Protected River in Florida Still in Decline

The Wekiva River in Florida is still in failing health, despite being one of the most protected waterways in the U.S.

The spring-fed river in the Orlando, Florida area is tarnished by pollution from sewage and fertilizer that has created an immense amount of harmful algae. Utilities are also causing more problems for the river by pumping large sums of Floridian Aquifer water that should be flowing into the Wekiva. Many fear that the river may soon become too shriveled for wildlife and plants to thrive under those conditions.

The river's plight has been brought to light by public concern that most of the state's spring-fed river systems are similarly stricken by declining flows and pollution. But members of the Friends of the Wekiva River were alarmed as far back as the early 1980s about the river's condition. They have been promised many times since that the Wekiva would be studied and restored.

Those same assurances were repeated last month, when the St. Johns River Water Management District said more scientific examination is needed to find a better solution for a river system that is fed by 30 springs. According to the district, the minimum amount of water that should be flowing from the popular Wekiwa Springs is 40 million gallons a day, and that the average daily flow this year declined to only 35 million gallons. The district says the appropriate response to the trend of declining spring flows includes a Springs Protection Initiative that won't be as urgent as what river defenders want.

As for pollution concerns, the state DEP in 2008 that the maximum amount of nitrate - a nitrogen-related chemical from sewage and fertilizers - that won't trigger an invasion of harmful algae is a tiny and invisible 280 parts per billion. Wekiwa Springs is now plagued with five times that much nitrate, which comes from stormwater runoff, sewage plants, septic tanks and lawn fertilizers.

The river's plight runs counter to many years of public and private efforts to protect it, but no one is giving up. DEP is proposing to reduce nitrate to the acceptable limit within 15 years, a cleanup likely to be one of the state's biggest environmental challenges ever.