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    Quietly, hidden springs murmur

    photo
    [Times photos: Jim Damaske]
    George Flick, whose parents owned the land around Indian Springs, stands in the water. Fick still owns the water rights and has been working on plans to bottle the water. The spring is one of several little-known freshwater sources in the county.

    By LISA GREENE

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published July 1, 2001


    Amid the hustle of a densly populated county, sources of freshwater bubble from the ground as they have for eons.

    Sunscreen-slathered tourists zip west every day on Walsingham Road, celebrating their impending arrival at the beach. They are unaware that just two blocks south, tucked away beyond the bend in a crumbling lane, a little piece of Old Florida bubbles up from the ground, just as it did for eons before they arrived.

    But George Fick knows. He still comes to visit the spring that his father discovered -- or rediscovered, as legend says the spring's clear water once drew Indians to this spot.
    photo
    Water from Indian Springs spills over a rock as it runs toward the Intracoastal Waterway.

    The spring, called Indian Springs, is smack in the middle of Florida's most densely populated county, so it's not surrounded by swamp or home to alligators. It sits in the front yard of a house on Pine Drive near Largo.

    But from there, the house that his parents once owned, Fick can't hear the beach traffic. He hears birds singing and children laughing nearby, and the burble of a little stream as it leaves the spring and runs under a stand of banana trees toward the Intracoastal Waterway. He breathes deeply and surveys the pool of water that his parents loved.

    "It is the most peaceful little spot in this part of Pinellas County," he says. "The quiet is the one thing I miss."

    Florida boasts more large springs than any state in the nation, but Pinellas isn't home to a large spring, like those at Crystal River, Silver Springs and Weeki Wachee. Even the U.S. Geological Survey lists only one flowing spring in Pinellas, Wall Springs in Palm Harbor.

    But Fick, who now lives down the street from Indian Springs, knows better.

    So does Michael Garman, who has dived into an offshore spring near Crystal Beach and traveled thousands of feet underground. So does Bob Brotherton, public works director in Dunedin, who discovered springs seeping into Curlew Creek just a few months ago as city crews cleared Brazilian peppers from the creekbed.

    Local officials can name several existing springs throughout the county, and other small springs and offshore springs are said to flow here as well.

    photo
    A snowy egret fishes in Indian Springs near Largo. Nearby residents say the spring attracts a lot of wildlife.
    * * *

    Deep under Florida sits the groundwater that forms the Floridan aquifer. In some places, holes in the ground above the aquifer allow water, already under pressure, to escape to the surface, forming a spring. Every day, nearly 8-billion gallons of water flow from the 320 Florida springs that have been mapped.

    In Pinellas, about 4-million gallons of water flow from Wall Springs each day. Pinellas County Utilities used about 20 times that much each day in June.

    Most of Florida's springs are in the northern part of the state, and most of Pinellas' springs are in the northern part of the county. The layer of dirt and clay is thinner in northern Pinellas, making it easier for springwater to seep to the surface.

    Dave Slonena, hydrogeology manager for Pinellas County Utilities, said the springs in Pinellas never have been well documented. Little has been done to monitor them, so there's no way to know how much they've been affected by the drought or by pollution. Some may have disappeared altogether, been paved over or filled in as Pinellas has developed.

    But others?

    "They do what they've done naturally for hundreds of thousands of years," Slonena said.

    These days, that's drawing attention. Wall Springs soon will become the centerpiece of a county park. And in Safety Harbor, drought-conscious city officials decided they will use water from a local spring to fill a park fountain.

    "We felt it would be a good choice, since Safety Harbor is known for its springs," said Lennie Naeyaert, city engineer. "Plus it was running into the bay anyway. We're intercepting it and putting it to good use."

    People tell legends about Pinellas springs that go back hundreds of years. They trumpet the health benefits of the water. They argue about which creeks and lakes stem from a spring.

    A brave few even dive deep into the spring caverns. Dunedin resident Garman and his wife, Sherry, have dived into Crystal Beach Springs and Wall Springs. With two colleagues, they've mapped 4,400 feet of the underwater spring off Crystal Beach, doing so by squeezing through a cave entrance so narrow they must remove their air tanks to enter.

    "There's so much there that nobody knows anything about," Michael Garman said. "I find something new around each corner."
    photo
    A fish darts through plants growing in Indian Springs. Many way the freshwater drew Indians to the area in the distant past.

    Inside Crystal Beach, the divers have found ghostly white crawfish among other water dwellers, as well as fungi.

    "Who knows what animal has the magic enzyme to make a new drug?" Garman said. "You could have a bacterium that could break down hazardous substances, or be used for medicine. You have a unique environment."

    Aboveground at Wall Springs is rewarding enough for Don Wilson, the park's supervisor. Recently he stood on the wall, probably built in the early 1900s, that surrounds the spring and talked about how the mouth of the spring is shaped like a woman's head -- supposedly that of Ponce de Leon's wife.

    Then Wilson walked down to the pond that the spring feeds and pointed into the water.

    "Look at that fish," he said. "That's a snook."

    Once a popular swimming pool, the spring-fed pond is part of the land that the county soon will open as a park. Eventually, the county hopes to have boardwalks and nature trails around the spring, pond and land near Boggy Bayou.

    Egrets waded in the bayou last week as a great blue heron landed near a line of mangroves. Nearby marched the waterfront mansions of Indian Bluff Island -- a sign that even in the wild places of Pinellas, civilization is never far away.

    * * *

    Farther south, near Largo, Shipwatch resident Terri Wilson stood on a bridge, watching water from Indian Springs spill into the Intracoastal Waterway. She comes here often to look at the fish and the egrets, the cormorants and the spoonbills. When the tide goes out, she said, raccoons forage in the stream bed.

    As she spoke, a rabbit hopped behind her, skimming into the shelter of the mangrove roots.

    "In the winter, we have the migrating birds," she said. "We find it delightful."

    Upstream, Fick surveyed the stream, standing by the wall his father built nearly 30 years ago. He has worked with a St. Petersburg man to bottle water from the spring and sell it, but after three years of discussions, the project hasn't gotten off the ground.

    Fick looked down at the water.

    "That doesn't look like much," he said. "But put in a 5-gallon pail and it fills up just like that. And it's all natural spring water."

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