of the most beloved natural landmarks is Wakulla Springs.
Sean McGlynn is the executive director of his own laboratory, studying the spring for 50 years and is part of the Wakulla Springs Alliance.
"It was clear almost all the time. It had nothing but eel grass in it," said McGlynn.
Beneath the surface, the spring was fighting an ecological battle.
"In the late 90s, early 2000s, really a period of recognizing we have a problem,” said Tom Frick, director of environmental assessment and restoration with the Department of Environmental Protection.
“Late 2000s, early 2010s is when DEP ramped up its restoration efforts of getting projects in the ground and reducing nutrients that are going to those systems."
Nutrients like nitrates originated from improperly-maintained septic tanks, pet waste, and fertilizer runoff.
"Some fertilizer is good for your lawn, good for your plants and flowers and vegetables at our homes,” said Brett Cypher, executive director of the Northwest Florida Water Management District. “When you have too much, or when you apply it when it's going to get washed away, that storm water system ends up feeding into Wakulla Springs and it can be a part of damaging the spring."
Algae and invasive plants like hydrilla also choke out the native vegetation. However, the spring is part of a bigger picture. The Wakulla springshed extends through Wakulla and Leon counties. Thomas and Grady counties in South Georgia are also part of the springshed.
Lake Jackson in Tallahassee is in the middle of the springshed. According to a recent dye study, water entering the lake goes underground and comes out of Wakulla Spring roughly 30 days later.
"This is like it's traveling through a pipe in your house,” said McGlynn.”It's traveling through a cavern in the ground and there are caves from the bottom of this lake going all the way to Wakulla Springs."
The caves and sinkholes are part of the underground aquifer system. The aquifers are a major source for drinking water. Nitrates from other parts of the springshed end up in the aquifer.
Since 1998, water quality and clarity have gradually been improving.
The Northwest Florida Water Management District plots the nitrate levels in the spring over time.
“There's a trend line that you can see over the last two decades where it's kind of gone down slowly but surely,” said Cyphers. “Part of that's due to the city of Tallahassee's advanced wastewater treatment facility and some of it has to do with the projects that we're working on right now, which are the septic to sewer projects."
Scientists with DEP and the Northwest Florida Water Management District actively test water throughout the springshed remotely and out in-person. They test for clarity, nutrients, and several other substances. Water samples are examined at the Department of Environmental Protection laboratories.
Florida spent approximately $63 million on restoration efforts. Projects included connecting homes using septic tanks to sewer lines. Land acquisitions and other projects were also included.
The projects seem to be making a difference. In the past three to four years, the water management district is reporting nitrate levels decreasing nearly 50%. Scientists say they’ve almost reached the target nutrient threshold of 0.36 mg/L. Experts say there’s still work to be done. They say if everyone in the public does a small part, it could make a huge difference. Cleaning up after a pet, careful fertilizer use, and converting septic tanks are all ways locals can reduce excess nitrates and other nutrients from entering our water.