Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Et tu, Alexander?

Alexander Springs looks pristine, except for a low retaining wall on the near shore and two sets of concrete stairs that lead to the water. It is an idyllic subtropical paradise. Crystal clear waters bubble to the surface at 72 million gallons per day. The freshwater pool is lined by sable palms and live oaks draped in Spanish moss. Beds of submerged vegetation cover the bottom and algae covers it, along with the parts of bottom that should be sand. Thick green algae blanket the bottom from the edge of the spring pool to as far downstream as I can see, and schools of sunnies grub through it. The water is characteristically clear for a Florida spring, but the algae lining the bottom seemed to be too thick. Alexander is one of Florida’s freshwater springs, one of Ponce de Leones fountains of youth perhaps, though it seems that part of history is more fairy tale than fact. And it is amazing. The clarity of the water makes it an ideal place to snorkel and watch fish. It is relatively remote by most peoples standards, located in the Ocala National Forest and surrounded by undeveloped land. But even this seemingly pristine, remote place is affected by very similar problems as the more suburbanized rivers I am used to snorkeling. The water fueling Alexander’s ecology comes from large underground reservoirs. The water in the cave that empties into the bottom of Alexander comes from rain that percolates through the soil and underlying limestone bedrock. Like the water that runs off land into our streams in the mid-Atlantic, the water here also picks up contaminants on its surface journey, and just like home, the contaminants that head the list are excess nutrients. Algae is limited by the amount of nutrients, nitrogen and phosphorous. When we increase these limiting factors, we increase algal growth and set the system off balance. Algae is necessary for a healthy balanced ecology. It is the foundational building block of the aquatic food web. But too much of it and we end up with a caddywumpus ailing system. It’s like chocolate cake. Eat one piece and I’m happy. Eat the whole thing, and I’m sick. It looks like Alexander went back for seconds. Nutrients come from us. Sewage, pet waste, farm manure, lawn fertilizers. WE do this to our rivers, streams and springs by what WE do on the land. These are the same problems that face the rivers I am very familiar with, that run through much more developed landscapes. Over fertilized waters, or eutrophication, is a growing global problem. A dead zone smothers the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico at the mouth of the Mississippi, not due to BPs Deep Water Horizon disaster (though that certainly didn’t help), but rather due to low dissolved oxygen caused by excess algae caused by excess nutrients, caused by us. Two thirds of the Chesapeake Bay dies every summer, all because of too many nutrients, because of what we do on land. The good news is that since the problem of eutrophication starts with us, we can end it. Hold off on fertilizing the lawn, or test your soil first to see exactly what your grass needs before throwing random amounts of nitrogen and phosphorous into the environment. Make sure your septic is working properly. Drive less. One of the things that comes out of the tail pipe of our cars is oxides of nitrogen. Alexander is degraded, just like almost every other freshwater body. That doesn’t make it any less special, beautiful, spectacular, or spiritual. Just like the Brandywine, Delaware or Susquehanna. Seeing the beauty of these special places in spite of our impacts just inspires more action to lessen the imprint we leave on the world.

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