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A view of the Suwannee River from the bridge on SR 6 in Hamilton County.

An erstwhile thriving tourist destination built on the banks of its White Sulphur Spring, residents of the now-quiet town of White Springs in Hamilton County say their life-source is drying up. With the upper Suwannee experiencing record lows during this year’s epic drought season, and some area springs remaining dry year-round, many wonder, “Will my children’s children know this river as I did?”

“As our springs, streams and rivers, including the Suwannee River, dry up, so does our future,” said Dr. Helen Miller, mayor of White Springs.

The month of May was the driest since 1932, as the Suwannee basin experienced a 25 inch rainfall deficit compared to an average year, according to the Suwannee River Water Management District. Several months of drought has led to the record-breaking lows on the upper Suwannee, which includes White Springs with records going back to 1906. Gages on the upper Santa Fe reported that flow has ceased. Coastal rivers fell much below normal after five months of near-normal flow, and all 16 District-monitored lakes were below their historical average level.

District Executive Director David Still said flow levels are low all over the state. Although river and spring flows in Suwannee County have not reached the dire conditions of the upper Suwannee, he said they could if drought conditions persist.

Recently, drought has caused groundwater levels to fall in 92 percent of the District’s monitored wells. Levels in the Suwannee River Basin fell to the 22nd percentile for the period of record, meaning that almost 77 percent of the time they have been higher than they are now, painting a critical picture.

Groundwater supplies will not meet future demands within the District's jurisdiction, a study formally accepted by the District last December showed. The study said that groundwater levels have dropped by 6 feet in some areas since the early 80s.

“It's ankle deep just a little bit below my property,” said Deb Odem who lives on 25A in Hamilton County. “If you walk upstream from the Highway 41 bridge in White Springs, you'll see the entire river flow in about a three foot wide channel. Mind boggling.”

...........

In the midst of these concerns, last month, the St. Johns River Water Management District approved a 20-year permit for Jacksonville's utility (JEA) —the largest to date. The permit, which could mean groundwater pumping in an excess of 160 million gallons a day (mgd), has ignited discussion and controversy.

Described by Live Oak’s mayor Sonny Nobles as “crusaders” for local rivers and springs, Miller and White Springs Vice-Mayor Walter Mckenzie were present at the St. John’s District Governing Board meeting last month when the permit was issued. Miller spoke before the board, asking that they freeze JEA’s water use at the current level for a period of five years and develop a wide-ranging technical and financial plan that would fully restore the historic potentiometric surface to all areas of the Floridan Aquifer, returning springs and surface waters to their pre-development levels, and provide adequate water from alternative sources, such as desalination, to meet JEA needs—in addition to other suggestions.

“I believe we made rational and realistic recommendations that would benefit all of us in both water management districts, but it was clear that the Governing Board was going to grant JEA's permit, no matter what data were presented,” said Miller.

During the meeting, a JEA representative attributed low levels, in the case of White Sulphur Spring, to the local PCS phosphate mine, Miller said.

In recent years, the mine has been striving to cut its water use in half.

Alleging “gross misrepresentations” in JEA’s presentation to the St. John’s District Governing Board, Still sent a letter to the executive director of St. John’s District. He stated that Suwannee District officials attended the meeting with their “conviction that the water resources and future economic well being of the SRWMD have been impacted and are under continued threat from withdrawals from the Floridian aquifer system in northeast Florida.”

Still argued that the utility “manipulated information” and “misrepresented” data found in the Suwannee District's 2010 Water Supply Assessment. He said statements and conclusions regarding the District’s WSA was misleading by indicating that deficit rainfall along with withdrawals from Georgia, St. John’s District and Suwannee District were potential causes of impacts. Still said the assessment, in fact, did not conclude rainfall was a reason for declining water levels.

The WSA states, “This decrease is apparently a result of groundwater withdrawals originating in the District, the St. John’s River Water Management District, and the State of Georgia.”

Still also wrote that the presentation did not mention a U.S. Geological Survey report on a study which found that flow reduction in White Sulphur Spring was due to groundwater withdrawals east of the site.

Statements made by JEA that the utility’s “withdrawals do not adversely impact the SRWMD” and that PCS is responsible for the cessation of flow in White Sulphur Spring, Still called “unfounded”.

Miller agrees that St. John’s District was misled.

“I believe JEA's consultant misrepresented data he presented at the meeting, and it is this questionable data on which the governing board based its decision to grant the permit for increased water use,” she said. “The meeting was a mockery of the public process.”

Local city officials are concerned they will not be able to achieve economic development goals, since they feel it is clear that the endangered water supply could come into play, not only when it comes to growth, but the continued viability of their communities, according to Miller.

“I think it’s really a travesty,” said Nobles. “While they siphon off our water, we’re the ones who will have to suffer.”

Miller echoed, “We need water for household and personal use, for our businesses, for agriculture, and for eco-tourism.”

Mckenzie said he understands the current drought-condition is the principal reason for the low flow levels on the upper Suwannee. However, he is skeptical that the problem will be solved once the drought is over.

“When we get out of this drought, we’re still going to have a problem,” he said. “I’ve seen the river low before, but I’ve never seen it and the spring this low at the same time.”

Though not as severe as the upper Suwannee, levels further ‘down upon the Suwannee River’ are also lower than average. Some of Suwannee and Lafayette’s springs are disappearing.

“This spring is done,” said Dan Saether, who operates River Rendezvous in Lafayette County, home of the once popular diving site Convict Spring. “We’ll need lots of rain to bring this one up again.”

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While phosphate mining, farming and other local contributors are factors, one local geologist believes water usage in the Suwannee District is minor compared to south Georgia and JEA's impacts on water levels in the region.

“Water we use in the Suwannee River Water Management District does not exceed the recharge (of the aquifer),” said Dennis Price who, as a geologist for over 35 years, has worked with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Suwannee District. “It’s not us that’s causing the problem.”

Price said he understands and does not object to St. John’s making sure the utility can continue to provide water to it’s population.

“Obviously people need to drink water,” he said. “What I object to is the board dismissing all of our concerns.”

Price believes groundwater pumping along the Atlantic coast of Florida, pulling from local sources, is a major contributor to the dry condition of some area springs. He also theorizes that drainage of flat-woods and wetlands in order to harvest timber for the last 50-100 years in south Georgia and locally is another major contributing factor. He believes if there were more water in the swamps, there would be more recharge of the aquifer.

A solution?

Price believes the only remedy would be to further address groundwater pumping along the coast and for scientists to work towards designing a plan to recharge the aquifer.

However, he is not hopeful that north Florida’s springs and rivers will be saved in time.

“Someone from twenty years ago might look at this and say not much has changed. Someone from one hundred years ago would look and say, ‘Boy, what happened, this is awful’,” he said. “Old-timers recognize the difference.”

Miller believes a solution lies in an organized effort to save the water supply by officials and Florida residents alike.

“Nature does not pay attention to artificial boundaries created by man, irrespective of political affiliation or the largesse of a consulting contract,” she said. “We've got to get our collective heads out of the sand and get organized to save the future of our communities.”

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Still said while the District has not had any issues with wells going dry, it has taken steps to warn residents of severe drought conditions threatening groundwater, and urges them to cut back on water usage. The District has issued a water shortage advisory, first declared by the District’s Governing Board in December. The advisory asks all users to voluntarily reduce water consumption indoors and outdoors until further notice.

“The advisory simply calls upon all of us to take voluntary steps to reduce both indoor and outdoor water use during times of drought and until conditions recover,” Jon Dinges, District director of water supply and resource management said in a press release.

Once drought conditions improve and groundwater and surface water levels rebound, the governing board may cancel the advisory. Should conditions worsen, however, the District’s board may impose mandatory water-use restrictions.

As for our children, and our children’s children—will they photograph the Big Shoals and dive into the chilling waters of Suwannee Springs? Kayak on the upper Suwannee? Will they know these rivers and springs as we did?

“I don’t think they will, this thing is on a downward spiral,” Price said. “For them, it will be nothing like what we’re familiar with.”

The JEA was not immediately available for comment.

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