The Suwannee River

The Suwannee River

The Suwannee River is a major Florida River, meandering some 235 miles from the Okefenokee swamp in Georgia to the Gulf of Mexico. 206 of these miles are in Florida.
There are three principal tributaries.

The Alapaha and Withlacoochee Rivers drain large areas of southern Georgia and join the Suwannee northwest of Live Oak.

The Santa Fe River drains an area of north Florida stretching from Santa Fe Lake east of Gainesville to its junction with the Suwannee below Branford.

Santa fe River Map/Image:Wikipedia

Santa fe River Map/Image:Wikipedia

The Suwannee River begins at the outflow of the Okefenokee Swamp.  It starts out as a fairly small stream full of coffee-colored water. It is one of many dark-brown streams of the United States. The Suwannee River is unique because it contains this highly colored water along its entire length from its source in the Okefenokee Swamp to its estuary in the Gulf of Mexico.  The water is dark due to the presence of dissolved organic carbon in the form of humic substances, tannins and terpenoids rather than suspended sediments versus the sediments that color the waters of more northerly rivers.

Falling Creek - Photo: J. Nix

Falling Creek - Photo: J. Nix

The Suwannee River also has western Georgia head water that is quite different from the rural Okefenokee.

The western upper Suwannee River Basin drains to the Alapaha, Withlacoochee, and Little Rivers.  The western tributaries have less swampland, much more agriculture, and more small cities.

The entire length of the Suwannee River is blessed with an abundance of crystal clear springs. Transitions in geology create four sections or reaches in the Suwannee that are used for Florida’s Water.

USGS Spring Map

USGS Spring Map

The Suwannee River is one of only a few unaltered, natural river systems in the United States.  However, its water quality is rapidly declining.  As we learn more about the complex systems in the Suwannee Basin, it is evident that groundwater pollution is contributing significantly to nitrate contamination in the river. To reduce dangerous nutrients and keep our rivers healthy, we must educate land owners about Florida Friendly Living.  In addition, we must appeal to our decision makers in Tallahassee to regulate ground water pollution to ensure that springs are treated as ground water tributaries of our rivers.

Troy Springs State Park Algae formations/Image: PMC1stpic

Troy Springs State Park Algae formations/Image: PMC1stpic

Water Quantity in the Suwannee Basin and the abundance of water in the Suwannee Basin has created envy in other parts of the state.  But, in the Basin itself, more people, more wells, larger wells, and ever more intensive agriculture have resulted in constantly increasing withdrawals. There is a finite amount of water readily available, and lowered water tables affect wells and natural systems alike. A major cause for concern is the envious look northward from the water- exhausted Tampa Bay area. In recent years, the cities there have reached out into adjoining counties to locate well fields, with some devastating effects on lakes, wells, and cypress wetlands. Since the 1960’s the Suwannee River has been on the list of possible new sources.

State of the Water-Florida Aquifer USGS

State of the Water-Florida Aquifer USGS

We, of Save Our Suwannee, believe that the estuary requires fresh water and that artificially reduced flows will affect the natural systems and water wells from the top of the Suwannee to the Gulf.

The Downward Flow

The Suwannee averages about four miles per hour as it descends from an elevation of about 120 feet above sea level at the Okefenokee. Transitions in geology create an Upper,
Middle, and Lower Suwannee.

The Upper has steep banks, swift flow, and shoals. “Big Shoals,” above the town of White Springs, is a rare Florida “whitewater”. Tannic acid, derived from flatwoods and swamp vegetation, darkens the Upper Suwannee water and makes it acidic.

Big Shoals-Suwannee River Photo: Fl. State Parks

Big Shoals-Suwannee River Photo: Fl. State Parks

The Middle Suwannee, beginning near Luraville, is wider and flows more slowly. The
banks are sandy, less steep, and reveal fewer limestone ledges and outcroppings. Many
springs enter the river in this section, diluting the dark tea color of the water, reducing the acidity, and making a more favorable fish habitat.

 

Near Fanning Springs the Lower river widens, the banks diminish, and the current slows. A wide floodplain and a multitude of creeks and sloughs provide excellent fish habitat. As it nears the Gulf of Mexico, the river fans out into salt marshes and, through two main passes, into the Gulf. East Pass is deep and biologically rich; West Pass is important habitat for manatees and young Gulf Sturgeon and branches into McGriff Pass, a dredged waterway created to handle the major boat traffic in and out of the Suwannee.

The estuary (where the fresh water of the river blends with the salt water of the Gulf) is shallow and is extremely important habitat for young and adult finfish and shellfish. The saltiness of the Gulf seldom works its way upriver more than 3-4 miles; but the Gulf tides do influence daily river levels up to Fanning Springs, and, at rare periods of low flow, as high as Rock Bluff.

USGS Map Showing the Suwannee Estuary

USGS Map Showing the Suwannee Estuary

  Hydrogeology of the basin.

Aside from the river valleys themselves, there is one pronounced geological feature of the Suwannee Basin: the Cody Scarp. This escarpment marks a break between the “Northern Highlands” and the “Gulf Coastal Lowlands”.   It snakes down from the Georgia border east of the Withlacoochee, winds along a line curving below Lake City; an then it loops up to join the southern end of the Trail Ridge in Bradford County.

Cody Scarp Cutaway/Image:Wikipedia

Cody Scarp Cutaway/Image:Wikipedia

The Highlands have an elevation of 100 to 230  feet above mean sea level. Thick clay formations (the Hawthorn formation) cover and “confine” the limestone housing the deep Floridan aquifer. This clay provides a relatively impermeable layer so that lakes; ponds; streams; and a secondary, near-surface aquifer are found in the Highlands. The clay vanishes along the edge of the scarp; land surface drops from 20 to 85 feet in less than a mile; and many rivers and streams  disappear into the porous limestone, joining the ground water, perhaps to emerge at a spring downstream.

The Alapaha and Santa Fe Rivers are distinctive in that they reappear after flowing underground in limestone caverns and conduits for several miles. The Suwannee River crosses the scarp without disappearing because, as the steep banks of the upper river show, it has already cut through the Hawthorn clay to run along the limestone aquifer. The Gulf Coastal Lowlands range in elevation from about 100 feet to sea level. Except for places such as Waccasassa Flats where a shallow hard pan holds water, the creeks and ponds of the Lowlands are at the water table of the Floridan aquifer. The Suwannee River, which has cut through to sea level by the time it reaches the confluence with the Santa Fe River, runs along the exposed aquifer and receives water from springs and groundwater. Thus, surface water, groundwater, springs, and the river are all tightly interrelated in the Middle and Lower Suwannee regions.

Springs

There are 62 springs in the river floodplain. They contribute, on average, 1/4 of the flow of the Suwannee River.  Spring water is clear water, with constant temperature and low acidity, which has been pushed from the aquifer through cracks, crevices, conduits and caves by the pressure of new water entering. At times of high river flow, the dark river water may push back into a spring and into connecting underground caves. A falling river will, in turn, allow the spring pressure to force out the dark water and turn the spring clear once more.

Suwannee River Springs USGS Map

Some of the springs in the Upper river contain sulfur and enjoyed a period of fame as
health resorts. The Spring House at White Springs and the wall at Suwannee Springs are
historic remains of those times.

Suwannee Spring Stone Walls- Photo: J. Nix

Suwannee Spring Stone Walls- Photo: J. Nix

High volume springs, reliably producing at least 65 million gallons per day, are classified as
First Magnitude. The nine in the Suwannee region are: Ichetucknee , Holton, Alapaha Rise,
Falmouth, Troy, Fanning, Manatee, Blue on the Withlachoochee, and the Wacissa Group in Jefferson County.

 

Flooding

People who choose to live in the flood plain have to be optimists; the reality is that rivers do flood.

Survivors love to tell how it really was:
The snakes were driven from their burrows, fire ants floated in huge balls that no person should have the misfortune of coming into contact with, docks and houses were destroyed, roads were underwater — and it lasted so long!

Floods are essential to a functioning river system.  To change a river through artificial flood
control can do untold damage to the natural environment, to commercial fishing, to recreation, and to the water supply feeding agricultural, industrial, and domestic consumption.

The Suwannee River Water Management District has adopted a wise strategy to deal with flooding.  Rather than encourage development where it  should not be by constructing dams, levees, canals, and other structures for flood control, the District maintains the natural flood control system of low floodplains and wetlands by severely limiting the amount of building in the floodplain and by acquiring floodplain acreage for preservation. In this way, high water absorption is maximized, and property destruction is minimized.

USGS photo -Suwannee River Flood

USGS photo -Suwannee River Flood

Preservation of low areas maintains flood tolerant vegetation which help convert water to atmospheric vapor as well as provide important habitat.  Significant Suwannee River floods have occurred in 1948, 1973, 1984, and 1986. Flood waters have reached 17 feet above normal at Fanning Springs; at White Springs 40 feet above normal has been observed.

Suwannee Springs Flooded out by Hurrican Dora, Early 70's./ Image Fl. Archives

Suwannee Springs Flooded out by Hurrican Dora, Early 70's./ Image Fl. Archives

Markers indicating historical flood levels are placed as reminders at various parks such as Stephen Foster and Hart Springs. Flooding often comes in late winter  vegetation is still relatively dormant, not utilizing the water as it does at the height of the growing season. Heavy rains can also come to the basin during hurricanes, dropping tremendous quantities of water so quickly as to overwhelm the natural containment features.

Water Quality

The Suwannee is one of the few major rivers in America that have suffered little destruction from damming, channeling, redirection, or the introduction of overwhelming
quantities of contaminants.  However, over the years, some deterioration has occurred. In 1960 a dam was built below the Okefenokee to hold water in the swamp for fire protection. Swamp vegetation has been altered as a result and the dam is not performing as designed, so it might soon be removed or redesigned.

From the earliest settlement by European Americans, the watershed has been affected.
Extensive logging and the turpentine industry altered drainage. Phosphate mining above and below White Springs has added pollutants. A package paper plant in Georgia  discharges to the Withlacoochee. The City of White Springs sewage treatment plant effluent flows to the river, but plans are in the works to eliminate that.  A poultry processing plant near Live Oak has fed effluent to the river for years. Large dairy and
poultry farms have contributed nitrates to then groundwater as have intensively fertilized row crops and improved pastures. The nitrates leach into the groundwater and ultimately flow to the springs and river, artificially stimulating plant growth and diminishing oxygen.

Florida groundwater nitrate nitrogen mgl milligrams per liter Samples collected between 2000 and 2004

Florida groundwater nitrate nitrogen mgl milligrams per liter Samples collected between 2000 and 2004

Equally significant, human waste, deposited in cesspits and septic tanks, sends pollutants into the groundwater, and then to the river. The shellfish beds in the estuary have been contaminated -shutting down an important industry in the local economy.

So, although researchers still report overall good water quality in the Suwannee, there are
causes for concern. The concern has led to stringent restrictions on septic tanks in the
floodplain, the construction of a sewage system for the town of Suwannee, sewage system
proposals for the cities of White Springs and Fanning Springs, a public program to install
improved animal waste management facilities at dairies and poultry operations, and testing for precise fertilizer needs for various crops. No one can deny that more people, more industry, more animals, more fertilizer, and more power boating will adversely affect the quality of the Suwannee.
Active measures must be taken to deal with the destructive by-products of continued growth.

Water Quantity

The abundance of water in the Suwannee Basin has created envy in other parts
of the state. But, in the Basin itself, more people, more wells, larger wells, and ever more intensive agriculture result in constantly increasing withdrawals. There is a finite amount of water readily available, and lowered water tables affect wells and natural systems alike.

Crop Watering

Crop Watering

As an example, two of the historically most significant spring, at Suwannee River State Park virtually dry up part of the year.  With continued increases in water consumption, the flow of springs could be permanently reduced.

White Springs no longer flows.

Dry White Springs, Image:John Moran

Dry White Springs, Image:John Moran

This has happened elsewhere in Florida: The flow at Homosassa Springs has diminished an estimated 50%.

Kissengen Springs, near Bartow in Polk County, was a vacation resort noted for its first magnitude mineral spring until it went dry around 1950 when wells were drilled nearby to supply phosphate mining.

Extinct Kissemgen Springs, Polk County. Image: Fl. Geological Society

Extinct Kissemgen Springs, Polk County. Image: Fl. Geological Society

A major cause for concern is the envious look northward from the water-exhausted Tampa Bay area.  In recent years, the cities there have reached out into adjoining counties to locate well fields, with some devastating effects on lakes, wells, and cypress wetlands.  Since the 1960’s the Suwannee River has been on the list of possible new sources.

 

We, of Save Our Suwannee, believe the facts are that the estuary requires that fresh water and that a reduced flow will affect the natural systems and water wells from the top of the Suwannee to the Gulf.

Threats to the Suwannee River

There are several direct threats to the Suwannee River.  Extensive logging has altered natural drainage patterns, phosphate mining above and below White Springs adds pollutants, a paper manufacturing mill on the Withlacoochee in Georgia directly discharges and a large poultry processing plant near Live Oak discharges into the Suwannee River. In addition to the large scale dairies and chicken farms in the basin, all of the towns in the basin either have numerous septic systems or a sewage treatment plant which also add to excess nutrients in the springs and river.

Logging on the Suwannee River/Photo: Fl. Archives

Logging on the Suwannee River/Photo: Fl. Archives

Upper Suwannee River

In Florida, the Upper Suwannee is the divide between the counties on its banks. It flows between Columbia and Hamilton Counties then into Suwannee County. The towns of Jasper and White Springs are located in the Upper Suwannee watershed.

Suwannee Springs , Image J. Nix

Suwannee Springs , Image J. Nix

The southern boundary of the Upper Suwannee is just downstream from the confluence of the Withlacoochee and Suwannee Rivers , Holton Spring, Stevenson Spring, Alapaha Rise Spring, Little Gem Spring, Lime Sink Run Spring, Suwannee Springs, Natural Bridge Springs and White Spring are all located on the banks of the Upper Suwannee.

 

Portions of the upper Suwannee have been known to go dry during long droughts. The upper river is characterized by high limestone banks, swift flow and shoals.

The water is very dark brown and contains very little pollution. Federally protected Gulf Sturgeon, make their way almost 200 miles from the Gulf of Mexico to the Upper Suwannee.  They make the trip each year to spawn in unique areas of the river near White Springs and in the lower portions of the Withlacoochee River.  Sturgeon requires a very exacting habitat of brisk flow and a rocky bottom with gravel in order for their fertilized eggs to be viable.  The Suwannee River has the healthiest, population of sturgeon the Gulf of Mexico.

Sturgeon photo: nwnwpressrelease

Sturgeon photo: nwnwpressrelease

In Florida, the Upper Suwannee is the divide between the counties on its banks. It flows between Columbia and Hamilton Counties then into Suwannee County. The towns of Jasper and White Springs are located in the Upper Suwannee watershed.

The Middle Suwannee River

The middle river has a combination of picturesque rocky banks and flood plains. The middle Suwannee begins at the Highway 90 bridge at Ellaville. As the river passes the springs, clear water dilutes the dark water to the color of strong tea. This reach of the river has 62 mapped springs. Manatees are often spotted in Middle Suwannee springs in the winter months. They need the 72 degree water to survive freezing winter temperatures in North Central Florida. The towns located in the Middle Suwannee River portion of the basin are Ellaville, Live Oak, Dowling Park, Mayo, Branford, Trenton and Wilcox.

Middle Suwannee River, Image: G. Politano

Middle Suwannee River, Image: G. Politano

It flows through parts of Suwannee, Madison, Lafayette, Gilchrist and Dixie Springs of the Middle Suwannee.  Some of the springs in the Middle Suwannee are Troy Spring, Lafayette Blue Spring, Ruth Spring, Bonnet Spring, Peacock Springs, Allen Mill Pond Spring, Pothole Spring, Rock Sink Spring, Branford Spring, Charles Spring, Royal Spring, Guaranto Spring, Bell Spring, Hart Spring and Little River Spring.

Branford Spring-Very Low-2012 photo: J. Nix

Branford Spring-Very Low-2012 photo: J. Nix

Thanks to serious ground water pollution issues in the middle Suwannee basin, some of the springs pump very polluted water into the river. The pollution is mainly in the form of nitrates. Nitrates are produced by every living thing. Farming row crops, dairies and large chicken farms can create excess nutrient problems. As more people move in to the area, urban landscapes, septic tanks and municipal waste water treatment are also contributing to the nitrate problem. The nutrient level rises considerably in the middle Suwannee. High nutrient ground water from the middle Suwannee makes its way to the river through groundwater tributaries also known as springs.

The Lower Suwannee River

The Lower Suwannee River reach begins at the Wilcox Bridge on US 19/98 in Fanning Springs. It runs between Dixie and Levy Counties until it empties into the Gulf of Mexico a few miles north of Cedar Key. Towns in the Lower Suwannee are Old Town, Fanning Spring, Chiefland, Fowler’s Bluff and Suwannee. In the Lower reaches, the river broadens into extensive flood plains. As the river gets closer to the Gulf of Mexico, it gets broad and shallow just before it splits into the main passes in the estuary.

Manatee Springs- photo: Mark Long

Manatee Springs- photo: Mark Long

The lower Suwannee has fewer springs than the upper and middle river. Manatee Springs and Fanning Springs are the only major springs in the lower Suwannee River.  Both Manatee and Fanning have high nutrient levels which contribute to the higher-than-healthy nutrient level in the Lower River. The Suwannee is tidally affected all the way from the Gulf to the Wilcox bridge. Because of this the river flow slows down twice a day at high tide. When there has been little rain, much of the water in the Suwannee River comes from the springs. Because of this the water gets clearer and moves more slowly which causes problems to arise with life in the river. The combination of clear, slow moving, high-nutrient water causes algae to bloom explosively. This can create deadly low oxygen conditions for the fish and invertebrates that live in the river. The forested wetlands and islands in the last 20 miles of the Suwannee are part of the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge with the exception of a few parcels and the town of Suwannee. The refuge comprises 53,000 acres of wetlands and forested uplands on both sides of the river and is one of the few truly wild places remaining in Florida.

The Suwannee Estuary

The Estuary begins near the Gulf of Mexico where the fresh and salt water interface. The Suwannee estuary consists of the end of the lower reach of the river, two major branches (East and West Passes), the Suwannee Sound, and the adjacent coastal waters stretching from Horseshoe Beach to the Cedar Keys. The river braids out into two streams the East and West Passes. These two passes divide the flow from the Basin with about 64 percent discharging through West Pass and 36 percent through East Pass. East Pass is deep and biologically rich; West Pass is important habitat for manatees and young Gulf Sturgeon and branches into McGriff Pass. Flow in the passes is dominated by tidal effects that are influenced by the fresh water discharge.

The approximate upstream boundary of the estuary extends about 10 miles upstream from the river mouth. The estuary is bounded by the Great Suwannee Reef which consists of a ring of oysters. There is a large, successful clam and oyster industry in the Suwannee Sound and its surrounding waters. The estuary is affected strongly by low flows in the river due to the saline intrusion from the Gulf of Mexico. Less fresh water can permanently change the ecosystems in the tidal creeks and islands. It is here that the effects of high nitrate levels become apparent. When the water slows as it mixes with salt water, the slow flow allows plankton and other algae a chance to grow. In some places, the algae can be four feet thick due to excess nutrients in the river water.

 The following is currently being done to address these problems: Stringent restrictions on septic tanks by the SRWMD in the floodplain.

• The construction of a sewage system for the town of Suwannee and White Springs. Sewage system proposals for the City of Fanning Springs.
• Water re-uses programs for Live Oak, Lake City and at the Goldkist Chicken plant.
• A public program to install improved animal waste management facilities at dairies and poultry operations.
• Testing for precise fertilizer needs for various crops at University of Florida.

No one can deny that more people, more industry, more animals, more fertilizer, and more power boating will adversely affect the quality of the Suwannee. Active measures must be taken to deal with the destructive by-products of continued growth.

Related Links:

Withlacoohee River

Santa Fe River 

Cody Scarp

Suwannee River Water Management District

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