World Water Day: How can you protect the Wekiva River?

Posted by Lauren Sedam | March 19, 2021

It’s hard to imagine Wekiva Island without the ever-present flow of the Wekiva River. If you’ve ever done some Wekiva springs kayaking, you understand that.

Indeed, the spectacular beauty of the river is what made us fall in love with this special place to begin with, and it motivates us every day to support one of our core pillars at Wekiva Island: Sustainability.

We are absolutely dedicated to protecting this amazing, Wild and Scenic River, and we’ve made many sustainable development changes around the Island to help conserve water. We collect rainwater for reuse, power our hot water with solar energy, use low-flow and dual-flush water closets, and even power the air conditioning in our Classroom with the constantly cool Florida springs water.

Even so, there’s always more to do. World Water Day is March 22. This United Nations-sponsored holiday asks the questions, “What does water mean to you, and how can we protect it?”

In honor of the holiday, we spoke with our friend and chairman of the Florida Rights of Nature Network, Chuck O’Neal. Chuck is a celebrated environmentalist who has already done so much for our waterways. He is also a member of the Wekiva Springshed Alliance, a local group whose mission is to fight for the rights of the springshed.  The alliance is made up of Wekiva Island, Speak Up Wekiva, St. Johns Riverkeeper, LWV of Seminole County and LWV of Orange County.

The Florida Rights of Nature Network has the mission of guiding, supporting and encouraging local efforts to enforce the rights of nature and the rights of communities to a healthy environment. They believe nature has just as much a right to exist as people do as individuals.

While that might sound extreme, Chuck said it’s really a basic need for everyone.

“What this is about, really, is empowerment,” he said. “It’s empowering individuals to take charge of their own quality of life.”

Years ago, he said, pictures of the Wekiwa Springs showed crystal clear blue water and white sands. The springhead itself was so deep blue, it appeared indigo. Now, the water is green, with threats of algae blooms looming all the time.

The reason, Chuck says, is nitrates. Coming from fertilizer or waste, they sink through the soil and into the limestone aquifer that makes up Florida. Carried through cracks, they end up at the springs, and the same thing happens all the way down the river. Nitrate levels are currently three to four times higher than they should be at Wekiwa Springs. Companies also make withdrawals from the aquifer, contributing to less flow all the time from the springs.

And who’s responsible? That’s what FRONN wants to address through concerned citizens. Right now, if a company has a wastewater spill and pollutes the river, there are virtually no consequences, Chuck said. They might get a fine from the state, but that is typically a penalty, not for restoration, and the cost is passed on to customers. Citizens cannot sue unless they are physically or financially impacted, a fact that is hard to prove.

Rights of Nature laws give citizens the right to enforce the rights of waterways. A measure passed in Orange County in November with a staggering 89 percent of voters in favor, becoming the largest jurisdiction to pass such a law. That feeling, Chuck said, is spreading throughout the Sunshine State.

“I think it’s in our blood as Floridians to be drawn to our waterways, whether it’s through fishing or recreation, kayaking…people flock to the water in Florida,” he said.

In our home of Seminole County, however, Chuck said there’s still work to be done.

He encouraged citizens to stand up and reach out to leaders about getting a Rights of Nature amendment on the ballot.

“It’s important that we stop pollution at the source,” he said. “And that’s what this is all about. It’s about saying no, it’s not OK to pollute in a certain concentration, to dump your waste chemicals into the river at a certain concentration. The answer is to just stop polluting. And how do we get to that point unless polluters stand liable for the damages of their pollution?”

It’s really about all of us and the clean water we deserve, Chuck said.

So today on World Water Day, we’re asking you: How can you help protect the Wekiva River and all of our Florida waterways?