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Monday, February 06, 2023

North Central Florida rivers at record low water levels

In increasingly dry North Central Florida, lakes are drying and springs are predicted to stop flowing. The land is becoming more brittle by the week.

Some visible symptoms of the arid conditions are the muddy banks and low water levels in bodies of water frequented by fun seekers during the summer months.

The Florida Park Service warned on the Ichetucknee River website that “due to extreme drought conditions and historic low water levels in the Ichetucknee River,” there is “potential for occasional temporary recreational tubing closures this summer at the park’s North entrance.”

“If things don’t change, we will see more closures,” said Chris Bird, Alachua County environmental director.

Bird said he’s been working with the environment in Alachua County for 22 years, and he’s never seen water levels this low, especially in the springs.

“We’re getting to the point as a community and as a state that we’re going to have to make tough decisions on how to allocate water use,” he said.

Poe Springs is at a record low water level, and Bird said the county estimated that the spring would stop flowing within the next two weeks, which would make it unsafe for swimmers.

Once a spring stops flowing, bacteria flourishes in the stagnant water.

“It’s like a public swimming pool with no chlorine,” Bird said. “The bacteria levels could spike, and swimmers could end up getting sick.”

Ginnie Springs isn’t in danger of having its flow stopped, mostly because it draws water from a much larger area, Bird said.

The Santa Fe River has its own challenges. Its only source of water now comes from springs, which makes the water unusually clear. But clear water lets more sunlight in, helping algae grow.

When algae blooms, Bird said, it turns the water green and uses a vast amount of the oxygen in the water. Without enough oxygen in the water, fish could die.

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There are two main causes for the lack of water, according to Bird: a statewide drought and overpumping of aquifers for residential and agricultural use.

On average, each Floridian uses about 155 gallons of water each day, Bird said. About 50 percent of that water is used for watering yards.

Without enough rainfall to replenish the water people use, levels have fallen unusually low.

“The amount of rainfall we need to return to normal levels would be several hurricanes,” Bird said, “which no one wants.”

The county and the health department are continually checking water quality, something UF associate professor Taylor Stein expected.

“Part of having any water open to recreation is that you have to monitor the water quality,” said Stein, who teaches ecotourism and is affiliated with the UF Water Institute. “It’s always an issue, even in good water times.”

Stein said another issue facing recreational bodies of water during a drought is overcrowding.

A good way to make sure the spring or river has enough water to remain open to the public is to check their websites, Stein said.

Despite possible warnings, Stein said students may still flock to at least one of the springs, even if it is closed to swimmers.

“People go to Ginnie to party more often,” Stein said, laughing. “They might be just as happy sitting on the side drinking beer as they would be in the water.”

Contact Shelby Webb at swebb@alligator.org.

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