SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Now to Florida and what was once one of the state's most popular tourist destinations.
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SIMON: Since the 1800s, steamboats, railroads and eventually automobiles brought visitors who came for the sun, the wildlife, and the freshwater springs, at that time the largest in the world. In recent years, those Silver Springs has lost its luster and the springs themselves have declined, both in volume and water quality.
NPR's Greg Allen reports on efforts to restore the spring called Florida's natural wonder.
GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Even if you've never visited Silver Springs in Central Florida, you may have seen it - if you're old enough. The '60s television show, "Sea Hunt," was filmed here, as were countless movies, including "Tarzan," and "Creature from the Black Lagoon."
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ALLEN: Silver Springs' crystal clear water made it invaluable to Hollywood and as Guy Marwick, the founder of the Silver River Museum recalls, it drew over a million visitors a year.
GUY MARWICK: But it was not an amusement park in the sense of Coney Island and the rides that one might associate with it. It was kind of the natural Florida and I think that's what people are hoping to see it go back to now.
ALLEN: Later this year, Florida's Park Service will take over Silver Springs and begin working to restore it to a more natural state. But that's a huge task. Over the past two decades, Silver Springs and most springs in Florida have fallen on hard times. Drought, development and excessive groundwater pumping have cut the amount of water flowing here in half.
From the walkway that overlooks the head springs, the water is still blue and crystal clear, with fish, turtles and alligators clearly visible. But director of the Florida State Springs Institute, Robert Knight, says look closer and you'll see the problem. Pollution from agriculture and residential development has helped coat the spring with algae.
ROBERT KNIGHT: This spring was white on the bottom. It was a sandy bottom and shells. It was just glistening. It makes it so much brighter. And now it's green on the bottom because it's covered with algae. When you go out on a glass-bottom boat, you'll see it's just not glowing at you the way it used to.
ALLEN: When Florida's Park Service takes over operations at Silver Springs, the rides and the reptile farm, with its two albino alligators, will be gone. But the spring's signature attraction, its famous glass-bottom boats, will remain.
OSCAR COLLINS: I'm the oldest full-time boat captain and I've been working 44 years this month.
ALLEN: Glass-bottom boat captain Oscar Collins has seen big changes at Silver Springs over those 44 years. Today, just a few dozen people are in the park, a big contrast with Silver Spring's heyday in the 1960s.
COLLINS: We were doing four and five thousand people in the middle of the day, and on weekends, six or seven. We are losing people here.
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ALLEN: On the boat, we glide over the spring vents that deliver millions of gallons of water from Florida's aquifer into the Silver River, like all springs in Florida, much less water than was produced just ten years ago. Fish are no longer abundant, but there are some.
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ALLEN: Most of the aquatic plants are covered by algae. Nitrates in the spring water, much of it from fertilizer spread on farms and lawns, promotes the growth of algae and, Knight says, eventually kills the plants.
KNIGHT: And we lose the plants and springs. I mean, it would be tragic to lose all this vegetation in Silver Springs, but our other springs we've already lost all the plants.
ALLEN: A dozen years ago alarm over the decline of Florida's springs drew the attention of political leaders in Tallahassee. Then governor, Jed Bush, launched an initiative to save the thousand-plus springs throughout the state. That program was defunded last year by Florida's current governor, Rick Scott.
But for Silver Springs at least, the state takeover is good news. To improve the springs' water quality, Florida regulators have set targets for reducing the amount of nitrates. Hitting those targets though will mean addressing the sources of pollution, putting thousands of septic tanks on public sewer systems and aggressively reducing the amount of fertilizer used by homeowners and farmers.
Drew Bartlett of Florida's Department of Environmental Protection acknowledges it's as massive undertaking that could take decades.
DREW BARTLETT: Well, it certainly is a challenge and my response is essentially that's not an excuse not to get started. We know where sources are.
ALLEN: Springs advocates are especially concerned about a potential new source of pollution just a few miles from Silver Springs. Water management officials are considering plans for a huge cattle ranch that would withdraw millions of gallons a day from the aquifer that feeds the springs. The 15,000 to 20,000 head of cattle would produce as much as a million pounds of manure a day. Here's Robert Knight of the Spring's Institute.
KNIGHT: What we're getting is very intensive farms using a lot of water and with very big wells and using a lot of fertilizer to maximize their profits, and that's what's hurting our springs.
ALLEN: In some ways, Florida's endangered springs are a symptom of a larger problem. With development and wells being sunk for everything from golf courses to bottled water plants, Florida's aquifer is being depleted. In some areas, the aquifer, which most Floridians rely on for drinking water, has dropped by 60 feet. Some coastal communities are now getting salt water in their wells, which costs millions to treat.
And the most visible consequence of excessive pumping from the aquifer may be Florida's epidemic of sink holes, including a massive one near Tampa recently that claimed a man's life. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.
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