It was summertime when I last paddled Crystal River’s King’s Bay a few years ago. Its waters were pea-green from phytoplankton, much of the surfaces of its backwaters were covered with weedy vegetation like cattails and papyrus, and the main bay was loaded with partying boaters. It was a disgusting sight to this Florida-born-and-raised wildlife biologist. Conditions were, of course, very different this past Wednesday, Jan. 30, under winter conditions, or at least it was the kind of winter that north Peninsular Floridians know it in this era of global warming. The water was relatively clear on Sunday, but it was still difficult to see the bay’s bottom due to the darkness cast by the macrophytic colonial alga, Lyngbya. Fortunately, private boaters were rare, although manatee tour boats were abundant. Even in winter, tourists flock to see these gentle, giant sirens.
And that’s why we were there. Brack gave a guided tour to a couple of women visiting from North Carolina and invited me along for the ride. We put our kayaks in at Hunter Spring Park in the ugly retiree- and tourist-trap town of Crystal River. While we did do some paddling within the bay, most of our time was spent among the little imitation mansions on along the finger canals. My favorite parts of our track, however, were the Three Sisters Springs’ pools and runs. The main spring run is almost totally devoid of grassbeds and even Lyngbya due to foot traffic from swimmers:
The main run opens into a ‘crossroads’ area where smaller runs from the spring sisters converge:
It is just as scenic up in the east fork of the run:
And in the west fork:
This anhinga (Anhinga anhinga) was spotted drying its wings over the clear waters:
Then it relaxed enough to preen itself even though we were only a few feet away:
These photos make the spring runs look pretty, don’t they? But these lovely pictures are deceiving. When I was a young man, this spring run was habitat for dense aquatic grassbeds. Those grassbeds were loaded with life, from snails and insect larvae to fish and turtles, and wading birds and kingfishers were common. Nowadays, it is almost a biological desert, with only a couple of birds, a half-dozen desultory fish, few aquatic invertebrates, and no grassbeds. What happened to cause this? It can be attributed to three main causes: discharge of polluted septic tank waters into the aquifer, discharge of polluted stormwaters from the town directly into the bay, and trampling of aquatic grassbeds by swimmers.
The abysmal water quality can be directly blamed on the people and government of the Town of Crystal River, and they have left a legacy that will continue to pollute the bay and its springs for at least a hundred years to come. This is because septic tank leachate flows so slowly from the tank to the bay that it could take a hundred years to flush pollutants out of the groundwater even if pollutant input could be stopped overnight (which it can’t). Development around the bay was done before stormwater treatment ponds were required, so polluted stormwaters from yards, streets, and parking areas generally flows directly into the bay without treatment. Furthermore, development around the bay is so dense that back-engineering for stormwater treatment will be enormously expensive even if it is ever required (which may never happen).
But the town council, county commission, and developers of the place are not the only culprits. While the absence of grassbeds can be mostly blamed on polluted waters, tour operators shovel thousands (tens of thousands?) of people every year into the system’s waters so they can ‘swim with manatees,’ and never mind the damages to the ecosystem that those tourists cause by trampling the aquatic vegetation to death. Tour operators also allow tourists to grab, touch, and otherwise hassle manatees, yet the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which are responsible for protecting this federally-imperiled species, turn a blind eye to the behavior-modifying actions of tourists because of the money involved. It’s always about the money involved. Brack said there are over fifty manatee tour boat operators licensed to work this cash cow, and that each operator might have from one to a half-dozen boats. I bet we saw three or four dozen plying manatee habitat when we were there. Oh, where is the Center for Biological Diversity when we need it?
Can you say, "Tragedy of the Commons?"