Addressing Regional Water Concerns
Talk of septic tanks and the “new normal” of St. Johns River flooding shared space with a Stetson professor’s stunning photos of Blue Spring during the Volusia Water Alliance’s Fall Symposium 2017.
The stark contrasts were part of a daylong event on Oct. 27 in downtown DeLand, Florida, just a stone’s throw for Stetson University’s Institute for Water and Environmental Resilience, one of the event’s sponsors. Numerous presentations and workshops took center stage, as government officials and environmental experts detailed issues affecting the region’s natural water resources.
The goal of the symposium was to foster “public education as consumers of water,” find better ways to use water resources and for “citizens to learn about what good stewardship means,” according to Clay Henderson, J.D., a Stetson professor and executive director of the Institute for Water and Environmental Resilience. He is a 1977 Stetson alumnus.
The Volusia Water Alliance is “focused on the future of our aquifer, natural springs and rivers – the sources of the water we drink, our recreation, our tourism, our wildlife and the natural beauty of Florida,” according to its website, volusiawater.org. The alliance is composed of the Stetson institute, the City of DeLand, the Blue Spring Alliance and other regional groups.
More than 120 people attended the symposium, including area mayors, representatives of government agencies and interested citizens.
“I think the flooding associated with Hurricane Irma has focused new attention on the big issues associated with water,” said Henderson. “Maybe the biggest surprise [of the symposium] is thinking of St. Johns River flooding as ‘the new normal.’ We’re now six weeks after the hurricane and it hasn’t gone down but an inch or two. The water has nowhere to go.”
Part of the problem, Henderson explained, is that the water has to get out through Jacksonville, and because of measurable sea level rise, the mouth of the St. Johns River is “basically about a foot higher than it used to be.”
“One of the things we heard from NOAA [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] is that we can plan on three feet of rise, and that’s what we’re looking at with the St. Johns River right now,” he continued. “I don’t know that we’ll live long enough to see it all, but we’re going to see more of it in our future.”
Notably, Henderson, who previously was an acclaimed Florida environmental-conservation attorney, made those comments a few days after the symposium from Annapolis, Maryland, where he was participating in a national sea-level rise conference titled “Keeping History Above Water.”
Additionally, the symposium addressed problems caused by area septic tanks – not as a result of malfunctioning but by their design, which allows nitrogen to “leech” into the ground.
“We have 100,000 septic tanks in Volusia County. That has an accumulative effect that no one really anticipated,” Henderson said. “We’re putting a very measurable amount of nitrogen in the ground water, and that is affecting the water quality of Blue Spring and all of our springs, frankly. So, 55 percent of the nitrogen that we measure in Blue Spring is coming from septic tanks. That changes the whole dynamic of the water column there, no question about it.”
Among the presenters was Professor Robert Sitler, Ph.D., director of Stetson’s Latin American Studies Program, who showcased photos he had taken while diving at Blue Spring State Park in nearby Orange City. The stunning photography served as a pleasant visual respite.
“Dr. Robert Sitler just wowed them with photography of our local springs,” Henderson commented. “He’s not a scientist looking at it; it was just a thing of beauty. For example, he dove down 75 feet or more into the vent at Blue Spring on the summer solstice, so that the sun illuminates everything down inside the spring. Then he turned his camera around and looked back up toward the surface. That was like a wow moment for everybody in the room.”
Educating citizens about water issues is a “challenge because people just naturally have a short attention span about water,” concluded Henderson, whose institute was established in 2015 to conduct the research, bring people together to discuss issues and act as an advocate for environmental responsibility.
“We kind of lurch from drought to flood, and so people will be concerned that we don’t have enough water and then all of a sudden we have too much,” Henderson said. “This is the third year we have done this [symposium]. There are more people, more different kinds of people and more willingness for the public agencies to get engaged. We feel like we’re doing our job of using our expertise, our faculty and students, reaching out to the community and engaging them. That’s really what the institute is all about.”
– Rick de Yampert