As a kid growing up in Leesburg I spent more time at Silver Springs than any other Florida attraction. My mother loved going out in the glass-bottom boat to the spring. I loved seeing the monkeys which were said to be fugitives from an earlier “jungle cruise” attraction gone wrong. An erstwhile Florida attraction investor thought he could dump a bunch of rhesus monkeys on an island and they’d stay there. He was surprised to learn they’re quite good swimmers.
Now, I’m as old as my mother was, and who’d have thunk the monkeys are thriving, but the springs themselves are dying. And the punchline to this awful joke is that last blow to the springs will come from another big money investor with a bunch of animals.
This time it’s an Austrian/Canadian auto parts magnate Frank Stronach, who is preying on Marion County to build a massive grass-fed beef operation called Adena Springs Ranch (which fittingly sounds like a bruise). When you think “grass-fed” beef, it brings up images of scattered cattle, lazily chomping on grass until their final hour. That’s not what this is. This is a ginormous, densely-packed industrial cattle production site that has for years petitioned governmental entities to divert as much as 13.2 million gallons of water per day to water the grass. That’s more than the city of Ocala uses. And that’s all being diverted to a for-profit industrial cattle production operation that will have dire environmental impact with or without the water diversion.
And never mind that it’s standard industry practice to use rain water for growing grass. It’s not like Central Florida lacks of rain. As Bob Knight, director of the Howard T. Odum Springs Institute wrote in an editorial in the Ocala Star Banner, “Grass in Marion County, the same grass that supports Ocala’s renowned thoroughbred horses, grows just fine with rainfall and without irrigation. The St. Johns River Water Management District Governing Board should side with the original recommendations of its technical staff, with the public will, and with iconic Silver Springs, and not issue another groundwater extraction permit to this billionaire or to any other applicant.”
This billionaire’s dangerous scheme has been shot down numerous times, but the petitioner has donated $1.5 million to the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS), and Rick Scott’s administration followed suit by firing district staff who had authored technical reports concluding the water withdrawal would cause significant harm to Silver Springs and the surrounding floodplain wetlands. Truth-telling in a kleptocracy is career suicide.
Then, as if by magic, the district issues a new report citing “NEW SCIENCE” that claims the already dying springs will suffer NO IMPACT from 17,000 head of cattle drinking an additional 1.2 million gallons of water a day on top of the water they’re already taking from the aquifer (some calculations have the total at 2.68 million gallons a day under the “new science” model). Ron Littlepage at the Florida Times-Union reminds us, “The phrase “new science” is the go-to justification in Florida these days to give powerful interests their way. It’s the same one the Department of Environmental Protection used last year in allowing industries and agriculture to add increased amounts of cancer-causing chemicals into our waterways than had been previously approved.”
In a dramatic turn of events, a coalition of water protectors filed legal action before a water management district vote on Tuesday which would have surely conceded the springs to Rick Scott’s cowboy buddy.
We’re on the edge of our seats waiting for the court ruling.
In the meantime, let’s send thanks to these groups for stepping for Florida’s water: St. Johns Riverkeeper, Florida Defenders of the Environment, Silver Springs Alliance, and Ocala resident Alice Gardiner. Use those links to find them on Facebook, donate a few dollars for legal costs and keep them in your thoughts as this matter works its way through court.
Here’s a link to the St. Johns River Management District page on Silver Springs. The water quality information hasn’t been updated since 2010 (gee, I wonder why), but there’s other information that’s useful on the overall hydrology of the springs and floodplain.
Here’s a link to a story NPR did on the endangered Silver Springs in 2013:
Photo credit Brook Hines. Took that shot a few years ago kayaking the Silver River from the launch down at the start of the Ocklawaha at Ray Wayside Park. It’s a bear of a paddle against the flow to get up to Silver Springs, but once you make it, you have that flow pushing you all the way back to your launch point. We paddle a kevlar tandem designed for northern rivers, which is speedier than the sit-on-tops most Floridians favor, and it’s challenging for us, with two people paddling one boat. But, it’s worth it.
IMPORTANT NOTE ON THE MONKEYS: just don’t approach them. You’ll encounter the monkeys fairly soon after putting-in at that launch. You’ll also see plenty of people in motorized pleasure craft, so be careful if you’re paddling. Honestly, I think it’s insane that motor craft are allowed on that stretch of river (a rant I’ll save for another day). Rhesus monkeys are known to carry hepatitis B. It’s like how armadillos carry leprosy, and birds carry variations of flu. They’re not a threat to us if we don’t mess with them. I’ve observed people teasing them with tree branches, feeding them ham sandwiches and throwing moss (which duh, moss—not a great projectile). Just observe (ignore the idiots—who’s the real monkey in this equation, really?) and bring a camera with a telephoto lens to get some good shots. I took that photo with a relatively cheap superzoom point-and-shoot.
It’s a true Florida trip you won’t soon forget. And it’s one that might not be available to us much longer.