Timucuan Indians settled around Silver Springs in the early 1500s. They were soon invaded by the Spaniards and eventually succeeded by Seminole Indians. The Seminoles, led by Chief Osceola, eventually retreated to southern swamps when pressed by the US Government in 1835. By the 1850’s, barges carried cotton, lumber and nonperishables up the river to the growing community of Ocala. In 1860, the first steam boats made their way upstream, and from that point on, people flocked to visit the natural beauty of Silver Springs.
Today, land adjacent to the headspring is part of the Silver Springs theme park which is owned by the state, but leased to a private operator. The park draws crowds who come to watch a variety of wildlife shows, enjoy the amusement rides, and explore the springs on the glass bottom boat rides. Silver Springs Park is contiguous with the Silver River State Park where access with boats, canoes and kayaks is possible.
In the past several decades, changes have been observed and measured in the Silver Springs hydrological system. These changes in water flow, water chemistry, and ecology of the spring system were well-documented in “Fifty-Year Retrospective Study of the Ecology of Silver Springs, Florida”, by the St. Johns River Water Management District.
The dominant change in the water chemistry has been an increase in nitrates from an average background level of less than 0.05 milligrams per liter (mg/l) to an average above 1 mg/l which represents about a 20- fold increase. There is also concern about a possible decrease in water clarity, compared to past observations. The main sources of nitrate in the Silver Springs Group can be broken down into inorganic and organic sources. Based on the land use in the springshed, inorganic nitrates could come from fertilizer applied to pastures, golf courses, lawns, and crops; organic nitrates come from wastewater from septic tanks and municipal wastewater application sites and livestock, such as the large number of horse farms in the springshed.
During this same time period, the plant and animal life of Silver Springs and Silver River has changed, also. An increase in algal growth has been documented on the white sandy bottom and the dominant submersed aquatic vegetation (SAV), strap-leaf sagittaria (Sagittaria kurziana) and eelgrass (Vallisneria americana) in the spring run. There has been an overall decline in biomass of several species of fish including catfish, mullet and gizzard shad since the 1950s. Large numbers of an invasive nonnative sail-fin catfish have become established in the spring run.
There is an apparent measured decrease in flow from the Silver Springs complex, although there is some uncertainty about both its extent and cause. The St. Johns River Water Management District is expected to set minimum flows and levels in 2013 to prevent significant harm to the water resources or ecology of the springs.
Other stakeholders within the Silver Springs recharge basin have already taken actions that either directly or indirectly affect the restoration of the springs, ranging in scale from individual water conservation efforts to modified agricultural practices, to county-wide ordinances. The Silver Springs Basin Working Group, established in 1999, was the original forum for stakeholders representing federal, regional, state, and local agencies, local governments, the business community, agriculture, environmental groups and other concerned citizens to take restoration actions. Due to legislative budget cuts, the working group funding was cut, but restoration efforts continue through the State Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) and Basin Management Action Plan (BMAP) process.
One initiative supported by the working group was the acquisition of a 4400-acre property north of Silver Springs, purchased by the state in 2007. The purchase kept this especially vulnerable property in a natural condition and prevented pollutant loading from any potential development of the area. The property is now being managed by the state Division of Forestry as Indian Lake State Forest.
Marion County has used information from groundwater travel time studies and other research to establish spring protection zones for Silver Springs and, Rainbow Spring. It has also adopted two spring protection provisions in its comprehensive plan. One provision addresses septic tank and waste water treatment plants in the spring overlay zones for Silver and Rainbow Springs and the other addresses the use of fertilizer in non-agricultural settings in the county.