To look at Fanning Spring, it is difficult to reconcile the beauty of its blue water to an ugly truth — it is one of the most nutrient-rich springs in the region, with a concentration of nitrates approaching unsafe levels.
The first-magnitude spring and its state park along the Suwannee River in Levy County draws thousands of visitors a year. They must pass informational kiosks along the walkways and boardwalks down to the spring that explain how actions on land — particularly the use of fertilizers — pollute the water.
Like many other springs in the region, people have been living along Fanning for eons. Information from the Florida Park Service states that Paleo-Indian people first began drinking its water and eating its fish and animals 14,000 years ago. Several aboriginal sites have been found in the park.
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White settlers eventually began moving to the region. A fort was built there in 1838 during the Second Seminole War. Later, a ferry across the Suwannee moved people and horses for years.
While the town of Fanning Springs did not grow much, the spring was a favorite spot to cool off for people from across the region.
Location: Fanning Springs State Park is at 18020 U.S. 19 in the town of Fanning Springs.
About: Fanning is considered a first-magnitude spring, meaning water flowed at a rate of at least 100 cubic feet per second, though that rate slowed in the 1990s. The Suwannee River Water Management District still names it as a first-magnitude.
The state bought about 200 acres surrounding the spring and its run to the Suwannee River in 1993 and it became part of the park system in 1997.
Visitors: Swimming, snorkeling and open-water scuba diving are allowed in the spring. Divers must have proper certification and are required to register with park staff before entering the water. There must be a minimum of two divers.
A 200-yard boardwalk meanders along the spring run through cypress trees to the Suwannee River. The spring at a point on the river where sturgeon often jump in the spring and summer months, a neat sight but dangerous to boaters and paddlers.
Manatees sometimes winter in the spring, where the constant 72-degree water is warmer than the Suwannee River or Gulf of Mexico.
Problems: Fanning for decades has been one of the state’s most polluted springs with nitrates as the culprit. The spring is open to swimming, but it is not the most inviting swimming hole because of the excess algae.
Current nitrate data is not available from the Suwannee River Water Management District or the U.S. The Geological Survey but it has been considerably higher than the 0.35 milligrams per liter set by the state to try to stem the pollution.
Fanning is also prone to flooding when the Suwannee River is high, which could also impact the growth of algae by altering water chemistry in the spring.
An assessment by the federal Environmental Protection Agency lists Fanning Springs as impaired for fish and wildlife propagation, fish consumption and recreation. The impairments for recreation and propagation are caused by nitrates and low oxygen. The impairment for consumption is mercury in the fish.
Future: Fanning, its downstream neighbor Manatee Springs and others are included in a Suwannee River basin management action plan triggered by the high level of nitrate.
The plans require farmers in the basin to use practices to reduce nitrates, such as cutting fertilizer use. Septic tanks on new homes can also be restricted and wastewater treatment systems can have to meet tougher standards. Incentives can be given to sports facilities such as golf courses to cut fertilizer use.
Spring advocates, including the Florida Springs Institute and the Florida Springs Council, contend the basin plans are not strong enough to reduce nitrates.
The Florida Springs Council in a legal challenge to the Suwannee basin plan gave multiple examples of shortcomings including the lack of specific requirements for reducing fertilizer use and no restrictions on new septic systems on lots of more than an acre.
This article originally appeared on The Gainesville Sun: Fanning Springs offers visitors variety of fun, lessons on pollution