Commentary

Down under FL’s Wakulla County, flirting with disaster with our biggest spring

July 15, 2021 7:00 am

North Florida’s Wakulla Springs. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Ask any of my friends (yes, I do too have some!) and they will tell you I love music. Rock-bottom blues, jumping jazz, smooth soul, bouncy bluegrass — name a genre and I’ll name the songs I enjoy. You might say my theme song is the O’Jays’ “I Love Music.”

Speaking of theme songs, I, as a Florida native, have long contended our state song should be “Flirtin’ with Disaster” by Jacksonville’s own Molly Hatchet.

After all, we have more sinkholes, hurricanes, and alligator attacks than any other state, more lightning strikes than the rest of the Western Hemisphere, and more shark bites than anywhere else in the world. If you live in Florida, you’re not just flirting with disaster, you’re engaged to be married and about to walk down the aisle with it.

If, for some reason, I was forced to make a backup choice, I think it would be the 1981 hit “The Land Down Under” by the group Men At Work. I know the song is supposed to be about Australia, but the chorus asks, “Can’t you hear the thunder? You better run — you better take cover.” That’s a Florida lyric if ever I heard one.

I started humming “The Land Down Under” recently after I heard of a situation in Wakulla County, which is in the Panhandle south of Tallahassee. What’s going on there involves putting things down under, where they can’t be seen or smelled, which is also a very Florida thing to do.

If you have never visited Wakulla County, I strongly recommend you rectify that as soon as possible. It’s home to the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge and a big chunk of the Apalachicola National Forest, and it’s named for Wakulla Springs. Not only is Wakulla Springs part of our award-winning state park system, but it’s been proclaimed “the world’s largest and deepest freshwater springs.”

Film crew during filming of Tarzan movie, 1941, at Wakulla Springs. Credit: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory

The spring has long been a haven for gators and manatees and other critters. Deep inside, divers have found mastodon bones. Hollywood once came calling to film such cinematic masterworks as “Tarzan’s Secret Treasure” (1941) and “Creature from the Black Lagoon” (1954).

Speaking of black lagoons, though, Wakulla Springs has suffered some of the same pollution problems as springs in other parts of the state.

Water there used to be so clear you could ride around in a glass-bottom boat and see fish swimming along as clearly as if the water were air. These days, the water is often too dark for the glass bottom boats to bother leaving the dock, and the nitrogen pollution levels have been discouraging.

Pete Scalco, a retired manager of the state park, told me this week that, “biologically, the spring is in very bad shape. There’s virtually no fish.” Without the fish, the birds and other critters that feed on them have gone elsewhere, as well.

But you know what animal has been flooding in all over Wakulla County? Humans — and as usual, that’s what’s causing this latest problem.

Wakulla County has long been one of Florida’s quieter areas, ranking around 50th in population out of the 67 counties. But the wave of growth that has washed over the rest of the state has been tossing its swells up on Wakulla, as well, pushing the number of residents from 10,000 in 1980 to an estimated 32,000 last year.

“We’ve been growing like crazy,” Wakulla County Commissioner Chuck Hess, a former U.S. Forest Service biologist, told me this week. His fellow commissioners, he said, are very pro-development, but he’s not, explaining, “I’m not interested in development — I’m interested in building a nice community. They’re not the same thing.”

A lot of the new homes the commissioners have approved are being built with septic tanks, which can leak nitrogen pollution, he said. The county has been trying to switch some of the older homes on septic tanks over to the sewer system, but there’s a downside with that.

To keep up with all the new growth will require a new system for all of the poo — er, excuse me, “wastewater” — produced by all those new people. (If it were up to me, I’d require all government development decisions in Florida to refer to new residents as “poop producers,” just to remind everyone of the consequences of uncontrolled growth.)

Currently, the county pipes its treated wastewater to a piece of property where it has a permit to spray a maximum of 60,000 gallons a day across a field to dissipate it. The field is in Sopchoppy, which I contend is one of the greatest place names in Florida (try saying it three times!). It’s also home to the annual Sopchoppy Worm-Gruntin’ Festival. Presumably, the worms are OK with the sprayfield.

The machinery at the Sopchoppy sprayfield has been spraying treated wastewater in quantities well over its limit for the past four or five years, Hess said. That means the county must find another place to put it all. County officials hope to pay for this from a state fund that’s supposed to help improve the water quality of the state’s springs.

But some people think the new wastewater system that Wakulla wants to build may actually make things in the spring worse.

In other words, they think Wakulla County is flirting with disaster in the land down under.

Political divisions and conspiracy theories

More than one person I talked to this week described Wakulla County as a setting that Carl Hiaasen might have invented, full of both natural beauty and backroom chicanery. The Tallahassee Democrat once described it as a place “where political divisions run deep and conspiracy theories abound.”

That line was in a 2014 story about how a sitting county commissioner named Jerry Moore had gotten a check for more than $885,000 from the Florida Department of Transportation for 2.6 acres of land to be used for an intersection. What made people suspicious was that the land had been appraised three years before for a lot less — just $145,000.

Moore is no longer on the county commission, but he’s apparently still making money selling land to the government. When his former colleagues on the county commission went looking for a new place to dispose of their treated sewage, the place they found was a 107-acre parcel owned by — surprise! — the ex-commissioner.

That’s just a coincidence, Commission Chairman Ralph Thomas told me this week.

“Large acreage tracts are becoming harder and harder to find,” Thomas, who works for a mortgage company, said. “We screened at least a dozen other tracts before we settled on this one.”

He contended the $92,000 price was lower than the appraised value, too — but he acknowledged that the land lies in a floodplain, which means it’s not exactly a perfect spot for dumping wastewater.

Gil Damon of Clean Water Wakulla says that 4-1 vote to purchase the land last December is where the controversy began.

He said the public notice of the commission meeting to approve the purchase was so vaguely worded that hardly anyone realized what was happening until it was over. He and others in the community believe the commissioners were trying to pull a fast one.

At the next public meeting on the wastewater situation, some 200 angry people showed up to raise a stink about putting their stinky stuff on this piece of property. (This is the point where I started singing “Can you hear the thunder? You better run. You better take cover.”)

Not only had the commissioners bought land from one of their former colleagues, Damon explained, but the county’s analysis of the property made no mention of the fact that it is full of sinkholes, as is the property next door. That’s particularly bad, Damon said, because the county’s original plan called for a disposal method of basically dumping the wastewater straight into the aquifer.

I checked with an expert on that subject.

“I went down to the site and it was very obviously full of sinkhole lakes,” hydrologist Doug Barr, former executive director of the Northwest Florida Water Management District, told me. The sinkholes show that Moore’s former property sits atop a type of limestone geology known as karst that’s full of holes, allowing water and other liquids to shoot through it with little to stop them.

Put that treated wastewater there, Barr said, and everything in it is likely to show up in nearby residents’ drinking water wells. That includes pharmaceuticals and cancer-causing chemicals, neither of which are removed during the sewage treatment process.

The wastewater contains elevated levels of nitrogen, too, he pointed out. Based on the way the aquifer flows underground, that means it can end up in Wakulla Springs a quarter of the time and in nearby Spring Creek the other three-quarters of the time, he told me. Spring Creek is a longtime fishing community with an underground connection to the spring.

“It’s one of the worst possible places” for disposing of wastewater, Damon said.

See, in Florida, what you don’t know about what’s going on in the land down under can hurt you.

A different kind of ‘holey’ land

I had to chuckle when I read an engineering report on the property, which says the land “does not show overly favorable site conditions.” That’s like saying I don’t show an overly favorable resemblance to Brad Pitt.

Opponents like Damon and Commissioner Hess (the lone no-vote on buying the ex-commissioner’s property) have been trying to persuade the commissioners to send all that wastewater elsewhere. Preferably someplace that’s not as full of holes as a block of cheese in a Zurich shop window.

One possibility: the golf course at the Wildwood Golf & R..V Resort facility in Crawfordville — the only golf course in Wakulla County. Of course, a golf course has holes too, but they don’t go all the way down to the aquifer.

The owner, according to Hess, would be happy to get all that wastewater sprayed on the course, fertilizing the grass without spraying actual fertilizer on it. This would also save on water use to keep the greens, well, green. The grass would take in all the nitrogen, providing a natural filter for the pollution before it ever reached any springs or wells.

This is where county officials seem to be teeing up a possible happy ending to this tale.

Thomas, the commission chairman, told me that if their plan to put the treated wastewater on land in a flood-prone area that’s full of sinkholes turns out to be “bad for the environment, then we will abandon it.”

Thus, he said, the commissioners have told the county administrator to negotiate a purchase price with the golf course owner. They don’t want to spray wastewater on property the county doesn’t own, he explained.

Of course, he added, “I don’t want the county to get into the golf course business,” so they will consider leasing it back to the owner to continue operations there.

Although Hess and Thomas don’t agree on much else, they both say they think the golf course could be able to handle all of the wastewater spraying now going on and then some. That would mean the county would no longer need to put a drop of wastewater on the land I have come to think of as “Sinkhole Central.”

But County Administrator David Edwards — who has had, shall we say, an intriguing tenure in that position — says no, they will still need the ex-commissioner’s holey land too. The golf course, he contended, “is just a supplement to that.”

Edwards hopes to wrap up the contract negotiations by next week, so we’ll soon find out if the Wakulla commissioners can avoid the disaster facing their land’s “down under” in the aquifer. I am hoping they will make the right call to save the spring and the creek and the neighbors’ drinking wells.

As they say in Sopchoppy, “Let’s see if the worm turns.” Hey, I bet that would make a great song!

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Craig Pittman
Craig Pittman

Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of five books, including the New York Times bestseller Oh, Florida! How America's Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country, which won a gold medal from the Florida Book Awards. His latest, published in 2020, is Cat Tale: The Wild, Weird Battle to Save the Florida Panther. The Florida Heritage Book Festival recently named him a Florida Literary Legend. Craig is co-host of the "Welcome to Florida" podcast. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.

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