The Floridan Aquifer is an incredibly complex and important system that we rely on every day for freshwater. Its creation took place over millions of years, and scientists have dedicated countless hours of their lives to studying and understanding it. Although not everyone can spend this amount of time learning about the aquifer, at Keepers of the Springs, we believe understanding the fundamentals of how it functions is vital to protecting it for the future. We’ve taken the time to organize the basics here, so you can easily dive into the aquifer at your own pace and follow your own points of interest. If you finish and still have questions, please check out our Resources page or send us a message.
Photo by Tessa Skiles
Photo by Tessa Skiles
An aquifer is an underground layer of rock that is porous enough to allow water to flow through it and acts as a reservoir. In Florida, our primary aquifer system is the Floridan Aquifer. This aquifer feeds water to all of Florida’s springs, and provides the state with 90% of its drinking water. Aquifers primarily store freshwater but since Florida is surrounded mostly by ocean, it is not uncommon to have a higher water salinity in certain areas.
The Floridan Aquifer begins in Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina and stretches southward down the length of the peninsula to Tampa. This aquifer is also one of the largest in the United States and covers around 100,000 square miles. Our aquifer began forming around 160 million years ago when Florida was almost completely underwater. Over time, marine sediment and debris such as coral, fossils, and animal remains, fell to the ocean floor. This process created thick layers of limestone which make up the majority of rock in the Floridan Aquifer. Limestone is highly permeable, and over millions of years portions of this limestone layer were slowly dissolved by moving water. This eventually led to the creation of caves, sinkholes, and underground river systems that can reach up to 2,000 feet below ground.
Photo by David Cobiella
Water enters the aquifer from the surface when it rains. This process is known as recharge.
As this water accumulates underground, it creates a downward pressure that pushes existing water further into the underground river system and eventually back to the surface. It’s important to understand this fact about the aquifer because any water (clean or contaminated) that reaches the ground can potentially pollute the aquifer, and eventually the springs and rivers.
Photo by David Cobiella
When water pressure pushes groundwater from an underground aquifer to the surface, it creates an artesian spring. Because of the Floridan Aquifer, Florida has the highest concentration of freshwater springs in the world, with more than 1,000 spread across the state.
Based on the amount of water that flows from a spring, it is given a category of magnitude, first magnitude being the largest flow, and 8th being the smallest.
An ecosystem is a biological community and the Springs ecosystem is very unique. Each organism, from the tiny bits of algae to the manatees, plays an important role. Because of this, different animal populations can be measured to track the system’s health over time.
Keepers of the Springs believes this type of data is important and that’s why we promote and support the work by other organizations like the Florida Springs Institute as they do scientific research in and around the Florida springs and rivers. Click here for information on how to become a volunteer with FSI.
Photo by David Cobiella
Due to the ever-growing human population in the state of Florida, there are multiple issues that plague these beautiful springs and the Floridan Aquifer. Not only does 90% of the state’s drinking water come from the aquifer, but the economy relies heavily on outdoor recreation which brings in around $145 billion per year. The declining health of the aquifer and springs could soon be devastating.
Pollution is one of the top issues facing our springs and aquifer. Unknown to many in the state, pollutants from the surface often make their way deep underground, slowly filtering through dirt and sediment or flowing into the aquifer through sinkholes, and can potentially end up in our drinking water.
Through various types of pollutants, spring systems can also be overwhelmed by nitrogen loading. This is when humans pollute with materials high in nitrogen content which can greatly harm the ecosystem.
Animal Waste, Fertilizers, & pesticides
Animal waste from livestock contains nitrates and can leach directly into the aquifer in karst windows (surface areas where water can directly enter the aquifer) and through surface rivers. Potential concentrated runoff is also a risk involved with livestock farming.
Pesticides and herbicides used in gardening and agriculture can also be harmful pollutants. Similar to fertilizers, they can leak into the waterways and aquifer, and in sufficient quantities, become toxic for animals and humans alike.
Around half of the water privately used in Florida goes toward lawn maintenance. Home and business owners will often use nitrogen-rich fertilizers to keep these lawns looking perfect and green. But rainwater washes excessive fertilizer (high in nitrogen content) into waterways or it can slowly percolate through the ground into the aquifer. Not only can high concentrations of nitrogen be dangerous to drink, but it can greatly harm ecosystems. Certain types of algae thrive in this environment and algae blooms can choke out sunlight to other plants in the water, destroying habitat for insects, which leads to a disruption in the food chain.
A great way to avoid this type of pollution is to use slow-release fertilizers, or replace common green-grass lawns requiring large amounts of water and fertilizer with native plant landscaping. For more information on how to successfully cultivate native plants, visit FloridaYards.org.
Approximately 1/3rd of the population of Florida uses a septic tank (roughly 2.6 million tanks) instead of connecting to a public sewer system. Many of these septic systems are aging and leak human waste into the aquifer. This pollution contains not only fecal matter, but also various types of chemicals like cleaning materials and medications that can have negative effects on the water quality.
Legislators in certain areas of the state have considered allocating funds to upgrade systems or connect to municipal systems, but it’s a very expensive and long process, and many parts of the state have been unable to make the changes necessary to lower or stop this type of groundwater contamination.
Stormwater drains usually lead directly to a waterway. This creates an easy pathway for pollutants like gasoline, automotive oil, and other various chemicals to wash directly into the aquifer, or enter a stream or river.
A way to mitigate this is to label storm drains, keep your vehicle maintained properly to avoid leaking, and use environmentally safe materials when washing your car.
Since the 1960s, the population of Florida has expanded exponentially, surpassing 20 million residents. Because of this, nearly 5 billion gallons of water are pulled from the Floridan Aquifer every day. This is an estimated Florida springs flow reduction of one-third. Surprisingly, instead of using the majority for drinking water, approximately 50% of the private water usage in the state is used for watering lawns. Despite this exponential growth in water usage, thousands of new well permits are issued yearly. Without proper regulation, the Florida Springs could eventually run dry.
When considering water quality, not only does polluting overload the system with nitrogen and other chemicals (not to mention trash), but the water continues to decrease in quality as it is over-pumped and flow is reduced, creating higher concentrations of pollutants. Certain springs have seen a reduction in flow of 30-40% and many springs have been known to reverse flow or stop flowing during times of lessened rainfall. Some springs, like White Sulfur Springs, have disappeared entirely. Other springs have reversed flow, allowing saltwater intrusion. This saltwater is more acidic and can begin to dissolve limestone in the aquifer to create sinkholes, or deteriorate the quality of drinking water. The best way to fix these issues is to regulate your own water usage, and vote for legislators who value water protection.
To learn more about human impact on the aquifer (including your own impact), check out the Blue Water Audit.
It’s undoubtedly overwhelming to see all the evidence of the springs in decline, but don’t give up hope just yet! There are many things you can do today, tomorrow, and on a continuing basis to ensure our state begins its journey to protecting and preserving the springs now and forever.
get out and vote!
Photo by David Cobiella
Get out and vote! We put this one first for a very good reason: it’s the best tool we have. As one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country, and a state that is rich in natural resources, there is a lot of money to be made. Large corporations and other profit-seeking entities play a big part in swaying legislators towards profit instead of conservation. But your vote has the power to change things. So as you learn about the springs and enjoy the natural areas Florida has to offer, tell everyone you know about the problems our aquifer and springs are facing. Then find politicians that support protecting these places and vote for them! Here's a resource we recommend: VoteWater.org
Volunteer with us!
Volunteer with us! KOTS organizes cleanups and joint citizen science outings to the springs and waterways around the state. Not only do we make the state a more beautiful place to enjoy, but we encourage others who see us to come join in! Check out our Calendar page to find an event near you and watch some videos of our cleanup adventures!
Continue to learn and get involved with conservation organizations from all over. The more you know about the issues, the more you can share with others, and the bigger impact you’ll have! Check out our Resources page for more info and to find other great nature-loving organizations.