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Articles Lodging on the Santa Fe River, Alachua County, Florida

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Algae Bloom on Ichetucknee and Santa Fe Rivers

July 2011

What I see and what I report in the Santa Fe and Ichetucknee Rivers is purely observation and hearsay, not science.

I swim with snorkel and mask maybe a quarter mile up or down my routine watery Ichetucknee path in deep and in shallow waters. Depending on the depth, the current's speed varies. When the flow is slow, the water deep, swimming in the river is like swimming in a lake, so little is the current. Also, after a flood, the water is dark. Especially near the confluence, the Santa Fe's darker, warmer waters invade the Ichetucknee. As the sediment stirred up by flooding settles and the water clears, I can see clearly what's growing and swimming in the rivers.

Since the Spring of 2011, for several months I've been sickened and disillusioned about the verdant tentacles streaming down the two rivers where I swim daily. Angered and uninformed, I considered the invasion of this unusual plant the result of pollution from our septic tanks and fertilizers. But a recent discussion, purely hearsay, may prove that I'm observing a phenomonon that occurs during extreme drought and hot weather.

To digress, for most of the 16 years since I first moved to my historic cabin, snorkeling in that last quarter mile of our baptismal waters resembled being submerged in an well balanced aquarium. How we think it'll always be this way. Daily I'd pull on my flippers and mask to swim against the current up to the big cypress tree, then turn, letting the swift current carry me back. I'd laugh telling others about the menacing bowfin as long as my leg with three ripples to it's snake-like, finned back. Out of the eelgrass he'd plunge, as I approached, jaw open with serpent eyes glaring, threatening me to dare to intrude into his lair. I did back away.

Slim fish with black stripes along their greenish bodies, bass, as well at smaller, rounder ones with a spot on their bellies, red bellies or sunnies, minnows who nipped my legs and arms, guppies, 20 and 30 mullet in schools, and other varieties I can't name greeted me daily as I swam and floated. Eel grass, as well as many other varieties of underwater greenery, provided hiding places for these fish as well as turtles, crayfish, and snails. The Ichetucknee seemed healthy and thriving. I took it all for granted; it's the Ichetucknee, after all: our springs are paradisial, and my Ichetucknee is a watery Eden.

The dark waters of a brief flood in the Spring of 2009 changed the character of the lower Ichetucknee. After months of deep, dark water, when the river cleared, no plant life at all grew. Only a scattered fish swam, as I did, bereft of the pleasure of nature's abundance.

For more than a year after our last high waters, the bottom of the Ichetucknee, near the confluence with the Santa Fe, became plantless. White sands and rocky outcroppings seemed scoured of any vegetation at all. Sometime the spring of 2011, I began to notice tiny sprouts in the sand, and I gained hope. Nature can sustain itself; it can recover. Gradually over the months into summer, most of the familiar vegetation did recover, but the Ichetucknee level dropped lower and lower. The temperatures were high in June, with only one rain a month since March.

Gradually in came this deep yellow green stringy algae, I guess it is. As one who hasn't felt a snake, the snake skin and the algae look like it would feel slimy, but we know by touching the skin of a snake, it is soft, smooth, like a good leather. So too is this stringy algae, if that's what it is. The green slimy looking plants are not slimy at all, but the texture of cotton or ferns. Just as Spanish moss attaches to tree limbs, the algae tentacles attach to rocks and plants, or to whatever is in the spring or river. The green tentacles drape themselves around every obstacle as the stream runs. At first inches long, as the summer progresses, individual plants may be three or four feet long, yards long, covering every other plant, every rock, and even will twist around your leg or arm as you swim or walk along the stream.

Seldom do I see the schools of mullet, a bass, or a sunny as the Ichetucknee and Santa Fe are that low. With the algae multiplying, it seems the entire spring may become a meadow. As I glide in the swift, shallow spring my quarter mile path, I can't help grabbing strands of this invasive green plant. Futile as my attempts to pull it out, set it free to float out to the Gulf, I can't resist the effort.

Upstream, in the Ichetucknee State Park, rangers and volunteers pulled every little seedling, every clump of water lettuce from the Spring. Although a recent study by Jason Evans indicates that water lettuce is a strainer of pollutants, old ideas hold on. Only an observer, not a scientist, I always wonder about what I see and hear. I leave it to the "experts" to draw conclusions beyond my observations over my short duration on the river. Could water lettuce have prevented the algae bloom?

I give up, relaxing into cooling off on these extreme heat days, standing for 30 minutes in the spring allowing the heat to dissipate from my hot body into the cool waters. I feel sad about no fish and stringy green stuff taking over my river.

One day I see surveyors sighting with their instruments at the entrance to our little Point Park. When I stop to inquire, learning that a private company is measuring the minimum flow of the Santa Fe through these measurements on land, I ask about the green stringy stuff in the Ichetucknee. An old timer, not a scientist either, tells me these hot, low-water conditions create the algae bloom. No one can stop it; it's too big. He says he's seen it before in the Santa Fe and Suwannee. He claims that all of a sudden, some day the plant will let go, pop up and float away.

What a refreshing idea; it's like hearing from a Native American who observes these things and passes knowledge from generation to generation. I hope he's right, and I hope I get to see this intruder leave my river. I'll tell you if it happens.

To my great pleasure, now in October, most of the stringy algae has left the river.  Remaining are the familiar eel grass and other underwater vegetation where fish and snails hide.  

Just as my swimming pool in town needs less and less chemicals to prevent yellow and green growth on the sides, so autumn's cooler temperatures have rid our rivers of that green intruder. 

 

 

 

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