Springs project aims at manatee conservation

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Experts predict greater need of springs as power plants

By Mark Scohier

    Fanning Springs State Park will be getting a small makeover in a couple of years that could make it easier for wildlife to use the spring, according to representatives from Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

    “It’s a small project, but we’re really excited about getting this done,” FWC biologist Ron Mezich said Thursday at the quarterly meeting of the Fanning and Manatee Springs Working Group at Fanning Springs City Hall.

    Mezich said the project, slated to begin in the fall of 2012, would involve dredging sand, the result of years of erosion, from the spring run so manatees and Gulf sturgeon will have better access.    

The dredging project should take about two weeks, which is good, according to Mezich, because FWC has only a narrow window of time between when sturgeon and manatees use the spring.  The project, including a feasibility study, engineering and permitting, will cost about $130,000 and will be financed by FWC and The Nature Conservancy.

    Mezich said the project is mostly aimed at ensuring the survivability of manatees, many of which have become dependent upon the warm waters discharged from power plants along the coast of Florida for more than 30 years.  The warm water, pumped into the sea, is a byproduct of the cooling function of power plants.

    “Last year, about 80 percent used thermal refuges,” Mezich said.

    Last year was also a time that saw record deaths of the endangered animal. According to FWC figures, about 429 manatees died in Florida in 2009, three in Levy County.  

Only some of those deaths can be attributed to cold weather, But Mezich said the figures could go up as power plants along coastal Florida close down in the future or move inland.

“When they (manatees) got in line for fur coats, they missed the boat.”

Mezich said FWC, though currently lacking the funds, also wants to make modifications to the floating boardwalk at Fanning, saying it has a tendency to block access to the spring when water levels are low.  He added that sand pulled from the spring run during the dredging process could be used to enhance the park’s boat launch.

A similar project was being considered for Manatee Springs State Park, Mezich said.  But FWC determined that sand in Manatee’s spring run, mostly deposited at the entrance, was more a result of the Suwannee River than from erosion.  It was not as sustainable as the project at Fanning, he said. Plus, he said, a lot of animals use the shallow area created by the sand as a resting spot.