FLORIDA — A world away from the crowded theme parks, more than one thousand natural springs bubble into Florida’s streams and rivers. Florida’s concentration of freshwater springs is the largest in the nation – and possibly the world – according to geologists at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
These pristine waters are purely and uniquely Florida and provide a stunning oasis for swimming, snorkeling, scuba diving, and kayaking. In water this pure – shimmering in shades of aqua blues and emerald greens – it’s not uncommon to spot exotic fish and manatees floating nearby.
RECREATIONAL AND CULTURAL VALUE
A window into the health of the state’s groundwater aquifer – the source of ninety percent of drinking water for Floridians – freshwater springs flow into rivers supporting a unique ecosystem by adding fresh, clean water. No two springs are the same. Each one has its unique place in human history and Florida’s ecosystem.
The springs, associated bays and rivers provide tremendous ecological value while providing a home for numerous plants and animals. Healthy springs have a balanced mix of water flow, clarity, vegetation, fish and wildlife.
Diverse species found along the springs include otters, turtles, and birds. In addition, many springs are home to various types of marine and freshwater fish due to their proximity to the Gulf of Mexico. In the winter, the springs’ calm, crystal flow and constant temperature make them an ideal warm water refuge for the vulnerable West Indian manatee.
Florida’s springs are not only an essential source of potable water but also have an enormous recreational and cultural value. State parks offer locals and visitors various recreational opportunities and adventures while also serving as a level of protection for these unique, vibrant natural resources.
Close to one million out-of-state tourists visit the parks associated with the springs annually. Diving and recreational tourism bring a significant economic impact to the small communities surrounding the natural water systems.
THE ORIGIN OF FLORIDA’S SPRINGS
A porous crust of limestone, defined by geologists as karst topography, lies beneath Florida’s surface. These thick layers of limestone and dolomite dissolve slowly over time. As rainwater enters the rock, it slowly works its way down through the limestone, forming an underground water storage system called an aquifer.
Recharged by rainfall, the Floridan aquifer – the largest in the southeastern U.S. – includes all of Florida and parts of Georgia, South Carolina, and Alabama. The aquifer is one of the most productive systems in the world, providing drinking water to about 11 million Floridians.
More than eight billion gallons of water, from deep within the underground aquifer, bubble out from Florida’s springs each day at a constant temperature between 68–72 degrees. The central and northern regions of the state are home to most springs, and many are within state and national parks.
Spring flow creates and maintains the spring system and keeps the water clear and pure, a primary driver of abundant vegetation. Additionally, dense aquatic vegetation provides a habitat for organisms while simultaneously filtering impurities.
ONCE FLORIDA’S PRIMARY ATTRACTION
Early explorers, drawn to the intriguing bubbling of the springs, include Ponce de Leon, the legendary conquistador who scoured Florida for the fountain of youth. During the 1800s and early 1900s, Florida’s springs were valued for their therapeutic benefit. According to historical accounts, people came in droves to drink from and soak in the “medicinal waters.”
Today’s mass of theme park-oriented visitors might never imagine that the natural springs areas were once the primary attraction in north and central Florida. But according to the Florida Park Service, Rainbow, Silver, Weeki Wachee and Homosassa springs were main attractions from the 1930s well into the 1970s – before Disney World and other theme parks began to set up shop.
Many springs, operated as privately-owned attractions, featured ornamental gardens, rides, entertainment, and wildlife exhibits. “Weeki Wachee,” named by the Seminole Indians, means “little spring” or “winding river” and is so deep that the bottom has never been found.
In the 1960s, glamorous mermaids at Weeki Wachee performed eight underwater shows daily to sold-out crowds. Women came from as far away as Tokyo to try out for the ensemble. The mermaids captivated the public as they played football and had picnics underwater.
PROTECTING OUR MOST PRECIOUS WATER RESOURCES
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection and Florida’s water management districts are working in tandem to preserve these cherished natural resources for future generations. But careful planning and strong community partnerships are also crucial to protecting the springs.
“Springs play a vital role in the economy and the quality of life for Floridians,” Anna Upton, a member of the Northwest Florida Water Management District’s Governing Board, tells The Florida Standard. “The water management district recognizes that protecting our springs requires a variety of projects and programs, so these precious natural resources are preserved for future generations to enjoy.”
On December 9, Governor Ron DeSantis announced $75 million for 30 statewide springs restoration projects to increase aquifer recharge, improve spring flow and provide additional protection for Florida’s springs.