CRYSTAL RIVER, Fla. — Below the surface of the crystal clear blue waters of our natural springs is a hidden cancer that plagues the ecosystem. Layers and layers of muck and decayed material, caused by years of algae blooms and pollution, blanket the bottom.
If you swim too close to the dirt layer, it stirs up like a black cloud of smoke. The loose material makes it impossible for underwater seagrass to take root, grow, and thrive. And the muck blocks out any chance for photosynthesis.
Biologist Ryan Brushwood is the project manager for the Kings Bay and Homosassa Springs projects for Sea and Shoreline. Brushwood explained what is happening from a scientific perspective.
"This is more like matte forming algae that will float to the surface, it pulls sunlight and nitrogen right from the atmosphere, and it sinks back down," Brushwood said. "And, when it sinks down, it chokes out what's below it. And ultimately, you know, outcompetes it. So, through decades of that process happening with that algae floating up, sinking down, floating up, sinking down, it dies off and comes back, and it starts to decay as a muck. And that muck holds a lot of internal nutrients and creates anoxic conditions."
Brushwood took ABC Action News reporter Michael Paluska and investigative reporter Kylie McGivern out on the water in Homosassa Springs and Crystal River to show us more than a decade of hard work, trial and error, failure, and successes that are now paying off.
"And, it's neat to compare the two; in Crystal River after our first year, you know, we had grass growing, but it was small," Brushwood said. "It was sparse. It was heavily grazed on, and it was hard to imagine that it would wind up where it is now."
"It sounds like the same pride and excitement that a farmer has when their crops are growing," McGivern said.
"We half-jokingly call ourselves underwater farmers because essentially, that's what we're doing," Brushwood said. "No farmer would go out and throw seeds and expect to come back in a year and have a full crop ready to harvest. It takes a lot of maintenance and takes a lot of effort. So it's like those little moments, those little moments when you see a little tiny flower. And we were taking pictures. And we were all excited. This is awesome. And then now it's like a forest of flowers."
The process is time-consuming and methodical.
First, divers spend hours in the water sucking out all the muck. Then, miles of pipes installed in the springs pump it to de-watering sites where it is cleaned; the muck is captured in giant bags. The cleaned water then flows back into the spring.
Then teams come back behind the divers and start planting seagrass. They plant using snorkel gear, weight belts, and a regulator pumping air into their lungs.
Paluska jumped into Homosassa Springs to see the process up close. Planters have to lift giant metal cages and plant the seagrass inside. They realized if they didn't use the cages, hungry manatees would devour their hard work before the seagrass took off. The current is swift, the water is cold, and at times, visibility is low. But, planters spend hours underwater making sure their crop will survive to support an ecosystem in peril.
"You see the water get cleaner, get clearer, you see the fish community come back," Brushwood said. "And, everything from the bugs, the snails, the fish, the native species started to come back in. So you started seeing more bass, more bluegill, things like that."
Hundreds of manatees came back too. While at the same time, a record amount of manatees are dying on Florida's East coast, they're thriving in Crystal River.
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"So the greatest compliment that we get is when people from here and grew up here come up to us and say, you know, 'I've never seen a river look this clean,'" Brushwood said. '"I've never seen this much grass. I've never seen this many manatees, this many big manatees.'"
The model is working. After planting hundreds of acres in Crystal River, the grass started to expand on its own, giving the project an additional 50 acres of seagrass that took off on its own.
"It's been shown to be resilient with storm events to at this point," Brushwood said. "The seagrass is the greatest filter you can have. It's a natural filter; it's going to sequester a lot of nutrients, it's going to trap suspended particles, keep them buried in the sediment, whereas an algae bloom is going to pop up, use all the nutrients, all the pollutants die-off become muck and restart that never-ending cycle."
Brushwood said sometimes people don't want to take action until it's too late. In the case of the springs, you can't see the muck building up year over year unless you are a biologist studying the impacts.
"It's one of those things that may have, in the past, kind of gone unnoticed until there were visible results," Brushwood said. "Until you have a nasty algae bloom that makes your water, you know, unappetizing, you don't want to swim in it, you don't want to boat in it, it stinks. You know, you see fish kills and things like that. When in reality, you know, that process probably started many years back."
"Do you think seeing some of the impacts is what people needed to realize this is real?" McGivern asked.
"It's hard to diagnose like a system's health until you start to see those negative impacts," Brushwood said. "The biggest part and the message to push is that it's it is reversible with you know, it takes time, takes effort, takes money, it takes community involvement, education, but it can be done, and it's really neat to kind of be on the other side of that and see some of these systems starting to come back."
Sea and Shoreline's work in Crystal River and Homosassa Springs can be applied to polluted waterways across the state.
"The goal is to use this project as the model for these other spring systems throughout the state like Homosassa, Withlacoochee, you know, all these rivers that are seeing similar issues where algae have come in, algae is dominating, and it's just creating, you know, a gross system. That's not the way it should be," Brushwood said. "The Indian River Lagoon is a big system. And it needs a lot of work. But part of that work is definitely to plant seagrass, do some pilot projects, and try to get it going. They have a terrible algae problem, a muck problem. A lot of similar things that we saw here, red tide, brown tide, all of it."
The Crystal River project is so successful crews are collecting enough seagrass that floats to the surface to feed manatees in other parts of the state.
Despite the years of work crews have already put in. There is still more that needs to be done. Another 40 acres remain on the Southern side of Kings Bay.
"So the goal for the project is to be finished with the dredging and the planting by July 2023," Brushwood said. "But, I would say, it's time to act time to start doing projects, right, trying to even take a chance on some projects and technology, that, you know, my work; may not. But, it's time to really put shovel to the sand and start doing things."