This page is to give you a more in-depth look at the issues the Rainbow River faces than we could give you in the video. I’ll still try to keep it concise.
The first thing to understand is there are three general categories of things harming the river. Those things are:
Increased nitrates, decreased water flow, and recreation.
The water in the Rainbow River comes from springs which are holes in the ground where water comes up from the aquifer. The water that goes into the river comes from rain that falls in a 700-mile area called the river’s Recharge Basin. That means that nitrates come from this whole area. The water flow of the river is also affected by how much water is drawn from the aquifer across this area.
Another thing to understand is that this information doesn’t just apply to the Rainbow River, this is happening to probably all spring-fed rivers in the state to varying degrees.
Nitrates are found in fertilizers and poop and enter the river through several ways. You can see the different sources in this pie chart. Nitrates seep out from Septic Systems, fertilizers or animal manure.
As a side note, 53% of the sources here are related to agriculture but there is currently no plan for improving this. However, there are voluntary programs that farmers can access to learn how to fertilize more responsibly.
Nitrates act like fertilizers for algae and invasive species in the river. As these algae are fed, they take resources like oxygen and sunlight away from the natural species in the river.
There are other rivers where nitrate levels exceeded tipping points, the algae population exploded, and the river’s natural eco-system was choked out. This is what it means for the Rainbow to fail. Some argue that the only reason this hasn’t happened yet is that the Rainbow naturally has a much stronger flow than most other rivers.
Ichetucknee Springs State Park
If less water is flowing through the river, it hurts the river’s ability to pass nitrates and recover. Recently, this area has been in a drought which has decreased flow and made the nitrate problems more severe. On top of that, the state continues to give out more water permits to farms and commercial development to draw water from the river’s recharge basin which continue to deplete the Rainbow’s ability to recover.
It’s unclear to me how big of a threat recreation poses to the river’s health. There has been damage shown at the entry and exit points along the river, but these are very small areas compared to the rest of the river. There is a concern that the activity stirs up the water and creates additional damage but the evidence around that is unclear to me.
Unlike the reduced flow and nitrate levels, recreation on the river is very loud and contributes to traffic on the river and in town. So it draws lots of attention in the conversation about river health. My concern about recreation is that it distracts our attention and action away from the more significant issues affecting the river.
The Basin Management Action Plan (BMAP) is a program created by Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection and managed by the Water Management District to reduce nitrates in the river over 20 years by transitioning septic tanks in the area to sewer. Every 5 years, the river’s nitrate levels are to be measured as a way of monitoring progress towards reducing nitrates to a safe level.
My take is that this program will not do enough to keep the river from failing. From speaking with some of the engineers working on the ground level of this program, COVID is expected to cause budget cuts and it’s expected that this 20 year plan will turn into a 40 or 50 year plan.
The argument I’ve heard from speaking with those leading this plan is that even if the timeline gets longer for the BMAP program here, the conditions for the river will still incrementally improve over time. This is because some improvements will still be made, and those improvements will translate to at least small improvements in the rivers health.
Of course, the assumption here is that the threats to the river don’t get any worse. It seems inevitable to me that water permits will continue to be given out, and human activity, agriculture, and unplanned development will continue to increase.
The BMAP also only addresses septic tanks which contribute 20% of the problem. It does nothing to address the contributions made by agriculture.
I’m concerned that by the time the BMAP plan is completed there will be nothing left of the river’s ecosystem to save. Which is why people like you and me should take action in whatever ways we can. For more information check out BITL’s river guide. Here are some organizations that need your help.