The Wekiva River’s water still runs clear — mostly. It remains one of the most peaceful and unspoiled places in Central Florida — for now.
But a careful eye can spot the signs of decline.
A wide lagoon just past the Wekiva’s springhead is choked with slender hydrilla stalks. Farther downstream you begin to see the thin strands of dark brown algae in the water, undulating with the current like the hair on a swimmer’s head.
I've seen it while paddling a kayak on the river. I just didn’t know until recently what I was seeing.
The hydrilla and algae are gorging on nitrogen, a natural nutrient with an unnaturally large presence in many Florida waterways.
Too much hydrilla and algae chokes out underwater plants like eelgrass. When eelgrass dies, the microscopic nutrients that fish feed on have nothing to cling to. That means fewer fish, which means less food for birds.
A natural cycle is disrupted, and the river declines.
That’s why the state needs to revisit its plan to stem the amount of nitrogen entering the Wekiva.
I know what you’re thinking right about now: “Ugh. Nitrogen. So boring.” Fair point. But the Wekiva means a lot to this region. It’s a tourist attraction. It’s an escape for locals. It’s a jewel worth preserving.
And nitrogen could ruin it.
Nitrogen is one of the ingredients in the fertilizer we use. It makes our St. Augustine lawns, soccer field grass and food crops grow. Some of the nitrogen gets absorbed by the grass. But some of it seeps into the groundwater.
Nitrogen is in human waste, too. So when someone flushes a toilet and sends that waste into a septic tank, some nitrogen again will journey through the soil, into the aquifer and out through a spring and deposited into a river.
The state estimates that a teardrop-shaped area that includes Lake Apopka, Winter Garden, Ocoee and parts of Altamonte Springs — about 183,000 acres, or about six times the size of Walt Disney World — generates about 1 million pounds of nitrogen each year that ends up in the groundwater.
After flowing through an underground network of rivers and caverns, about 275,000 pounds re-emerges each year at Wekiva Springs and Rock Springs. Wekiva Springs has about three times more nitrogen in the water than it should have. Rock Springs has about four times what it should. I’ll spare you the numbers because that really is boring.
Under a mandate from the Legislature, the state developed a plan to reduce the amount of nitrogen in the state’s springs.
But on Friday, member of the Florida Springs Council challenged the state’s nitrogen-reduction plans for five different plans covering various springs, including Wekiva Springs, Rock Springs and Blue Spring in Volusia County.
Full disclosure: After leaving the Orlando Sentinel in 2015 I served as a board member for Friends of the Wekiva, a group that works to protect the springs and the river and one of the groups challenging the state’s cleanup plan.
I did research for the group related to Seminole County’s fertilizer ordinance, which took effect in early 2017. The ordinance was a modest step toward getting less nitrogen on the ground in the first place.
I learned a lot about the Wekiva during my time on the board, and I resigned from that position before returning to the Sentinel in mid-December.
In a complex legal filing, Friends of the Wekiva is mounting a variety of legal challenges but one of the central points is that the state is engaged in a lot of wishful or hopeful thinking.
It wishes farmers would adopt better fertilizer practices, but it’s not going to make them. It hopes local governments will hook up more septic tanks to sewer systems, even though they don’t have to.
Friends of the Wekiva and other environmental groups want a hearing so they can convince a judge that the state’s plans don’t meet the legal requirements to stem the decline of Florida’s clear, spring-fed rivers.
We should all hope they succeed. Sure, the Wekiva River is still pretty clear. But so was the Indian River Lagoon not that long ago. And today, thanks to benign neglect, it’s filthy. It’s dying.
The state can’t afford to get this one wrong. Once we lose the Wekiva, there’s no getting it back.
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