Part VI. The Ichetucknee River
Forming the border between the southern portions of Suwannee and Columbia Counties, the Ichetucknee River is perhaps the most popular of several short rivers in Florida that are entirely (or primarily) fed by springs. Other such rivers include the Silver, Wakulla, Rainbow, and Wacissa. Pronounced ish–TUCK–nee, and meaning "place of the beaver," the river name is commonly mangled and often stretched to as many as five syllables. However it is pronounced, the Ichetucknee flows 6-7 miles before emptying into the lower stretch of the Santa Fe River. The Santa Fe, in turn, flows into the Suwannee River after another seven miles. These combined flows form the largest single tributary to the Suwannee River.
The upper third of the Ich (from the head spring to the mid – point of the tube run) is mostly wide and grassy; reeds and stands of wild rice are common. Eel grass predominates in the river, which also has exotic water lettuce. Land around the river in this section varies from marsh to floodplain forest to hardwoods on banks of up to 20 feet. All but one of the named springs are in this portion.
The middle section of the river (from the mid – point of the tube run to the tube/canoe pull – out) is dense and lush lowland forest and floodplain, and much of the river is canopied. One named spring is in this portion. The lower, developed section of the river varies from floodplain forest to hardwood forest, with clearings and houses along the banks.
Perhaps because of the large number of visitors, little wildlife is typically seen in the park. Snorkelers will spot fish, turtles, and crawfish. Herons are fairly common in the upper portions of the river. Alligators and otters have also been seen in the park. Manatees have been spotted in the river on a few occasions, having traveled up both the Suwannee and Santa Fe Rivers to the Ichetucknee.
The upper half of the Ichetucknee is a state park and is protected. Springs range in size from 1st to 3rd magnitude, and all issue clear water. One spring is the site of an old mill, and the remains of the sluice and dam are evident. Another spring provided water for a Spanish mission, and other springs have long been used for water (both human and livestock) and recreation. Water in the springs is 72 – 73 degrees year ‘round. Altogether, the springs discharge an average of over 230 million gallons of water per day. Teeth and bones of mastodon and other extinct megafauna have been found in the river.
Swimming, tubing, and canoeing are the primary usages of the river today, and the state park is a very popular summer recreation site. The river is considered by many to be the best tubing run in Florida. The state park limits the number of tubers to 2,000 per day to reduce the impact of people on the ecosystem. Even so, the water becomes cloudy on busy summer days. No food or drinks may be taken in the water, and a formal shuttle system ferries tubers to and from the river. Private campgrounds, canoe liveries, and tube rental concessions bracket the park's north and south entrances.
Park fees are as follows: $5 per vehicle (up to 8 people per vehicle, and no river use/tubing/canoeing); $3 for single car occupant; $3 for 1 – 2 persons on a motorcycle; $1 for pedestrians, bicyclists, and people with annual entrance permits; $5 per person for tubing. There is a nature trail along part of the spring run just below Ichetucknee Spring at the canoe/tube put – in on the west side. Tubing at the park can be done from three locations: North end (3 hours). Mid – point ( 1.5 hours), and Dampier's Landing (1 hour). The peak tubing season is from Memorial Day to Labor Day. A shuttle service ferries tubers from the parking area to the river and back from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Tubes must be obtained outside the park. Tubing is in the river and not in the springs. The park includes bathrooms and picnic facilities, and a concession stand at the south entrance.
A citizen support organization, the Friends of Ichetucknee Springs, Inc., has been established to support Ichetucnkee Springs and its watershed. For more information, contact Craig Harper at 196 SW Mission Springs Court, Ft. White, FL 32038.
The only way to see many of the springs along the river is by canoe, and even then several spring runs are posted as restricted. When the authors asked what the restriction meant, they were told by park staff that neither canoers or tubers could enter the restricted areas, and no one on the river was allowed to make landfall anywhere except at designated put – in and pull – out points. The authors had unwittingly entered some restricted areas already.
In 1999 – 2000, there was controversy about the state issuance of a permit for a cement plant four miles from the river. Environmentalists expressed strong opposition to the permit, fearing an accident might send pollutants into the aquifer that feeds the Ichetucknee River. The company in question, which had many previous environmental citations, was initially denied a permit by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, directed by David Struhs. Struhs and Florida Governor John (Jeb) Bush had visited the river and expressed a desire to protect it. However, the state subsequently issued a permit for the cement plant, which had also been approved by the local county planning commission. The company pledged to utilize state – of – the – art methods to prevent pollution or damage to the aquifer. In addition, the company deeded to the State some nearby land that it had already mined.
Tourism has become a major source of income to the area and has also resulted in increasing awareness of the importance and fragility of the river and the surround karst topography. Approximately 200,000 people now visit the state park each year. Dale Williams, Planning Manager for Columbia County, remarked (at a February 2000 conference on springs) that the citizens of the area traditionally took the river, springs, and sinkholes for granted. Only partially in humor, he noted that the attitude of many people was that the sinkholes and springs were "God's way of giving us a place to dispose of our garbage." In recent years, local residents have been more active in protecting the springs and sinkholes on their property.
The springs described in the following pages are listed in the order that one would likely encounter them visiting from the land and from a canoe.
Two Articles on Expansion of Cement Plant near the Ichetucknee River
Mine to grow near pristine river. State environmental concerns won't halt mine, but push back cement plant opening.
By JULIE HAUSERMAN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published May 25, 2002
BRANFORD – – Four years after Gov. Jeb Bush canoed the aqua–blue Ichetucknee River and vowed to protect it, his administration is about to permit a nearby limestone mine to grow by eight times despite ongoing environmental violations.
The mine is part of the Suwannee American Cement plant near Ichetucknee State Park, a controversial project that Bush and the Department of Environmental Protection denied in 1999 but approved a year later after the company sued.
The state permit will allow the mine to grow from 100 acres to 800 and operate for 100 years.
Permitting the mine expansion is so politically sensitive that Bush and David Struhs, secretary of the DEP, abruptly slapped new restrictions on the cement plant after the St. Petersburg Times began asking questions.
Bush initially said he was unaware of the mine expansion, although the DEP has been reviewing the permit for two years. After a briefing, he and Struhs decided to permit the mine but bar the cement plant from opening for two years. The plant was supposed to open late this year.
Delaying the plant opening allows the state to "turn the mining story into the object lesson you want it to be," Struhs said Bush told him.
The lesson: The state's hands are tied by weak laws.
In March, DEP inspectors discovered that air quality monitors at the cement plant construction site hadn't worked for months. The monitors were supposed to measure background air quality before the plant opened. The company paid a $16,000 fine.
That violation will delay the plant's operating permit, Struhs said.
The company expressed surprise at the decision and said it had been working with the state on the problem. "We've gotten the problem solved," said Jim McLelland, spokesman for Anderson Columbia, Suwannee American's parent company.
But it's not the only violation, records show:
In August 2001, sinkholes opened under a stormwater pond on the plant
property. The company alerted DEP and hired an engineer, who found a pond
was dug 2 feet deeper than the state permit allowed. More sinkholes could
form, the engineer said, creating a "natural pathway for unfiltered surface
water to mix with groundwater." The company filled the new sinkholes with
concrete, but the engineer noted: "The potential for future collapse . . . will continue to be a factor." The DEP didn't fine the company.
Suwannee American has a small cement plant at the construction site to make material to build the new plant. In February, state inspectors discovered that equipment to catch pollution from the small plant had blown off. The company paid a $4,000 fine.
The company has had other violations in the Panhandle. In February 2001, the DEP fined Anderson Columbia $178,000 for pollution at a construction project on Highway 98 in Santa Rosa County. The company is challenging the fine.
On Wednesday, the company agreed to pay $3,250 for pollution from road work on Interstate 10 in Escambia County.
Four years ago, Struhs and Bush said a company's environmental record should be considered when it applies for a permit. Struhs said road builder Anderson Columbia had such a bad environmental record that it was too risky to allow the cement plant in a water – rich part of Florida.
"Air quality permits will not be issued to demonstrated high – risk applicants in high – risk areas at this DEP," Struhs wrote in a memo.
Struhs later said the DEP was on shaky legal ground because loopholes in state law make it hard for the DEP to deny permits based on a company's record. Facing a lawsuit, the DEP reversed itself and issued the permit.
During secret negotiations, the DEP extracted concessions from the company, including an agreement to sell another mine the company owned in Columbia County to taxpayers for $23 – million to protect the Ichetucknee headwaters.
But that mine is 21/2 times smaller than the one the company now wants to build. The company quietly applied for a permit for the bigger mine in October 2000, four months after it got the cement plant permit.
On Thursday, Struhs told the St. Petersburg Times that he and Bush had reviewed the company's record and decided to delay the cement plant's operating permit. They planned to act next month but accelerated the decision because of the newspaper's inquiries.
"What really drove our decision was not wanting to have our issuance of the mining permit misperceived as overlooking what our obvious and well – known compliance problems are with this company," Struhs said.
On May 1, the state published a legal notice about its intention to let the mine expand in the twice – weekly Suwannee Democrat in Live Oak. The time for public comment expired this week.
A few local environmentalists knew about the bigger mine, but didn't mount much opposition.
For one thing, their fight against the cement plant had been frustrating and bitter. At one point, protesters chained themselves together outside the governor's office. Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth intervened on behalf of the citizens, and lost.
The citizens who filed suit against the cement plant were shunned in Suwannee County, where leaders wanted the 100 jobs and property taxes the plant would provide. After the citizens lost, Suwannee American sued the citizens to make them pay the company's legal bills. A judge refused.
"We tried to find a way to challenge it, but the mining regulations in the state are extremely lax," said Kathy Cantwell, chairwoman of the Suwannee – St. John's chapter of the Sierra Club.
Struhs agrees. "We cannot legally deny the permit to expand the mine," he said. "We've got to change the laws."
This year, Struhs lobbied legislators to make environmental history count when a company applies for a permit, but the bill didn't go anywhere. Bush didn't publicly push for the law, as he did with other legislation.
In Suwannee County, neighbors worry that the giant mine will threaten underground water. Heavy equipment will tear limestone out of the earth near the Ichetucknee, Santa Fe and Suwannee rivers – – all ranked as Outstanding Florida Waters. Ichetucknee Springs State Park draws 200,000 visitors a year. The DEP's mining bureau says the mine "is not perceived" as a threat to the park.
Groundwater beneath the mine flows toward the Santa Fe River, not the Ichetucknee, state scientists say. The Santa Fe connects with the Suwannee and flows underground for part of its length. The state is just starting to study how water moves in the area. The mine will be 2 miles from the Santa Fe at its closest point.
"Will the mine affect the flow of groundwater? Absolutely," Struhs said. "Will it contaminate the groundwater? That depends on how you define contamination."
The permit says if the company punches through limestone, workers will stop, report it and plug the hole.
"When they mine, they are going to break through these caverns," said Svenn Lindskold, president of Save Our Suwannee, an environmental group. "When a dragline that's working below the surface breaks through, who is going to know? Who is going to call? How are they going to plug it?"
On an empty stretch of U.S. 27 near Branford, the cement plant's giant smokestacks are rising above the treeline.
"It's going to be the big landmark in the area," said Clarence McNamee, a nearby resident who challenged the plant.
The plant will burn coal and tires and release about 3,100 tons of pollutants
every year, including 97 pounds of mercury, which
environmentalists say could taint fish in the three nearby rivers. The DEP says the plant will have more pollution controls than any other cement plant in Florida.
Among those who tried to stop the plant, there's bitterness about allowing heavy industry in one of Florida's finest places.
The DEP issued the cement plant permit in secret negotiations with the company, prompting charges of back – room dealing. The company's chief negotiator was Steve MacNamara, a top aide to then – Florida House Speaker John Thrasher. DEP staffers later complained that they thought MacNamara was representing Thrasher, and didn't know he was also on Anderson Columbia's payroll. The state Ethics Commission found probable cause that MacNamara violated ethics laws. He is appealing.
Anderson Columbia has figured in several political scandals. At one point, it had two lawmakers on its payroll, former House Speaker Bolley "Bo" Johnson and former Lake City Rep. Randy Mackey. Both were convicted of tax fraud for failing to report Anderson Columbia payments. Johnson served time in federal prison and Mackey is free while he appeals.
"This was a highly political case," said Patrice Boyes, a Gainesville lawyer who represented plant opponents. "It's kind of hard for citizens to combat that kind of pressure. The speaker of the House's aide was on the company's payroll. It leaves one with a bitter taste of cynicism."
Gainesville Sun Article, May 25, 2002 by Sun Staff Writer, Ron Matus:
A State Agency Maintains that Suwannee American Cement has not Obeyed
the Terms of a 1999 Settlement:
State environmental officials and the company building a cement plant near the Ichetucknee River are clashing again, this time over air pollution monitoring data the company agreed it would have before the plant could open. In an unusually blunt letter to the company Friday, the Department of Environmental Protection said without the data, company plans to operate the controversial plant are "in serious jeopardy."
Officials with Suwannee American Cement fear the latest dispute with DEP may delay the plant's opening as long as two years, with millions of dollars in lost sales. "You're talking about a $100 million investment here," said company spokesman Jim McClellan. At issue is a 1999 settlement agreement between Suwannee American and DEP. The agency agreed to give the plant a permit – – and reverse a decision to deny the permit five months earlier – – in return for a list of concessions, including a company promise to provide more than two years" worth of background air pollution data before the plant starts burning coal to make cement. The data would allow the state to compare pollution levels before and after the plant begins to operate.
Suwannee American says it hasn't been able to provide the data because two sophisticated pollution monitors it bought from an Atlanta company in 2000 turned out to be, in the words of Suwannee's consultant, "lemons." "If we knew we were going to have the continuous problems...we would have gotten some other monitors," said John Koogler with Gainesville – based Koogler & Associates. Koogler said he finally "got the bugs worked out" in March, which would give the company nine months' worth of data before the plant's anticipated opening early next year.
The company promised 27 months worth of data in the settlement. In March, DEP fined Suwannee American $15,000 for not having the monitors up and running as promised. On Friday, it issued an ominous warning. "Because this data collection requirement is intended to provide important baseline air quality information before the plant becomes operational, your ability to bring the plant on line is in serious jeopardy," wrote DEP Deputy Secretary Allan Bedwell to plant manager Robert Sagmeister. "While additional legal notices regarding this issue are forthcoming, do not make plans or have any expectations to test or operate the plant in question until this issue is resolved."
The letter's tone rattled company officials. "This didn't just come out of left field," McClellan said. "This came out of the cheap seats." Koogler called it "a Friday afternoon shocker." McClellan said the company was trying to arrange a meeting with DEP as soon as possible to "find some reasonable solution." "The question that needs to be asked is: Are we holding up this business and these jobs for legitimate scientific reasons," he said, "or is this an arbitrary time period?" DEP Secretary David Struhs could not be reached for comment Friday afternoon. Other DEP officials who were reached said they could not comment or were not familiar with Bedwell's letter.
The flare – up is the latest round in a 3 and one half year battle between DEP and Suwannee American, an affiliate of Lake City road builder Anderson Columbia Inc. In June 1999, DEP stunned environmentalists by denying a permit, saying the company could not provide "reasonable assurance" it would operate the plant safely because of Anderson Columbia's long list of environmental violations. It was the first time DEP had denied a permit on those grounds. But the settlement agreement was announced five months later. Now the plant is under construction off U.S. 27 in Suwannee County, 3 miles west of the Ichetucknee River and 40 miles north of Gainesville. It will burn 100,000 tons of coal and used tires each year and employ 80 people.
The monitors required in the settlement measure particulates, dust – like pollutants that can cause lung problems if inhaled. Koogler said the monitors collected data while they were on the fritz, just not as much as DEP requires. There is still enough information for the agency to know what typical background levels are for particulates in that area, he said. Getting data over a longer period of time will allow DEP to see the ups and downs in pollution levels during different seasons, when winds, rain and other weather conditions come into play.
The latest development surprised both critics and supporters. But Tallahassee activist Linda Young, a leading opponent of the plant, remained skeptical about DEP's intentions. "Don't believe it for a second," she said about the agency's new attitude. If DEP intended to enforce the settlement agreement, it would have jumped on the company just a few months after it was signed, when Anderson Columbia was being cited for environmental violations on a road project in the Panhandle. The dispute in that case remains unresolved and likely to head to court. The Friday letter is "posturing and bluffing and boob – dazzling the public," she said. "When the rubber hits the road, they're going to cave to political pressure."
At least one Suwannee County commissioner who strongly supported the plant gave DEP a thumbs up. "I'd have a problem if DEP allowed a company to open without meeting the agreement," said Commissioner Doug Udell. As for the jobs, "You can't miss what you don't have," he said.