Algae blooms sliming Wekiwa Springs, River



WEKIWA SPRINGS, Fla. - It's one of the most popular swimming holes in Central Florida, but some say Wekiwa Springs and the Wekiva River are being ruined -- and they blame state officials.

Channel 9 reporter Berndt Petersen traveled down the river and found a growing problem along the waterway.

While many consider Wekiwa Springs to be one of Central Florida's few remaining environmental treasures, some more familiar with the area say the springs are not what they used to be.

"Picture looking out over the springs right now -- and looking at completely blue water with a white sandy bottom. That's what it was," said Chuck O'Neal with the Natural Resources Committee.

But now, Petersen pointed out, the water has a green-tinged color brought on by an increase in algae blooms.

He found the algae everywhere. It's thick and slimy. And locals familiar with the springs say the conditions there have grown progressively worse.

It's especially thick just downstream in the Wekiva River, which is being choked by a wide variety of water weeds.

"Don't you see the greenish tinge to it now?" asked one swimmer in the water who Petersen approached.

"So this has changed?" Petersen responded.

"Of course it has!" she said.

Critics claim a source of the problem is what's called Conserv Two, Orlando's and Orange County's treated-wastewater system.

Environmentalists call it "fertilizer water" that seeps into the aquifer and ultimately out the springs. It turns everything green.

"Is it as healthy as it was then?" Petersen asked Hank Largin with St. Johns River Water Management District.

"No," said Largin. "Are we concerned about its health? Yes."

Largin says the district has invested a fortune to turn back the clock.

"We've spent more than $30 million to protect almost 10,000 acres in the spring shed there," Largin said.

But environmentalists like Chuck O'Neal actually blame St. Johns Water Management District and the state Department of Environmental Protection for ignoring conditions they say are getting worse. Some also point the finger at Florida Gov. Rick Scott for drastically cutting the water management districts' budget.

"You know, to people who have been here for decades, it's a tragedy," O'Neal said. "Every year that goes by -- every millions of gallons of 'fertilizer water' that gets dumped into the Wekiva Basin and comes out in these springs -- just makes it worse and worse."

State water managers told Petersen that a primary cause of the problem is development. The Wekiva is surrounded by homes with fertilized yards. That runoff also gets into the river, causing the algae to grow.