Florida’s hidden rivers flow beneath our feet but need to be protected

Local News

TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Florida’s natural springs are a unique resource. Each day, billions of gallons of crystal clear fresh water flow out of 700+ spring heads. The water is a cool, 72 degrees year-round and they attract millions of visitors in the hot Florida summers.

Before this water emerges from the spring head, it had to travel though a maze of underground rivers known as the Floridan aquifer.

The aquifer tunnels travel under the ground anywhere from one foot to hundreds of feet below the surface. The tunnels are comprised of a porous limestone known as karst. This karst is a delicate material and can be easily dissolved by slightly acidic water.

During the water cycle, rain water hits the ground, absorbs into the ground and travels through sand, decaying leaves, animals and bugs. As it passes through this material, it takes on a slightly acidic characteristic. This is how the Floridan aquifer was created.

These hidden underground rivers started as small cracks in the karst. The water began dissolving small areas but as more water traveled through these cracks, they got bigger.

Now, as Karst Underwater Research Director Brett Hemphill describes, “these tunnels are as large as Raymond James Stadium in some spots.”

Karst Underwater Research is a nonprofit organization that explores, surveys and maps these caves. They have explored and mapped miles of caves already and Andy Pitkin, an exploration diver with KUR, believes, “the majority still haven’t been found yet.”

The explored and mapped caves of Weeki Wachee by the Karst Underwater Research group. The tunnels travel south from the main spring. Credit: Karst Underwater Research

The aquifer supplies Florida with 90% of our drinking water. However, Hemphill has seen changes in the quality and the health of some of the springs over the past 30 years since he’s been diving.

There’s an algae that is growing in some springs that shouldn’t be there and is hard to get rid of. It grows in nutrient rich water. The nutrients are coming from the overuse of fertilizers in lawns and farms that the rain water passes through as it is absorbed into the ground. The high concentration of nutrients also degrade the quality of our drinking water.

KUR’s main mission is to educate the public and raise awareness that these spring exist. They hope that if more people know about them and see their beauty, more will be inclined to do their part in protecting this unique natural resource.

The volunteers with the organization are highly enthusiastic about diving in these never-before-seen pristine places. They are trying to create a baseline for scientists to be able to monitor the quality and health of the aquifer moving forward.

The organization works with researchers and scientists to collect data from water thousands of feet back in the cave that might be hundreds of years old.

They also survey and create maps of the maze of tunnels. Some run under forests while some are hidden rivers under large cities with homes and businesses.

Everyone can do their part by using eco-friendly fertilizer and using as little as possible. Only water when necessary and never while it’s raining. To learn more about Karst Underwater Research, visit their website or see their latest explorations on their Facebook page.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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