By Jad Kabbani
North Florida’s springs are highly valued environmental resources, known for their water quality and recreational appeal. The region, along with Central Florida, is home to the densest concentration of freshwater springs in the world. Consequentially, North Florida’s economy heavily depends on this abundant natural resource as visitors and locals take advantage of its warm-humid climates and scenic charm. Unfortunately, North Florida springs face several anthropogenic, or human-created, stressors that accumulate and impair the quality and quantity of spring water and its ecosystems.
As a hotspot for springwater recreation, North Florida’s springs contribute significantly to local employment, expenditures, and sales tax revenue. For instance, during the 2021-2022 fiscal year, 180,489 people visited Wakulla Springs, one of many springs located in North Florida. On average, each visitor spent $160.77 per day, with non-local visitors alone contributing approximately $21,472,740 to the local economy through direct spending. Wakulla Springs, however, is just one of many Northern Florida springs, which has served as a source of regional economic prosperity for decades.
The significance of these springs’ economic contributions to the region relies on the water flow condition and quality. Unfortunately, North Florida’s springs and the rest of the state’s water resources have experienced drastic changes over the last decade due to “nutrient loading” and excessive pumping.
Nutrient loading is the increased nutrient concentration in spring waters due to growing populations, failing septic tanks, and employing synthetic fertilizers. This has impacted water clarity and contributed to the development of algae blooms. Harmful algal blooms cause thick, green muck that impacts marine animals, recreation, businesses, and property values by contaminating drinking water and leading to the loss of tourism revenues.
Additionally, more than four billion gallons of groundwater are drawn daily from the Florida aquifer, which is the primary water source of Florida’s springs. Excessive pumping from bottling companies, municipal water, and agriculture has led to an estimated one-third decrease in water flow across all of Florida’s springs.
Reducing spring flows and deteriorating water quality significantly impact spring-related recreational user expenditures, lowering economic activity in North Florida. A recent study measuring the perceptions and attitudes of visitors to four springs in North Central Florida indicated that 90% of the visitors visited the springs for the sole purpose of recreation. Researchers found a strong positive association between visitor trip frequency and water clarity. Based on these responses, researchers estimate that a one-unit increase in the perceived water clarity was associated with 27% more visits.
The state of Florida has introduced legislation to protect the springs. In 2016, the legislature chose 30 “outstanding” springs of historical importance for additional protection and restoration, creating a series of Basin Management Action Plans (BMAPs) to address water quality issues stemming from nitrogen pollution. In recent years, Governor DeSantis created the Blue-Green Algae Task Force, which deals with expediting progress toward reducing the adverse impacts of toxic blue-green algae blooms.
Despite legislative findings indicating that urgent action is needed, the state government has failed to implement necessary provisions in its BMAPs, limiting its ability to meet water quality and quantity objectives. For instance, Florida has experienced rapid demographic changes, yet the Basic Management Action Plans do not account for the growth in population and increased pollution loading. Hence, they are based on outdated information and are unable to succeed.
Additionally, BMAPs lack a comprehensive evaluation and monitoring process to measure compliance with water quality standards and identify areas of improvement. A bill introduced during the 2022 legislative session, SB 832, would have added a layer of scrutiny of the effectiveness of BMAPs by requiring consistent monitoring and inspections. The Legislature did not pass it.
To improve the condition of springs in North Florida, the Florida Springs Council called for the implementation of the Blue-Green Algae Task Force’s recommendations. More specifically, strategic improvements in BMAP funding would accelerate progress toward restoration, prioritizing initiatives that address the most significant pollution sources in the most cost-effective way possible. In addition, integrated monitoring and modeling are necessary to ensure projects are working as expected and identify improvement areas. Finally, it is essential to consistently update BMAP regulations and practices to account for changes in demographics.
Florida’s adoption of these recommendations would not only support the future of these springs but also protect the economic value they present to North Florida communities. While these springs will take time to recover, advocacy organizations like the Florida Springs Council present hope for a brighter future for North Florida’s springs. In the meantime, to effectively manage and protect water resources in Florida, data collection is crucial to monitor the services they provide and to urge the government toward reform.
Update: This blog article has been updated to include the 2022 Florida Department of Environmental Protection Economic Impact for 2021/2022. The original blog article used data from the 2021 FDEP report.
Jad Kabbani is a senior at Florida State University pursuing his bachelor’s degree in Economics. In addition to his work with the DMC, Jad is involved in the Arab Student Union, the Unconquered by Debt Program, and the Social Science Scholars Program at Florida State University. In fact, a revised version of Jad’s paper written for Dr. Staley in his writing seminar on applied economic policy on the effect of the FIFA (soccer) World Cup on Qatar’s economic development was published by the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.