Florida buys springs to preserve them, does little to stop harm from beyond boundaries

"Forever Blue" Turtles swim in the clear water of Ruth Kirby Gilchrist Blue Springs State Park. Photo by John Moran

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A couple of weeks ago, I drove up to the picturesque small town of High Springs, about 30 miles north of Gainesville. Then I kept driving, heading out of town for several miles until I reached Florida’s newest state park.

Park No. 175 is Ruth B. Kirby Gilchrist Blue Springs, formerly a family-owned and operated roadside attraction that the state bought in 2017.  It was a popular place for swimming, kayaking, and canoeing before the state acquired it, and it remains popular now.

People flock to this park near the Santa Fe River because the water looks so clear. Turtles and fish seem to glide through the air. Gainesville artist Margaret Ross Tolbert told me once that to splash into this spring is to “jump off into wonderland.”

Burma Shave-style signs line the entrance road to Ruth B. Kirby Gilchrist Blue Springs State Park. Photo by John Moran

But as I drove through the gate, what caught my eye and left me wondering was a series of rhyming signs along the entrance road. They were in three sets of four, lined up like the old Burma Shave signs.

“Love Our Springs?” asked the first blue sign. “Then Let’s Be Wise,” said the next. “Resist The Urge,” said the third one, followed by, “To Fertilize.”

Another set said, “Less Water Used/At Home And Farm/Protects Our Springs/From Further Harm.” Then came the final set: “No Matter How/You Float Your Boat/Respect Our Springs/When You Go Vote.”

When I saw the first signs, I thought it must be a message from the park. That last set convinced me it was not.

Our political leaders tend to be far too friendly with polluters to advocate that you keep clean water in mind when you vote. Remember how they passed that polluter-friendly bill that talks about clean water but fails to do much about it? At least we can buy bigger wine bottles now to drown our sorrows, so it all balances out, right?

Finding the author of this roadside poetry took a couple of phone calls. When I tracked him down, what he said reminded me of something that’s often overlooked.

Whenever our governor and lawmakers trumpet the fact that the state is spending millions to acquire environmentally sensitive land, they always avoid any mention of one simple fact: The land that’s been preserved can still be hurt by actions that take place beyond its boundaries.

It’s the flipside of the slasher movie “When a Stranger Calls” where the cops tell Carol Kane that the threatening calls are coming from inside the house. The harm’s coming from OUTSIDE the park.

That sucking sound

Gilchrist Blue Springs has what you might call an interesting backstory.

It was once owned by a St. Petersburg business mogul, Ed. C Wright, who held title to some 20,000 acres around the state. He handed the deed to this parcel to his longtime assistant, a petite woman named Ruth Kirby who liked to drive a gold Cadillac.

They were secretly in love. The spring was an engagement gift. Despite several tries, the couple never made it down the aisle. Wright must have had the worst case of cold feet this side of Roald Amundsen.

Ruth Kirby and Ed C. Wright, photo via Florida Park Service

When Wright died, unmarried and childless at age 77, his will named Kirby the executor of his $50 million estate. She sold some parcels to developers to build on and some to the government for preservation. But she hung onto the spring, a place she enjoyed so much she opened it up to the public to share its wonders.

In 1971, she persuaded her nephew to move his family there to run the place for her. After she died in 1989, they labored to keep it looking the way she’d wanted.

“It’s hard in this day and age to keep it natural,” one family member told me in 2013. “It’s a daily struggle to protect the water and the watershed.”

That’s continued to be true since the state bought the property. Merrillee Malwitz-Jipson of the Our Santa Fe River environmental group told me Gilchrist Blue has been harmed by the one-two punch of a water bottler and some nearby dairies.

Our Santa Fe River and its allies pursued a lengthy legal challenge but failed to stop the Suwannee River Water Management District from renewing a permit for the Seven Springs Water company. The company won permission to pump nearly 1 million gallons of water a day out of nearby Ginnie Springs. They sell that water to Nestlé.to bottle.

The state’s profit from this ginormous withdrawal of a public resource: A one-time permit application fee of $115. The CEO of Nestle probably spends more than that on a single silk tie.

Because both springs draw water from the same aquifer, the result of that massive sucking sound from Ginnie Springs is that the water pulsing through Gilchrist Blue is losing its flow. In the past 20 years the aquifer has dropped by 3 feet.

Merillee Malwitz-Jipson of Our Santa Fe River, via Facebook

Meanwhile, five nearby dairies are dropping nutrient pollution from fertilizer and animal waste into that same aquifer, she said. “The state of Florida is spending a whole lot of the taxpayers’ money on cleanup, instead of making these corporations pay for it,” she said.

The bottom line: The state’s efforts to protect Gilchrist Blue by buying the property for $5.25 million failed because of actions that state and local government have allowed to occur outside the property boundaries.

Imagine you’d spent $100,000 to buy Ruth Kirby’s gold Cadillac, then discovered someone had put sand in the gas tank. You’d be pretty upset, wouldn’t you? Something similar is happening here.

This is where Gainesville nature photographer John Moran comes in.

A thousand straws

Moran is probably best known for a photo he shot titled “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes.”

One evening in 1990, Moran climbed a bluff overlooking Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park in Gainesville and scanned the water with a flashlight. He expected to see a few dozen gators’ eyes.

“I was stunned to realize I was looking at hundreds of pairs of eyes glowing back at me in the approaching dark,” he told me. That’s the photo he snapped.

When Moran displays this photo at art shows, people often ask if he was scared, He says no. But then he tells them that if they buy a print, he’ll let them claim they assisted him on the shoot, knocking ravenous gators away with a canoe paddle.

Moran spent decades working for The Gainesville Sun and is now in the University of Florida journalism school’s hall of fame. But I think what he’d rather be remembered for is his 2012 Springs Eternal Project.

For that traveling exhibit, he collaborated with artist Lesley Gamble and designer Rick Kilby for a show to “inspire Floridians to value our springs and the diverse ecosystems they support.” He was documenting a disappearing wonder, one that’s being steadily drained by a thousand straws stuck in the ground and fouled by a thousand sources of nitrogen.

John Moran puts up a sign for the Florida Springs Council. Photo by John Moran

Moran’s work documenting Florida’s marvelous springs is what led to his concern about how Gilchrist Blue Springs is being degraded.

“For many years it’s been heartbreaking to witness the decline of our beloved springs,” he told me. “But we’ve all seen the power of words and images to inspire positive change.”

He wanted to warn park visitors that their actions had consequences for the water that’s the park’s main attraction. With money from the Florida Springs Council, and permission from the park’s next-door neighbor, Moran composed and installed those rhyme signs. He picked that format, he said, because short messages tend to be more memorable.

“I imagine kids in the back seat of the family car, shouting out the lines as mom or dad is driving the family car for a day at the springs,” he said, “and then carrying that message home with them.”

There’s only one problem with Moran’s clever sign strategy: It’s only at the one park. We need it at a lot more.

The holy cows

What’s happening to Gilchrist Blue Spring is the same as what’s occurring in all of the state parks with springs, said Robert Knight of the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute.

Knight has been studying Florida’s springs for more than 30 years, so he should know. From Wakulla to Silver to Wekiwa and so on, they’re all in trouble.

Robert Knight via the Florida Springs Institute

“We’re killing our springs,” he told me.

All the springs that the state spent big bucks to acquire have developed big problems that the state is hesitant to fix.

Twenty-four years ago, Florida had an official government task force that was supposed to draw up plans for reviving the springs. But the task force shied away from cracking down on the people responsible for their demise, he said.

“They knew what the problems were,” Knight said. The people who produced the pollution or drained the aquifer “were the holy cows, so we had to let them do what they want to.”

Still, he said, “it would be nice if the state at least acknowledged what was happening.”

Some of the effects were quite dramatic. Clay Henderson, who literally wrote the book on land preservation in Florida (“Forces of Nature,” is awesome, buy five copies for your mother) told me he remembers as a boy swimming in White Springs, which is part of the Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park.

Pumping from a nearby phosphate mine drained so much water from the aquifer that the spring stopped its flow in the 1970s. Now, he said, “it’s dry as a bone.”

Rhyming reminders

It’s not only state parks that suffer from external problems. Volusia County learned this the hard way when it acquired Gemini Springs near DeBary in 1994, said Pat Northey, who spent 20 years as a county councilwoman.

“We used to swim in Gemini Springs when the park first opened,” she said. “Then one day the health department came in and took samples and found fecal material in the water. They stopped everyone from swimming and we’ve never recovered it since.”

Pat Northey, via Volusa County

The pollution came from the septic tanks of nearby development, she said. Now the county is working with DeBary to try to move those residents over to a sewer line. Maybe, someday, the water will be clean enough to swim in once more.

Springs are not the only type of parks where what’s inside the fence is being hurt by what’s outside. Pollution that we haven’t halted has harmed taxpayer-owned rivers and lakes, too. And beachfront parks are losing ground to climate change — you know, that problem that our Legislature is dealing with by deleting references to it from state law.

I think we need to post a bunch more Burma Shave signs, but around the state Capitol. I’m no Edgar Allan Poe-et, but I gave it a try:

“You can’t be green/By writing checks/If you don’t stop/Polluters’ dreck.”

Wait, I can do better! “The parks we save/Will be a waste/If we pollute/The good’s erased.”

No? Then how about: “Taking money/From polluters/Makes you just/A bunch of looters.”

I think Ruth Kirby would like that one.

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