When you think of Florida, sandy white beaches packed with sunburnt tourists roasting along the shoreline is probably the first image that comes to mind. While Florida’s beaches are great, there’s another natural phenomenon that really sets the sunshine state apart and will leave you feeling like you just stepped into a tropical fairytale land.
Picture crystal clear rivers flowing through narrow inlets of ancient trees drenched in moss while egrets wade at the waters edge, gators bask in the afternoon sun and manatees effortlessly glide along munching on sea grass. This is the Florida Springs.
In total, Florida is home to over 1,000 fresh water springs located throughout the Central/Northeast regions of the state. These springs collectively pump millions of gallons of fresh water daily which not only serves as a great source of drinking water for the state but also supports entire ecosystems with unique wildlife.
The Florida Springs have become a world class destination for travelers where they can partake in everything from scuba diving to kayaking, tubing and camping. To learn more about this unique destination, the issues it faces and how to visit responsibly I interviewed Merrillee Jipson, an activist on the front lines of the Florida Springs Conservation effort.
Meet Merrillee Jipson
Merrillee Jipson, an environmentalist with a passion for fresh water, has dedicated most of her adult life to fighting for state and federal laws that will create lasting and meaningful protections for the life and health of our ecosystems. She is also one of the original founding members of Our Santa Fe River, Inc. 501c3, an organization that was formed back in 2006 by a group of concerned residents as four water bottling permits threatened to extract upwards of 624 million gallons of water a year from the Santa Fe River and it’s Springs, which would have greatly disrupted these fragile ecosystems. By working with the local community, the organization was able to stop the water bottling permits.
Our Santa Fe River Inc. is going strong to this day, with Jipson still sitting on the board of directors, as the organization is doing it’s best to protect the river by focusing on a long list of actionable campaigns. The most recent being an active campaign against Nestlé in which they are trying to block a permit that would continue to allow them to extract millions of water from the fragile spring fed Santa Fe River for free.
In addition to acting as a warrior for the Florida Springs, Jipson is also the owner of Rum 138, a unique business that specializes in a Springs and Rivers fine art gallery, a canoe and kayak livery, and an outdoor event space with music, movies and speakers. Rum 138 also serves as a cafe and community center for an area that hasn’t had many social opportunities other than the freshwater spring parks themselves.
LMT: In your opinion, which of the Florida Springs are your favorite?
Santa Fe River Springs by kayak or canoe
A 75 mile blackwater river, my favorite stretch is between the US 27 Bridge and the SR 47 where there are the highest concentration of freshwater springs found anywhere on the planet, tucked away along the wetland forest’s shoreline or within the river channel itself. Enjoy the waters, but leave only a paddling trail.
Ichetucknee River by tube
Great to relax and float for miles on top of one of the clearest freshwater spring run. A must do with a mask and snorkel.
Suwannee River springs by kayak or canoe
A diverse river with cliffs and swamps. As like the Santa Fe River and Ichetucknee, which are tributaries to the Suwannee, they are the heart of the Floridian aquifer which often flows to the surface through its springs.
LMT: What threats do the springs face?
- Over pumping of our Floridan aquifer through wells from farming operations, the mining industry (including bottled water) and residential users.
What you can do: As a resident of either Florida or Georgia, try to limit your water use at home by not overwatering your lawn and if you’re a visitor, be mindful of your water use while at your hotel by limiting your shower times
- Fertilization Runoff from fertilizers and animal waste as a result of agricultural row cropping, factory animal farming, residential septic tanks, yard chemicals and municipality dump sites can overload our springs with the wrong kind of chemicals, killing native vegetation and allowing for filamentous algae to take hold; thereby upsetting a delicate ecosystem in which a variety of organisms rely on to survive.
What you can do: Use native plants in your own yard and if you’re a visitor, seek out eco-friendly hotels, as many hotels and resorts use a large amount of fertilizers in their landscaping.
- Deforestation to allow for more agriculture and human development projects in the form of roads, housing, etc.
- Overtourism – While some tourism to the springs can be beneficial as a means of generating income to fund conservation efforts and to spread a general awareness about the Springs and their importance, too many visitors can pose a threat to these delicate environments in the form of shoreline degradation, the silting and trampling of submerged aquatic vegetation and an increase in pollution and litter.
What you can do: Visit the Springs in the off season (the busiest times are the summer months of May – August) and if possible, go during the week days to lessen the strain of the weekend crowds.
LMT: How can travelers visit the springs more responsibly?
MJ: Here are a few tips:
- Stay on top of the water with a floating vessel or swimming with a mask and snorkel. It is when we make contact with the vegetation or the soil by stepping on it, hand pulling grasses or moving the abundant rocks in the rivers that we change the habitat for microorganisms and submerged aquatic vegetation. I’d like to emphasize that these are very delicate systems, they are not beaches. When we have thousands of people in our waterways, it can change a spring in just one day. The Ichetucknee Park created necessary limits on human usage and the results of less humans in this upper spring fed river are marvelously stunning.
- Only build campfires in designated fire structures within a park.
- Avoid rock stacking as it degrades aquatic habitats which microorganisms rely on to breed and thrive.
- Boycott all products that sell our spring water in single use plastic bottles.
- Pack your own reusable bottles and any items that you may re-use daily such as shopping bags, straws, dishware, napkins etc… The less we put in the landfills also protects our freshwater systems.
- Don’t put graffiti on anything – from spray painting a rock to carving your initials in a tree.
The best way for people to visit our springs is to relax, take in the natural noises, witness an occasional otter, gator, beaver, deer, or any other of our abundant wildlife. Observe more than interact. Take only pictures, leave only a paddling trail.
** Cover Photo courtesy of Blake Harvey. To check out more of his nature photography visit geoideas.net**