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Farmers to reform practices for springs

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Published:   |   Updated: November 17, 2013 at 12:33 PM

WEEKI WACHEE - Seems like only six or seven years ago James Harris saw things more clearly.

The fact that the Weeki Wachee River has clouded that rapidly makes it even more apparent to him that more needs to be done to restore it.

"In the summer you can't see the water 4 feet out there," the self-described lover of water said. "It's depressing."

Hernando County's swift development during the last 30 years has been accompanied by more nitrate pollution from lawn fertilizer, animal and human waste, and septic tanks leaching into the river and spring.

Nitrate concentrations have increased 13-fold during the past three decades, according to a 2009 Florida Department of Environmental Protection report, and at the expense of the water's clarity and quality.

A bill passed by the Florida Legislature in December 2012 mandated septic evaluations for 19 counties and three cities in the state with "first magnitude" springs - including Hernando County and Weeki Wachee - but it included an opt-out option that effectively removed whatever teeth the law had.

A month after Gov. Rick Scott signed it, Hernando County commissioners unanimously decided - as did leaders of all the other effected counties and cities - not to enforce septic evaluations, saying unaffected taxpayers shouldn't have to pay thousands of dollars for inspections and repairs of other people's septic tanks.

A better approach would be to pass local ordinances containing specific measures, they said, and a resounding vote last week established those measures to be: required training and certification of fertilizer applicators and regulation of fertilizers containing nitrogen or phosphorus, two nutrients needed for plant life to grow.

That includes Lyngbya wollei algae, which a 2006 survey of 29 Florida springs showed grew thickest in Weeki Wachee Spring and upper segments of the spring's namesake river.

Consistently elevated nitrate concentrations causing excessive algae growth, particularly during summer months, is what put Weeki Wachee on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's list of "impaired" surface waters.

The water quality failed federal standards and in 2009 was labeled a "medium" priority project for Florida's Department of Environmental Protection.

The federal Clean Water Act, in combination with a 2009 state study, helped establish a "total maximum daily load for each pollutant.

Primarily that pollutant is nitrogen, according to the report, which at even slightly increased levels combines with naturally occurring and abundant phosphorus to create the algae overgrowth slowly destroying the spring.

The new county ordinance passed Tuesday focuses on both these pollutants, and while it only targets one facet of the problem, it's an economical first step to reduce nitrate pollution, said DEP spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller.

"It is far easier and much less expensive to minimize the amount of nutrients that get into our waters than it is to treat storm water and other ... sources of pollution to remove nutrients," she wrote in an email.

The county isn't alone in the clean-up effort. In September, Gov. Rick Scott announced 10 water quality and spring improvement projects, leveraged from multimillion-dollar investments from the Florida Families First Budget, DEP funding and local partners for a total of nearly $37 million.

One of these projects was for the Rainbow, Kings Bay, Homosassa, Chassahowitzka and Weeki Wachee springs group, referred to collectively as "The Springs Coast."

The estimated $875,000 water quality improvement and water quantity project will receive $375,000 in state funding and is a cost-share initiative with local fruit, field, livestock, poultry and equine farms.

The project is intended to improve management practices in the region and reduce the amount of groundwater used and nutrients added to the springs systems.

"This wide range of agricultural activities presents the opportunity for a variety of technologies that can be used to reduce groundwater use, such as weather stations, soil moisture sensors, automatic timers and pumps, tailwater recovery ponds and irrigation retrofits using more efficient low-volume systems," Miller said.

Lyngbya, the cyanobacteria growing most thickly in Weeki Wachee Spring, also might pose health hazards beyond the spring's ecosystem.

Lyngbya naturally produces saxitoxin, a prominent neurotoxin in rare illnesses such as paralytic shellfish poisoning.

According to a 2004 report by the state's Florida Coastal Management Program, paralytic shellfish poisoning occurs globally in humans who consume tainted shellfish, which retain saxitoxins in their muscle while filter-feeding. The poison can remain in their bodies for as long as two years.

Toxic shellfish consumed from non-regulated areas are potentially lethal, the report states.

"Throughout many areas of the world, however, particularly in the United States, the prevention of (paralytic shellfish poisoning) is well managed by state and federal agencies," the report states.

A 30-year review of the Florida Department of Health's database of reported illnesses shows that was the case until 2004, when a case was reported in Seminole County north of the Indian River.

That remained the only reported case until the numbers tripled last year: one case in Indian River, another in St. Lucie County near the Indian River Lagoon - near where the first paralytic shellfish poisoning case was reported - and the other in Hillsborough County.

"The sudden appearance of saxitoxins at potentially lethal concentrations in an area previously unknown to have such toxins, signals a new and unprecedented public health and natural resource problem for Florida," the state DEP report shows.

mreinig@hernandotoday.com

(352) 544-5271

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