Underground rivers and springs need protection.
-Photo by Cindy Butler
There has been much discussion at recent meetings in Alachua and High Springs regarding the impact of construction of the Wal-Mart Supercenter in Alachua above a spring-fed cave and permits have been submitted, but not yet approved.
John Dinges, Director of Resource Management for Suwannee River Water Management said that Wal-Mart has submitted the Environmental Resource Permit needed to begin construction and although it has been reviewed it is incomplete.
“We have requested additional information,” Dinges said. “There are still some minor discrepancies.”
Regulations exist to protect our rivers and streams flowing above ground, but once these rivers dip below the surface they are no longer offered the same kind of protection and are thus vulnerable to all kinds of developmental and agricultural damage, such as run-off from parking lots, rooftops and garages and even fertilizers. Although there are regulations that govern the proper way to fill a sinkhole should one develop, there is little to protect the caves, springs and wildlife beneath the surface.
Rob Brinkman, Chair of the Suwannee-St. Johns group of the Sierra Club, wrote via email that it is his understanding that the water management districts, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and some charter counties can all regulate water quality and thereby rivers, springs and underwater cave systems.
“While this is basically a matter of state jurisdiction, the problem is Florida has done a poor job of protecting rivers, springs and caves,” Brinkman said.
Richard Hamann, Assistant Director for the Center for Governmental Responsibility said he knows of no special protection given to underground rivers, springs and caves.
“There’s not a good job of regulating land use to protect underground water,” Hamann said.
Regulations are the same regardless of what lies beneath the surface and currently there is little consideration for land use and its impact on ground water and surface discharge.
Hamann said, “There is no real good connection between permitting and spring protection, between land use and the protection of caves and underground springs.”
The statutes use storm water standards to provide groundwater protection from pollutants and hazards to human health but offer little protection to springs and caves.
At the recent Springs Working Group Meeting held in High Springs, Hamann was presented an award by the Florida Springs Task Force for his efforts in creating the Florida Springs Protection Act, which was introduced to the Florida Legislature in the 2005 session. This report addressed the legal issues associated with implementing a model land development code for springs. Unfortunately, what began as a bill to protect the springs never did become law.
“They turned it into a study committee,” Hamann said.
“Last year the bill was not successful,” said Fay Baird, Coordinator for the Santa Fe Springs Working Group. “This year it has been reintroduced but has been substantially changed. It looks as though we will potentially end up with something that is a Springs Protection bill. It won’t be the one we necessarily want, but it does have some of the same language that basically says that the Legislature believes that Springs are an imperiled resource and need to be protected better.”
Baird said, “In a nutshell a lot of laws are based upon the surface water and not ground water, which feeds our springs.”
Buford Pruitt is the Chairman of the National Speleological Society and an Environmental Consultant. He said that although there is the Florida Cave Protection Act in place, it is not highly effective.
“It’s a fairly weak law with few teeth,” Pruitt said. “There is no agency to oversee this law. What we would like to see is the Department of Environmental Protection step in because it has an enforcement arm.”
The DEP has the personnel and resources to take action and help protect our drinking water and these fragile ecosystems.
Pruitt said that the DEP has delegated the Suwannee River Water Management with authority over the ground water. This means that regulations are established and permits needed for pumping water out of the ground and that people cannot dam up water to prevent it from being used by a neighbor. Conversely they cannot flood a neighbor’s property – without acquiring the appropriate permit. But there are currently no regulations in place to prevent developers from collapsing sinkholes and caves, although they could be held accountable for back flooding caused by such destruction.
“My opinion is that the water management has the duty to insure that the cave does not collapse,” Pruitt said, citing the fact that such an event would cause water depravation downstream and flooding upstream.
“In every agency there is a gray area. In this situation, the District is not worrying too much about it,” Pruitt said.
One way to protect the cave is to use construction methods that do not cause the collapse of the cavern. When Wal-Mart began work on its Distribution center in Alachua, it elected not to use dynamic compaction. Dynamic compaction is a method used to pack the dirt by dropping an enormous weight, up to 30 tons, repeatedly onto the ground. This method produces pressure waves that can be catastrophic to sinkholes and caves. Pruitt hopes that Wal-Mart would choose to use other methods for the Supercenter as well.
“When Wal-Mart comes forward with the permit,” Pruitt said, “hopefully enough people will show up to express their concern about dynamic compaction and subsurface compaction methods to cause the city council to prohibit Wal-Mart from using them.”