Understanding the value of water
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Initiative reaffirms District’s commitment to springs protection.
Golf courses invest in water-saving technology and implement practices that keep the fairways green.
Smart practices help the District track trees on public lands.
Scientists battle unwanted cattails and excess phosphorus in expansive marshes using alum.
District focused on springs protection
Tiffany Trent (left) and Angela Davis, District environmental scientists, conduct water quality sampling at Juniper Springs.
For centuries, springs have been a powerful part of Florida’s allure, embodying a feeling of paradise. Springs are intertwined in Florida’s history, with one of the more famous examples being Spanish explorer Ponce De Leon’s purported quest in 1513 for the fabled spring known as the “Fountain of Youth.”
Today, many springs are part of state parks or national forests. There are about 700 known springs throughout the Sunshine State — one of the largest concentrations on Earth — ranging from small springs that trickle water to first-magnitude springs that discharge millions of gallons a day. There are 96 known springs within the St. Johns River Water Management District’s 18-county jurisdiction.
Florida’s springs have thrived for tens of thousands of years, but are now facing threats to their health.
“It’s one of the salient environmental issues in the state,” says Ed Lowe, chief of the District’s Bureau of Environmental Sciences, who has studied springs for nearly a decade. “There are a lot of people concerned about Florida’s springs.”
The District has been working with other agencies for many years on projects and initiatives that protect springs systems and is continuing to gather information that will help determine the best methods for protecting them, says Don Boniol, a District hydrologist in the Bureau of Groundwater Sciences.
Part of the District’s efforts to better understand springs involves field work. Teams of environmental scientists collect quarterly water samples at 22 springs. Tiffany Trent and Angela Davis, comprising one of the teams, move with efficiency as they collect samples. On this particular day, they gather samples from six springs — Orange, Alexander, Juniper, Fern Hammock, Silver Glen and Salt Spring — capturing a snapshot of water quality at each. Davis drops a small tubular gadget called a hydrolab into the water to measure dissolved oxygen, pH levels, temperature and conductivity (a measurement of saltiness). The data appears on a screen and Davis transcribes them to a spreadsheet. Trent, meanwhile, gathers other water samples for lab testing.
A research diver maps a portion of the main spring vent of Silver Springs.
“We have to work quickly,” Trent says. “Typically, our work load in a day will be 10 springs.”
In addition to the District’s work, the U.S. Geological Survey has been gathering discharge data from Rock, Wekiwa and a few other springs since the 1930s and there are some water quality data for springs dating back to 1907.
“We collect discharge data at 31 springs,” Boniol says. “We try to cover most of the larger springs. We analyze water quality samples for 19 springs. It’s important to have a long-term data collection network to assess current conditions as well as look at long-term trends.”
So, what do long-term trends tell us? Three things are causing people to be concerned about Florida’s springs, Lowe says:
- Reductions in flows at many springs
- Increasing nitrate concentrations to levels much higher than natural levels (known as background levels)
- Changes in biology, such as an overgrowth of algae on spring bottoms
Florida’s springs originate in the Floridan aquifer — a vast underground network of porous rock full of water. Where groundwater is under pressure and can flow upward to land surfaces or into a body of water, it forms a spring. Rainfall that seeps into the aquifer is the major source of water flow in a spring, so periods of drought or extended wet periods can directly impact spring flows. By the same token, pollutants can seep into the aquifer, which is the source of rising nitrate levels in springs. Immediate actions may include redirecting wastewater away from springsheds, thereby reducing the amount of pollutants that eventually reaches the spring.
The trick, scientists say, is deciphering the reasons why these changes are occurring. To that end, the District is enhancing work to understand the complex nature of springs with a major initiative that began in fall 2012. Plans for the District’s Springs Protection Initiative include implementation of measures to improve springs’ water quality and to protect spring flows.
“The Initiative includes investigations to improve our understanding of nitrate sources and how to manage them and to lay the foundation for development of a plan to restore the biological condition of springs and spring runs,” Lowe says. “Our goal is a firmer, stronger understanding of how these springs systems work.”
Visit floridaswater.com/springs for more information about springs in the District.
Silver Glen Springs is one of Florida’s first-magnitude springs.
Golf courses stay green while saving water
New technologies and practices save resources, enhance fairways
The Palencia Club’s Golf Course Superintendent, Paul Rio, uses a hand-held device to monitor the irrigation system.
Green fairways roll gently toward a native tree line at The Palencia Club, an Arthur Hills-designed championship golf course and private club in St. Augustine, Fla. The grass is flawless, like a jade carpet in full blush beneath the Florida sun.
Adequate water sources are the lifeblood of Florida’s 1,400-plus golf courses, the most in any state. Lush greens, however, can be a paradox: as both a symbol of a well-managed golf course or, alternately, may appear to be a waste of precious water resources.
Golf courses like The Palencia Club are proving that water-intensive recreational facilities and resource sustainability can coexist. Contrary to commonly held beliefs, many golf courses — especially those built or redesigned within the last decade — are among the most efficient water users in Florida.
St. Johns River Water Management District regulatory staff work closely with golf course owners and developers to encourage designs that minimize impact on Florida’s underground water supplies. For example, the District requires golf courses to use the lowest quality water available for irrigation, thereby reducing demand on potable (drinkable) water supplies. The District has issued about 200 consumptive use permits (CUPs) to golf courses and require all of them to incorporate water-conserving practices.
It’s no accident that The Palencia Club incorporates drought-tolerant native vegetation along its fringes, a high-tech irrigation system and minimal turf. Hines, the community’s master developer, incorporated sustainable design throughout the golf course and the Palencia community.
“You manage to the minimum amount of water that is needed. …It costs money to run a pump station. You also have higher disease incidents when you overwater. Overwatering makes no sense at any level.”
— Paul Rio, Palencia Club’s golf course superintendent
“When we began looking at this project, one of the considerations that we wanted to be comfortable with was the ability to meet required environmental standards,” says Walter O’Shea, Hines’ managing director. “At Hines, operating from a sustainability platform…is really about managing business effectively. Operating efficiently gives us an advantage.”
The heart of the course is an irrigation system that draws most of its water from an 18-acre pond. Construction Manager Kim Shine explains that the majority of water used to irrigate the course is recycled by capturing stormwater runoff in the pond and pumping it to the irrigation system. A backup well provides water during dry spells but is rarely needed.
“We have generally had sufficient water from storm events to irrigate the course,” Shine says. “Up until a couple of years ago, we haven’t needed to use the backup well. Even in those years when we have needed to use the backup well on occasion due to drought, as a total percentage our (well) water use is very low. Thanks to a combination of sound engineering and good golf course management practices, we have been successful in using storm water as our primary source of irrigation water.”
Shine extends her passion for conservation and environmental sustainability beyond the golf course boundaries, says Caroline Silvers, a District hydrologist who has worked with Shine on water resource and permitting issues.
“Kim sponsored annual environmental stewardship programs for the residents of Palencia, which included irrigation controller instruction, water conservation education, kids’ nature programs, proper fertilizer application instruction, talks on attracting birds and butterflies and even incorporated a native plant and mulch sale,” Silvers says.
While the Vero Beach Country Club was developed in 1924, it has modernized in recent years with water-efficient technology.
The technology behind the irrigation system allows The Palencia Club’s Golf Course Superintendent, Paul Rio, to adjust the performance of each of the 900 sprinkler heads individually to meet the varying needs of the course. Rio and his staff can operate sprinkler heads from a computer in the maintenance building or he can turn them on or off remotely with a handheld device. When necessary, he’ll hand water finicky swatches of grass with a hose. Irrigation is an art for Rio and his art form could best be pegged as minimalism.
“You manage to the minimum amount of water that is needed,” Rio says. “A dry golf course plays better than a wet course. It costs money to run a pump station. You also have higher disease incidents when you overwater. Overwatering makes no sense at any level.”
Roughly 180 miles south of The Palencia Club is the Vero Beach Country Club (VBCC), a grand dame of a golf club established in 1924. Despite its age, the Vero Beach course has evolved into a showcase for irrigation innovation and sustainability.
The primary water source for VBCC is the main relief canal, which receives storm water from the Vero Beach area and shunts it to the Indian River Lagoon.
In the early 2000s, the country club’s owners decided to capitalize on the club’s proximity to the canal, which happened to be the final stop before the lagoon.
“We began experimenting with seashore paspalum, a salt-tolerant turf that can handle the extra salt load in the water,” says Shane Wright, the golf course superintendent at VBCC. “We converted the entire course to paspalum in 2003.”
“Vero Beach Country Club is showing great stewardship by drawing its irrigation water from the main relief canal…instead of groundwater from the Floridan aquifer.”
— Richard Burklew, District hydrologist
Bermuda grass is a more common golf course surface than seashore paspalum, but when mowed regularly at heights of an inch or less, the paspalum produces a dense turf. It is a warm-season perennial grass that is slightly coarser than those of common Bermuda grass. Wright adds that paspalum “uses less nitrogen, which enables us to be more ‘green’.”
In an effort to minimize fertilizer and water use, Wright and his staff are obsessive about monitoring the course. They regularly send turf samples to a lab for testing, which he likens to “taking a blood test in your body.”
“We’re constantly staying on top of water use,” he says. “A soil test only tells you what’s in the soil. We send clippings to labs and they give us a readout of the nutrients in the plant. We receive a report from the lab that tells us if certain minerals are needed in the plant. This virtually eliminates the chance for overfertilization. We recycle grass clippings and compost it back into the turf. This keeps the playing surface consistent. We have healthy turf that way. The grass won’t grow out of control. We’re keeping everything consistent. Our grass looks overseeded naturally and mimics the stripes seen on turf during the cool season.”
One of the most significant contributions of the course — in addition to its reliance on storm water for irrigation — is its impact on the Indian River Lagoon. By drawing water from the main relief canal, the course is reducing the amount of storm water that flushes into the lagoon, an estuarine environment whose health depends on a balance of fresh and salt water.
“Vero Beach Country Club is showing great stewardship by drawing its irrigation water from the main relief canal,” says Richard Burklew, a District hydrologist who reviews golf course projects in the District’s southern region. “There is a double benefit in that the golf course uses storm water instead of groundwater from the Floridan aquifer, which is increasingly used for potable water supply locally, while at the same time helping reduce the amount of storm water reaching the lagoon.”
Both Palencia Club and Vero Beach Country Club are Audubon Certified, which means that along with water conservation measures they work diligently to protect many species by minimizing the use of fertilizers and chemicals.
Seeing the forest for the trees
Technology and hands-on methods ensure accurate timber count
Chris Oman verifies tree counts and measurements as part of an annual timber inventory.
Paul Hudson and Chris Oman maneuver deftly through the thick undergrowth of the forest, intuitively dodging waist-deep palmettos and ever-present gallberry bushes to reach their target.
“I see it,” says Oman, gazing through the uniform rows of slash pines. “The ribbon is on that pine straight ahead.”
Hudson and Oman wend their way to the tree and begin gathering data. Using tape measures and small handheld computers, they determine the height, diameter and number of trees in this particular plot within Lake George Forest in Volusia County. The men are pleased by their findings: their data jibes with information recorded by “cruisers” hired to conduct an annual inventory of timber on St. Johns River Water Management District lands. A cruiser is a forester who gathers timber inventory data and “cruising timber” is the act of conducting the inventory, Hudson explains.
Hudson is a District land manager; Oman, a District geographic information system analyst. During the District’s annual timber inventory, the pair serves as quality controllers, ensuring that professional foresters hired to collect information about the agency’s timber holdings are accurate in their calculations.
To meet state statutes requiring proper management of District lands, each year the District inventories 1,000 plots of wooded uplands, which represent 20 percent of the uplands tracked in the agency’s forestry database. You could count every tree to get an appraisal, but it would be costly and time consuming. The District uses the more common method of “sampling” plots of forest.
“Inventories are driven toward a harvest schedule,” Hudson explains. “The inventory helps to determine when an area is ready for harvest. It helps to understand what you have, how much you have and its value.”
Harvesting ensures the public forests will remain robust. As an added benefit, funds generated through the sales of timber are used to help operate the District’s Land Management Program.
“The ecological drive of our decisions is making sure the forest is healthy and growing in the desired range. …This data helps us to try and maximize the correct balance of both the ecology and economics of the forest.”
— Steve Miller, Bureau Chief, Land Management
“From an economic standpoint, our forestry database helps us project future revenues derived from timber sales,” says Steve Miller, who heads the District’s Bureau of Land Management. “The ecological drive of our decisions is making sure the forest is healthy and growing in the desired range. We want to be sure the forest has the right amount of canopy for the wildlife and understory plants to thrive there. If the canopy is too dense, it can impact the health of the trees as well as the wildlife and the ground cover. This data helps us to try and maximize the correct balance of both the ecology and economics of the forest.”
To the untrained eye, a forest may seem virtually unchanging, a place where the geometry of plank-straight planted pines are indiscernible from one another. Hudson knows otherwise. Wildfires can devastate timber, rendering the previous years’ data null and void. So can timber harvesting.
“Forests are dynamic, always evolving and changing,” says Hudson. “What exists in a forest today will be different a year from now. If we harvest a plot, for example, our data for that plot is no longer accurate.”
At Lake George Forest, Hudson and Oman quickly gather measurements of a plot, a circular area of trees measuring one-twentieth of an acre. Their Nomad handheld computers are equipped with a global positioning system (GPS), which guide them to the precise plot locations that the cruisers have inventoried.
Oman calls out measurements to Hudson: “Eight point eight.” Hudson confirms that Oman’s calculation of the width of the pine is nearly a perfect match with the cruiser’s calculation. Oman paces 66 feet away from the tree and measures the tree’s height by gazing through a clinometer, a common tool used in forestry to measure slope, vertical angles and — in combination with distance measurements — elevation change or tree heights.
“It’s all just trigonometry,” Oman says, still looking through the clinometer. “This tree is approximately 61 feet tall.”
The Information Age, not surprisingly, has improved the speed and efficiency of the inventory process. In the old days, says Hudson, foresters relied on a paper map and compass to find their way to inventory sites. The Nomads not only provide GPS locations, but allow foresters to record data in the field and download it to desktop computers at the office.
Paul Hudson uses hands-on methods and technology in the field.
“When we measure the height of one tree in the plot, the computer will determine the heights of the rest of the trees based on their diameters,” Hudson adds.
The bottom line is that timber harvesting gives water management districts opportunities to generate revenue in an environmentally acceptable manner to offset management expenses.
“It’s amazing how fast the vegetation recovers after harvesting,” Hudson says. “When I show people a site that’s been harvested five or 10 years ago, they say, ‘It looks beautiful.’ They have a new perspective of the benefits of managing forests.”
Scientists use alum to treat salt marsh threatened by excess phosphorus
Project is an opportunity to test effectiveness of new application method
A contractor prepares to load about 2,000 pounds of powder alum into a spreader unit.
In the headwaters of the St. Johns River, sawgrass is a sign of a happy marsh. Cattails, however, generally indicate that a marsh is too rich with nutrients, such as phosphorus.
When St. Johns River Water Management District scientists noticed cattails steadily creeping into the Blue Cypress Conservation Area’s most pristine marshes in Indian River County, they knew something had to be done. Tests revealed that water quality was good, but the submerged soils were high in phosphorus, which fuels cattail growth. If left unchecked, cattails would eventually overtake the native sawgrass beds.
After the spreader was filled, a helicopter flew over Blue Cypress Marsh Conservation Area to distribute the alum.
The solution: Dispense aluminum sulfate, or “alum,” on 600 acres of marsh impacted by the invasive plants. Alum is generally regarded as a safe, effective and relatively inexpensive way to decrease phosphorus, control algal blooms and increase the clarity of water.
“The alum binds up the phosphorus, robbing excess nutrients from the soil that the cattails need,” explains Dianne Hall, the District’s project manager. “This will give a leg up to the sawgrass which can flourish in a low phosphorus environment.”
It may be a stretch to call alum a miracle elixir, but this compound has served the District well since 1999, when the agency first treated the north shore of Lake Apopka in Lake and Orange counties with alum residual, a by-product of the drinking water treatment process, as part of the ongoing restoration of the lake.
“We used alum residual on more than 8,000 acres of the north shore of Lake Apopka where we had dry land prior to reflooding,” says Vickie Hoge, a District environmental scientist involved in several alum treatment projects over the years. “Based on research conducted during the late ‘80s, we anticipated a huge phosphorus flux from the soils as they were reflooded, so this method was to reduce that potential release of phosphorus into the water column.”
The District has used alum in a variety of ways: dispersed from barges into open waters within the Emeralda Marsh Conservation Area in Lake County and by injecting it “where we’re discharging waters and we wish to treat only the pumped water,” adds Hoge.
“Barge applications are perfect in vegetation-free, open water areas of District lands, such as old farm fields that have been reflooded,” Hoge says. “These are areas where we are trying to clarify the water column and encourage vegetation.”
What happens to alum after it has been released into a water body? Is it safe?
“The chemical stabilization of the aluminum-phosphorus bonds occurs rapidly, within weeks and months,” Hoge says. “The bonds actually crystallize into very stable compounds. Over time, the alum compounds will be buried by benthic (lake bottom-dwelling) organisms and plant litter.”
The alum treatment at Blue Cypress is a milestone for the District, marking the first time the agency applied alum via an aerial treatment. It was also the first application of alum in a granular form instead of liquid.
“Blue Cypress is heavily vegetated and a liquid application would have been ineffective as the material would have been captured by the vegetation,” Hoge explains. “We noticed in our first project at the Emeralda Marsh Conservation Area that any liquid alum adhered to the vegetation and could not even be rinsed off with a fire hose.”
Preparing the marsh for alum treatment required a combination of specialties. The dense marsh vegetation needed thinning for the alum to reach the soil and work its magic. District invasive plant technicians applied herbicides and land managers conducted prescribed burns to thin out the cattails.
A Huey helicopter spread 300,000 pounds of alum in two and a half days. Although 500 pounds per acre may sound like a lot of alum, that’s less than two one-thousandths of an inch spread out over the project area.
“Each helicopter trip took 2,000 pounds of material,” Hoge says. “They spread the alum with a spinning cyclone spreader, like the kind you use to fertilize your lawn — only much larger.”
Scientists will monitor Blue Cypress in the coming months to track the effectiveness of the alum treatment.
The Blue Cypress Conservation Area in Indian River and Brevard counties is among the public properties at the headwaters of the St. Johns River.