Last weekend, we visited the Nature Coast for a family gathering and decided to continue a bit farther north. Our quest? Visit more springs in the Lower Suwannee River basin. We’d stopped at Fanning Springs last month on our way home from Carrabelle, discovering it still swamped by floodwaters, and figured by now, the high waters should have receded and locals would be enjoying their swimming holes on a Sunday afternoon.
It’s been eight to ten years since either of us had laid eyes on these springs. Here’s what we found. Our pairings of Then and Now photos were inspired by Springs Eternal. More on that at the end of the article.
At Manatee Springs State Park, the restrooms and bathhouse near the springs are closed. Perhaps the high water marks on the trees lend a clue. We had to walk over to the nearby campground to use theirs, and en route, walked around Catfish Hotel Sink, a sinkhole that forms a portal into a five-mile system of aquifer tunnels beneath the park. At an adjoining pavilion, a group of divers were getting their gear ready. We looked at the murky surface of the sink and thought nah, they’re not diving there. That’s a portal for cave divers.
The group of divers made their way to the clear waters of the head spring and started its practice dives. Other visitors kept to the edges of the spring run, or dove in with snorkels to coast over the turquoise water of the spring. Walking to the far side of the spring, we found a small beach where families let their kids play in the shallows along the edge of the run.
Following the spring run downstream on the other side, the boardwalk slips through floodplain forest to a series of overlooks, where we found anglers trying their luck. Schools of mullet flashed past.
I knew from my past visits that the bottom of the spring run didn’t look as pristine as it once did. Algae has taken over. The land surrounding the river floodplain near Chiefland and Fanning Springs is quite rural, so I didn’t expect to see the same changes in the springs here as I’ve noticed at Rainbow and Silver Springs, since I was a kid growing up in Ocala.
This year’s water levels on the Suwannee have been unusually high. When we visited Fanning Springs in early June, the spring was still too inundated with floodwaters to be open for swimming. According to a park ranger we met, the spring had been flooded for months. They’d been unable to open it for swimming numerous times over the past several years.
I first visited Fanning Springs when researching 50 Hikes in North Florida, and had marveled at its beauty. It still has that stunning turquoise color. But instead of healthy aquatic grasses growing on the bottom, there are mounds of algae. More algae coated the placid surface, even in flood stage.
Although it once had a hint of the aquamarine blue that characterizes the healthiest of Florida springs, Otter Springs is now greenish from most perspectives, with algae coating the bottom. Only the edges, where the shallow parts are, are clear.
Of the springs we visited on this trip, it was the least inviting to jump into, and its lack of visitors made that clear. The watermarks on the trees told us the Suwannee River had deeply flooded the park. Fortunately, the park has a very large campground and camping cabins, as well as an indoor swimming pool. We heard a mother encourage her kids to go swim in the indoor pool instead of the spring.
The 2006 photo of Otter Springs is by Paul Clark. John last visited here around that time.
I stumbled across Hart Springs while looking for hikes to include in Hiker’s Guide to the Sunshine State. At the time, it was one of the few places in Gilchrist County where there was a place to hike, a still-beautiful boardwalk along the Suwannee River. Developed as a county park with a swimming hole, the spring run was crystal-clear and offered sandbars that children could stand on.
Talking with a couple who’d been in the park during this year’s floods, they explained that a boulder fell into the main spring and blocked it. A secondary spring vent is now gushing most of the water that creates the spring run. What was striking, however, was the color of the water. I’d remembered it as clear, as my one decent photo showed from my last visit. It’s now a pickle-juice green. That didn’t detract dozens of families from playing in the springs, which are still very clear, but tinted.
The floodwaters rose very high around these springs, too. The folks who we spoke with paddled from the RV campground to the springs and back during the flooding, which drove more than four feet of water into the building housing the restrooms and camp store.
WHAT TO THINK?
Florida’s springs are in trouble. Not just the springs where suburbia was permitted to creep up and mess with the aquifer, as it’s done in Ocala and Dunnellon and Apopka and Tampa, but our rural springs as well. With the inability for our fragile aqufier to process mass amounts of fertilizer and septic tank runoff – and no regulations to staunch that flow – algae is taking over, choking springs large and small.
We’ve sadly learned what a political football and a joke that springs protection ordinances and promised legislation has been around our state, and how poorly our water resources are managed. Watching the changes in our springs for nearly 50 years, we’re seeing the results of that inaction.
We’ve not yet had the opportunity to see John Moran’s photographic exhibit on the changes to Florida’s springs, Springs Eternal, but it is making its way to various galleries and museums around the state. Meanwhile, the website itself shows the photos from the exhibition, and they are an eye-opener as to the changes going on in all of the springs throughout the region.
WHAT TO DO?
Get outdoors and enjoy Florida’s springs. Now. It’s summertime, and it’s a great way to cool off and connect yourself with the watery wonders of Florida’s outdoors.
We’re actively adding springs content to our website this summer to encourage you to find and enjoy more springs. We want you to care about them as we do, so when the time comes to speak for the springs you love, you will.