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Dunnellon and Williston work to protect Rainbow Springs' basin

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Nitrates in springs water a growing concern

By Lou Elliott Jones

The cities of Williston and Dunnellon have had a meeting of the minds on protecting the Rainbow Springs and the land basin whose waters recharge the springs.

The mayors of both cities signed a document that pledges their commitment to springs commitment during a meeting of the Rainbow Springs Working Group on Friday at Williston Crossings RV Resort in Williston.

Fred Ward, mayor of Dunnellon, R. Gerald Hethcoat, mayor of Williston, signed the joint resolution acknowledging they are committed to protecting the ground and surface water basin that supplies Rainbow Springs, and that the cities “will promote and support actions, when feasible, to protect groundwater to benefit Rainbow Springs and the freshwater in the aquifer upon which both communities rely.

“We politicians seem to not want to take the bull by the horns,” Ward said in remarks before the signing where he noted the springs are not fed by water from Georgia and Alabama as he thought, but by a 700 square mile basin surrounding the springs.

“I was a little bit heartened when I heard Williston wanted to do a joint resolution with Dunnellon about this recapture zone because they’re the primary area, really Williston and Levy County.”

Hethcoat said, “We have been interested in protecting our groundwater for years and you might not remember the Withlacochee water district, but I was on that first board along with Karen Thurmond who represented Ocala and that area. So we go back a long ways with Withlacoohchee (Regional Planning Council) in protecting our area.”

Hethcoat noted that along with Blue Run Park in Dunnellon, that is fed by the spring, Williston has Devil’s Den and Blue Grotto springs areas to protect because it brings divers and tourists from around the world to visit, stay in local hotels and dine in local restaurants.

“We are concerned with them for the clarity of our water. We are in the middle of the agriculture and we have those people’s interest at heart,” Hethcoat said.

“We’re diverse and we’re concerned. Both cities are working to do the best that they can.”

The signing came in the middle of the informational meeting that explained what the Rainbow Springs basin is, how it functions and water quality issues.

Pete Colverson, coordinator of the Rainbow Springs and Silver Springs working grounps, said the purpose of such meetings is to have all parties interested in the springs come together and share information and come to a consensus.

Connie Bersok of the state Department of Environmental Protection said the working group is one way for her agency to get information out as it does research and monitoring of the springs’ health.

She said the news out of this years’ recently ended legislative session is that no bills relating to the springs were passed. One bill, that would have provided protection to 134 springs did not pass because of objections by homebuilders because of restrictions on septic tank use and density. “Don’t think this legislation id dead,” she said. “We will see it come back in a different form.”

Dave DeWitt, a water geologist with Southwest Florida Water Management District, said testing has found “quite a range of nitrate concentration” in the springs areas.

“The preponderance is from inorganic fertilizer,” DeWitt said. While the sourcing has not been identified, he said the research is leaning toward “mixed sources.” A data sheet showed that nitrate readings hovered in the neighborhood of 0.5 mg per liter or less from the 1960s until the 1990s when they started concentrating in the 1.0 mg per liter mark and now are rising above that. The federal EPA recommended level for safe drinking water is below 10 mg per liter.

Chris Zajac, of the SWFWMD who studies the water quality of the Rainbow River, said from 2002 to 2008 “we’re getting close to 2 mg. Which doesn’t mean much with water quality because for drinking water it’s 10 mg, but we are hoping to see it level off at this point.”

The reason for seeking an end to the rise in nitrates is that they feed algae growth in the springs and river.

Zajac said the mostly inorganic nitrate readings mean. “It’s associated with human impact.”

The group also heard a report on efforts to set a minimum flow for the Rainbow River which is fed by the spring. And the spring’s discharge has declined by five to 10 percent since 1932.

Possible factors affecting the flow are expanded public water supply, bottled water withdrawals, water transfers and impacts of natural climate.

Adam Munson of the District said the minimum flow study will be finished in two to three weeks and after discussion with St. Johns River Water Management District Officials and a peer review, he expects the minimum flows to be released in late July to early August.