Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. When the sun was shining, bands of color shimmered across the sparkling white sands beneath the gin-clear waters of Rainbow Springs. I was a kid, and we were riding the submarine boats, where you could sit and look out a porthole at the rainbows stretched across the bottom of the river as we drifted past fish and turtles suspended in a crystalline ether. Fish darted in and out of waving beds of grasses between the open patches of sand on the river bottom.
Rainbow Springs has been a family favorite my entire life. My earliest memories of the park? Picking out a fish mobile for my new sister’s crib. Colorful azalea blossoms, and waterfalls in a state where we never saw any. But most of all, the view from the submarine boats. Staring into spring waters at face level, something I’d never seen before, a river so clear.
On our visit this week to Rainbow Springs, we brought along Mom, who of course was there with me when I was little and has seen the park grow, change, close, reopen, and be at risk for development. We have shared memories of things that aren’t there anymore, and we shared them with John as we walked. Over there, the station for the Forest Flite monorail ride. Up here, the aviary. Today’s butterfly garden sits in what was the rodeo grounds. The terraces of the restaurant that overlooked Rainbow Falls are still there.
As we pointed these out, John said, “you’re the last generation to remember these things. Those kids over there swimming? All they’ll remember about this park is the fun they had while swimming.”
Mom wanted to walk through the old zoo, which I usually never bother with, but we detoured into it, an abandoned collection of cages where there were bears, bobcats, and birds. As we were reminiscing, a young boy came up to us. “Excuse me,” he said, “What used to be here?”
We started to explain what Rainbow Springs once was. In the 1930s, it was a public garden, created as a tourist attraction, covering the effects of phosphate mining along the river during Dunnellon’s 1890s phosphate boom. The phosphate pits – and tiny reminders of the old mining town – are along the park’s nature trails. In the 1960s, there was a lodge, and the submarine boats, and a little shop with the fish mobile in it. By late 1960s, to compete with the rumors of not-yet-open Walt Disney World, the tourist component expanded with a riverboat, a raft, the animal enclosures, rodeo, pony rides, and my favorite, the Forest Flite monorail.
When it all came tumbling down – attributed to high gas prices, the new Interstate 75 pulling tourists away from US 41, and Disney – the park languished. Partially owned by a development company, it was at grave risk of turning into a housing development when I was in high school. My first-ever newspaper editorial was an epic poem in the Ocala Star-Banner about the beauty of Rainbow Springs and why it shouldn’t be developed.
Marion County decided to buy the property, and eventually, it was transferred to Florida State Parks after years of volunteer work cleaning up the long-abandoned gardens. When we visited this past Sunday, it was the busiest we’d seen in years, except during special events. Hundreds of people either laid out in the sun on beach towels along the sloping grass above the spring or were jumping and playing in the spring. The canoe launch was a virtual traffic jam. I’d never seen so many paddlers here at once.
We’re so glad Rainbow Springs was preserved for generations to come. But there are parts of it that will only live in our memories. I see how Mom is saddened by the changes to the park, what’s not here anymore that we enjoyed back in the 1970s. What pains me, however, is the loss of the rainbows.
My friend Peggy Goldberg gave a talk once on “Changing Baselines.” The gist was unless you were around to see and document what things used to be ecologically, changes creep along so slowly that you don’t notice the loss. Having visited Rainbow Springs so many times over my lifetime, the loss is stark and dramatic to me. The river basin used to be a mosaic of waving tapegrass beds and white sand beds. Each cove had white sand with tiny bubbling springs where fish gathered. The one nearest Rainbow Falls was always my favorite, since it was so easy to see the fish scooting through the bubblers right from the footpath.
Now, algae clumps along the bottom of the river and coats the tapegrass. While the shimmering sands still surround the larger springs and the tiny bubblers, algae covers much of the visible basin, and all of the smaller coves, including my favorite one.
The irony, of course, is people look at photos of the spring and respond in delight at how beautiful it is. They visit and splash around and enjoy the springs. But unless they pay close attention to the changes – as I have – they don’t realize that the springs are degrading, day by day. They just see a pretty place to play outdoors.
April is Florida Springs Protection Month, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. “Florida’s springs are one of our most fascinating geological treasures,” said DEP Secretary Herschel T. Vinyard Jr. “The health of Florida’s many springs is directly related to our actions, and this month is dedicated to encouraging residents and visitors to help conserve our springs.”
While all of us can take small steps to stop adding to the nitrate load in our aquifers that is causing algal growth, there are several big steps that only our state government can wrangle, and they always seem to ignore these:
- Stop permitting large developments in known spring basins. It horrified me when Marion County permitted dense housing developments right up to the property boundaries of Rainbow Springs State Park, from every direction, and the state did nothing to stop it. Putting up signs to let you know when you’re in a spring basin is public relations. Holding the line on further development in those basins is the right thing to do. Septic tanks and fertilizer on lawns accelerate algal growth in our springs. Less development = less potential damage to the springshed.
- Stop permitting mining in spring basins. Limerock mines and phosphate mines have been permitted to operate in our spring basins for many years. Friends fought valiantly against permitting a mine in the Ichetucknee Springs basin, and the permit was issued anyway. Phosphate mining destroyed Kissengen Spring near Bartow. This is a no-brainer, folks. Cutting into the aquifer is going to mess with spring flow.
- Stop permitting withdrawal of Florida’s water resources for water bottling plants. Our water management districts continue to rubber-stamp these requests, including a recent one within the Salt Springs basin. Allowing for-profit water withdrawals from a public resource while asking the public to conserve water is a shameful policy, and puts spring flow capacity at risk.
With our Department of Community Affairs a shell of its former self, little concern is given to the above issues by our state government. And yet, these are the issues that need to be focused on.
Despite the surface beauty of their settings, Florida’s springs are truly at risk. When that young man grows up, I doubt there will be any more rainbows – or white sands – at Rainbow Springs. And that’s sad.
I hope that the springs will still be flowing for the next generation, just like my friend Ellen Peterson hoped that Kissengen Spring would still be here for my generation. It’s gone. Florida springs can and have ceased to flow. Unless our governing bodies wake up and do something about protecting our spring basins from development, the future of our springs has no rainbows.
- Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute
- Marion County Springs Festival
- See more vintage photos of Rainbow Springs