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Saturday, June 08, 2013

Divers explore the cave system at White Sulphur Springs
White Springs dive will provide benefits for SRWMD’s MFLs program


LIVE OAK, FL, September 21, 2012 – It’s not often cave divers are presented the opportunity to explore the cave system at White Sulphur Springs, but two divers were able to enter the system recently to help collect scientific data that will support the Suwannee River Water Management District’s (District) minimum flows and levels (MFLs) program.
 
Historically a second magnitude spring, White Springs has not flowed consistently for more than 20 years. When groundwater levels are low and the river rises, tannic river water flows into the spring and aquifer. The lack of visibility and direction of water flow produces unsafe conditions for cave diving.
 
More than 25 inches of rain from Tropical Storm Debby in late June caused groundwater levels to replenish the spring’s flow. On July 22, after several weeks of the river flowing back into the spring, the flow reversed and a mixture of groundwater and river water began to flow out of the spring. The temperature dropped 10 degrees, and the spring flowed out for nearly three weeks.
 
“The spring has not flowed reliably for some time and the only time we see it flow is after a big flood,” said Megan Wetherington, District senior professional engineer. “It has been several years since conditions were safe enough to send divers into the springs for an exploratory dive.”
 
On August 7, two divers from Karst Environmental Services (KES) descended about 140 feet deep and 400 feet back into the cave system. Their mission was to assess the condition of the cave as a first step toward understanding the source aquifer(s) of the spring.
 
For Pete Butt, owner of KES, the dive was an exciting opportunity.
 
“We waited so long for conditions to be just right to do this dive,” Butt said, explaining this was his first time entering the cave system at White Springs.
 
Though visibility was limited to about 6-10 feet, there were no obstructions in the cave and the divers were able to travel side by side.
 
Butt said that though the crew could not find groundwater sources tributary to the main tunnel, they did discover that the cave runs in a southern direction that could take it under the Suwannee River, which concurs with a 1989 survey of the cave system.
 
John Good, District chief professional engineer, said the exploratory dive will help the District better understand how the system works.
 
“Knowing which aquifer the water is coming from will help the District understand why the spring isn’t flowing consistently,” Good said. “We’re also looking at how much the spring could have contributed to the river when it did flow regularly.”
 
The District has contracted with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to conduct water quality analysis to study the spring. KES is assisting the USGS with collecting water samples. This information will help the District in its establishment of MFLs for the Upper Suwannee River, White Sulphur Springs, and Suwannee Springs.
 
“The establishment of MFLs is an important step to ensure our water supplies are sustained and our natural systems are protected,” said Jon Dinges, District director of Water Supply and Resource Management. “The District will continue to make MFLs a priority.”
 
Rick Owen, environmental specialist with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), said the dive will also provide helpful information to DEP.
 
The DEP developed the concept for the project a few years ago, but after safe diving conditions never materialized the District took over the project.
 
“We enjoyed working with DEP and Stephen Foster park staff who helped us coordinate the dive,” said Wetherington.
 
The District is in the process of setting MFLs for rivers, lakes, springs, and streams within its region. An MFLs completion schedule is available at http://www.srwmd.state.fl.us/DocumentCenter/Home/View/87.
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