BARTOW — The woods are now quiet around Kissengen Spring. Children no longer splash away hot afternoons in the cool, clear water that once flowed up profusely from the vent at its bottom. No remnant can be found of the recreation hall that once stood on its banks. Nearby, only a steel pavilion where a phosphate mining company’s employees once picnicked can be seen rusting away.
All that remains of the spring itself is a muddy spot, buzzing with flies and filled with rotting fish, in the middle of a weed-strewn, dusty crater.
“It’s such a shame to see such a major river sucked dry in places,” said Sandy Colbert, a geologist from St. Petersburg. “I’ve canoed a lot of rivers in Florida, and the upper Peace River, I think, is the most beautiful river in the state.”
Colbert was one of several dozen members of the Southeastern Geological Society, and several other area residents, who marveled at the remains of Kissengen Spring and several other similar geological features during a tour of the upper Peace River May 3.
With an historical output of 20 million gallons per day, Kissengen Spring would have been classified as a magnitude-two spring today, a category worthy of state protection.
But, it ceased continuous flow in 1950 as the result of excessive groundwater pumping, according to studies by the Florida Geological Survey. The water was withdra wn primarily for phosphate mining, which was booming in the area at the time.
The mining operations consumed 75 million gallons of water per day — more than twice the demand of all other users in Polk County combined — and had installed wells as large as 24 inches in diameter near the spring, according to a 1951 FGS and other reports.
The massive withdrawals lowered the head pressure of the Floridan aquifer from as much 20 feet above land’s surface in the 1930s to some 45 feet below by the 1970s, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
That caused artesian springs located throughout a three-mile stretch of the river in that area, located southeast of Bartow, to turn into a maze of crevices and sinkholes.
Instead of contributing water to the river, those features have been draining millions of gallons per d ay into the aquifer ever since — with development near Lakeland and farming to the south and east continuing to drain the water needed for recovery.
An aquifer is a waterbearing underground zone. In Florida, they typically consist of limestone, sand, shell and clay.
In this region, the limestone also has “karst” features, which means water has dissolved holes that allow it to store vast quantities of water.
“Kissengen Spring was a really big deal, for my parents, my aunts and uncles,” said John Laurent, a fourth-generation Polk resident who was 4 years old when the spring went dry. “I heard about it all my life.”
Like other major springs provided to other small-town Florida communities, Kissengen had provided a coveted natural recreational asset, he said.
“That’s what people did as kids in the summer,” he said.
The group also viewed a large sinkhole called Gator that opened up in the early 1980s next to a cow pasture on a reclaimed mine. The water level was some 20 feet below land’s surface, but scientists could tell by an erosion path that the hole had recently drained water from the Peace River during a period of heavy rain in April.
That illustrates the fact that the drawdown of the aquifer has made the level of water on the surface vulnerable to sudden declines, a condition scientists call “flashy,” said Pattie Metz, a USGS researcher on the tour.
The group walked through an area of the forested floodplain so riddled with small crevices it has been dubbed “the Catacombs” by the scientists. The crevices drain the river both during its lowest flow periods and when it spreads out into the forested flood plain during heavy rains.
They also watched the last of the river’s flow trickle down a big crevice dubbed “Dover,” located at the dead end of a short stem off the Peace River’s main channel.
Dying fish swirled in a small pool of black water as the last of the river’s water in that section descended underground.
There are numerous examples around the globe of spectacular aquatic resources that have vanished as a result of mankind’s impacts.
But, the upper Peace River serves as “the poster child for this kind of impact in Florida,” said Tom Jackson, a professional geologist based in Bartow.
As vice president of the geological society, Jackson had organized the tour.
Jackson and a colleague, a rea environmental regulator Charles Cook, have developed a personal interest in Kissengen Spring. In their spare time, they’ve been examining old reports on its history and its demise.
They feel more study should be done before concluding the spring can’t be restored.
Its fate will serve as a “harbinger” for other natural aquatic resources, Jackson and Cook warn, in a paper they co-authored for the tour.
“It appears the broader issue here is the recovery and sustainability of the regional health of our water resources on which we are dependent,” said Jackson.
How it came to be
Tom Scott, Florida state geologist, read the geological history of the region in the exposed walls of Gator.
The walls show how t ime laid down different layers as if making an underground cake of soil and rock.
The frosting, the top 10 feet, consists of rootbound soil covered with grass and trees.
Below that, a yellowish, pock-marked limestone layer is visible. That’s the “Arcadia formation,” which is the weathered top of the Hawthorne Aquifer, he said.
Below that is the gray rock of the Floridan Aquifer.
Metz, who oversaw the boring of a half-dozen monitoring wells into the aquifer in the area, said the drillers encountered a “large void” between 40 and 55 feet below the surface at every location they drilled.
The water that had filled the aquifer had originated as rain that fell perhaps decades earlier within Kissengen’s “springshed.” That area is located uphill from the spring in the Lake Wales Ridge and the Winterhaven chain of lakes, said Ron Basso, a Southwest Florida Water Management District project manager.
Basso said the district has no particular policy to preserve Kissengen’s springshed or recover the aquifer under the upper Peace River.
However, he said there is not much human activity affecting the recharge of the aquifer to worry about.
“The amount of recharge that historically occurred is pretty much still occurring,” he said.
The district has drafted a $1.2 billion program for the Peace River, though. The Legislature funded the first $15 million of the 25-year plan this year.
The plan calls for a series of projects to both restore a minimum flow to the upper Peace and harvest water during highflow p eriods to meet growing public demands.
The district has already begun working to raise the level of Lake Hancock, in the Peace River’s headwaters. The goal is to discharge the extra water, after first filtering it through a wetland, during dry seasons to keep the upper Peace from going dry in the future.
The district is also planning to construct berms in the riverbed to divert water around the sink holes, Basso said.
“The message we’re seeing is a picture of what the over-use of water can do to your river,” countered Cliff Harrison, a professional geologist from Oldsmar. “You need to ask yourself, at what point will you cross the tipping point?”
However, Oldsmar supports the water district’s plan to build berms in the riverbed.
“Making recovery efforts is the best way to evaluate recovery efforts,” he pointed out.
One of the ironies of region’s geology is that the receding ocean that created Kissengen Spring also put the reserve of phosphate in the Peace River Valley, noted Sam Upchurch, retired chair of Florida State University’s geology department.
The ocean caused a layer of nutrient-rich water at the bottom of the estuary to wash up onto the land in a process called “upwelling,” he explained.
But, Upchurch is skeptical of the water district’s recovery plan because it calls for building berms instead of restoring the aquifer.
“They’re compartmentalizing,” Upchurch said of the district’s logic. “You can’t fill up a sieve, period. And this river is a sieve.”
You can e-mail Greg Martin at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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