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The Santa Fe, a river in peril

Beryl rainfall not enough to cure water woes

W_-_Santa_Fe_River_Peril_DSCF6040_copy  Area residents survey the High Springs boat ramp at Santa Fe River on Tuesday, only to find much of the river is gone, and all that's left is but a trickle where the once vibrant waterway rolled.

HIGH SPRINGS – As tropical storm Beryl slid across northeastern Florida, she deposited thousands of gallons of rainwater across the drought-stricken land. The rain soaked into the thirsty soil, awakened wilted plants, drenched bone-dry lakebeds, and raised reservoir and pool levels.

Overall, the Suwannee River Water Management District (SRWMD) estimates a total of six inches of rain fell over its 15 county jurisdiction.

But it wasn’t enough.

During a public information meeting about the Santa Fe River held at Poe Springs on Tuesday, Megan Wetherington, Senior Professional Engineer at SRWMD, said the river will hardly see an increase in levels or flow because the surrounding areas were so dry. Like a sponge, those dry areas will soak up the water before it reaches the river. Prior to Beryl, Florida had record low water levels, Wetherington said.

“It will be positive,” she said. “It’s just not the drought-buster that that we need.”

Recently, the Alachua County Health Department identified an algal bloom on the Santa Fe River between the U.S Highway 27 bridge and Poe Springs. The water samples it collected contained the algae Anabaena circinalis, a known producer of toxins. In Florida, there are no records of the algae producing these toxins, but David Whiting of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection said scientists are unsure what causes the algae toxin producers to turn on and off.  An algae bloom in Leon County’s Lake Munson produced high levels of toxin one year, but the next year, no toxins were present.

The three major contributors to the algae bloom are fertilizers, septic tanks and over pumping of the ground water, said Robert Hutchinson of the Alachua Conservation Trust. Nutrients contained within the fertilizers and waste products, such as human and animal waste, seep into the river and feed the algae. Unseasonable warm temperatures and an early summer contributed to the growth of the thick algae mats and the cyanobacteria, as well.

“It’s taken 100 years to get this bad; it’s going to take at least 100 years more to clean things up,” Hutchinson said. “It’s important not to point fingers because we are all part of the problem, just like we all have to be a part of the solution.”

During the public information meeting, which was organized by Merrillee Maltwitz-Jipson, president of Our Santa Fe River, Cris Costello of the Sierra Club said the current condition of the Santa Fe River is a result of abuse of Florida’s water bodies.

If people thought of the Santa Fe as a bucket slowly being filled with waste, the bucket has to eventually reach a tipping point, she said.

“The bottom line is if there was nothing for the algae to eat, it wouldn’t grow. It wouldn’t bloom,” Costello said, adding “If we look around Alachua County, there are spray fields, animal feeding operations, dairy farms and septic tanks.”

The water quantity and water quality problems facing the river are extensive, said Charlie Houder, acting executive director of the SRWMD.  However, the district maintains that if the water is managed properly, there is enough to go around. He said the district will not stop issuing water permits.

On Tuesday the district did issue a Water Shortage Order to be in effect from June 13 to Sept. 30, 2012, for all water users within its boundaries. This is the first time the district has ever issued a water shortage order, Houder said.

The order places restrictions on certain uses, as well as calling for widespread conservation. Residential watering of existing lawns will be limited to one day a week, between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. Designated watering days are determined by even-odd address numbers, according to the SRWMD website.

For agricultural and commercial water use, the water shortage order lists separate rules and restrictions. They are also encouraged to reduce all non-essential water usage.

Alachua County alone uses 60 million gallons of water a day, said Chris Bird, director of the Alachua County Environmental Protection Department. Over 50 percent of that water is used to irrigate residential lawns, and only an estimated seven percent of the recent rainfall will make it back into the aquifer.

“We all have to come up with a new ethic, a water ethic,” Houder said. “I think the era of cheap water is pretty much over.”