FLORIDA – The rivers are an integral part of life in North Central Florida. They are the life blood of communities providing water for plants, wildlife and people. They are also an important part of our economy. Florida leads the southeast in farm income, produces about 67 percent of the U.S. oranges and accounts for about 40 percent of the world’s orange juice supply as well as numerous other crops. Tourism brings over 87 million visitors to the state, with an economic impact of $67 billion. The North Central area of Florida brings many tourists to the pristine springs and rivers for camping, kayaking and cave diving.
But periodic droughts, groundwater pumping to satisfy residential, agricultural, and industrial water demands, and groundwater pollution from urban and agricultural lands are impacting Florida’s spring systems. Water flow in many of Florida’s springs has been declining, while nutrient loading to the springs has been growing, affecting the condition of aquatic ecosystems and water clarity in the springs and downstream bodies of water. Changes in spring water flow and quality can also degrade the recreational experiences of springs users, affecting both the economy and the health of the rivers.
A group of concerned citizens banded together to increase awareness of the health of the springs and aquifer and its impact.. Our Santa Fe River (OSFR), which is a nonprofit organization, was founded in 2007 as a grassroots educational organization to help raise awareness of the importance of the springs and aquifer.
For the past eight years the organization has sponsored the RiverFest song writing contest as a way to raise funds to promote awareness of the rivers and fund projects to protect and preserve the rivers and springs. The contest is open to all song writers, but the songs have to be about the Santa Fe River. The OSFR members pick the best 6-10 songwriters who then compete on stage at Rum 138, which is located in Fort White. Originally a canoe and kayak rental place, Rum 138 has added a stage for concerts, an art gallery, a cafe and has become a resource center for the springs and rivers. Rum 138 has also become the headquarters of the local Sierra Club. The RiverFest songwriting contest is held each spring on the outside stage. The winning songwriter receives a prize of $300 and all songwriters that perform get a video of their performance. Each year the contest has grown, attracted a broader audience and raised more money.
This year the OSFR decided to expand the RiverFest contest to a series of events covering the whole month of March. These include kayak trips on the river, plant hikes to learn about the plants that comprise the river ecosystem, lectures by experts on the ecosystem and a reunion concert of past Riverfest winners.
These events are all geared toward raising awareness of the rivers in a hands on experience. “Our goal is to make it easy for the area residents and visitors to have fun and learn more about our precious water resources. As those of us who volunteer with the Our Santa Fe River organization have experienced firsthand, there is a lot to learn,” said Sharon Yeago, RiverFest Event Chair. “The events also will enable us to raise funds so we can continue our grassroots efforts to protect the aquifer, springs and waters in this area. This year we had the support to sponsor more events. These events become a vehicle for us to raise awareness among the area residents about the unique beauty and activities the rivers provide,” Yeago said.
The events begin on Saturday, March 3, with a plant hike at Rum Island Park. Starting at 9 a.m., Colette Jacono, Ph.D, a botanist and plant ecologist specializing in aquatic and wetland plants, will lead a short hike through a low-lying hardwood forest and swamp adjacent to the Santa Fe River. Participants will learn how to identify various trees and plants that make up the river ecosystem. The hike is limited to 20 people and there is a $20 donation.
The following day, March 4, there will be a three hour paddle up the Santa Fe river starting at 10 a.m. from the bible Camp Boat Ramp on U.S. Highway 441. Led by Master Naturalist and river guide Lars Andersen, the trip will explore the quiet and remote section of the Santa Fe River, above the River Sink and O’Leno Park. It will be an up-and-back paddle, going up to the Santa Fe’s confluence with Olustee Creek. The tour includes shuttle and is $50 with boat rental and a $20 donation to OSFR; $30 with a participant’s own boat with a $15 donation to OSFR. This is limited to 24 people.
The following Saturday on March 10, there will be another paddle guided by Andersen. A nine-mile section of Santa Fe River, from Highway 27 to Highway 47 will be paddled over five hours, guided by Master Naturalist Lars Andersen. The route will include the river’s most famous springs: Poe, Rum Island, Blue, Ginnie, Devil’s Ear & Eye, July and Myrtles Fissure. The group will leave at 10 a.m. From the Highway 27 boat ramp. Tour includes shuttle: $50 with boat rental and $20 donation to OSFR) or $30 with partiicpant’s own boat with a $15 donation to OSFR. This is limited to 24 people.
On March 17, Our Santa Fe River and the North Central Florida Blues Society, will co-sponsor a paddle of the Santa Fe River from Highway 27 to Rum Island starting at 9:30 a.m.. Participants will rendezvous at Lazy Turtle Lodge for an old-style picnic with live music featuring award-winning Bear & Robert. The event is free, but paddlers should bring their own picnic lunch and liquids, blanket or chair. Rum 138 is offering canoe and kayak discounts for this event. There is no charge for this event.
On March 18, there will be a songwriters reunion concert. Co-sponsored by High Springs Music in the Park, previous songwriting contest winners and select contestants from the annual contest sponsored by Our Santa Fe River organization will showcase their songs about the river . The concert will take place at James Paul Park from 1 p.m. to 3:30 and then move to the Great Outdoors Restaurant for more performers from 4 to 7 p.m.
On Saturday March 24, there will be another plant hike with Colette Jacono. This will be through a riverside hammock. Starting at 9 a.m. from the Highway 47 boat ramp in Gilchrist County. This is a 1.5 mile hike along the Santa Fe River. The area contains the largest numbers of tree and shrub species per unit area in the continental U.S., with canopy is so dense that sunlight touches the ground only in the winter. There is a $20 donation and the hike is limited to 20 people.
The following day on March 25, the Annual Songwriters contest will be held at Rum 138. Besides the music performances by contestants, the event also features a silent auction, a 50/50 raffle as well as food and drink. The event runs from 1 p.m. to 7 p.m. with additional musicians performing after the contest. Admission to the event is $5 in advance, $7 at the door, and free for 12 and under.
In addition to these events, OSFR is also co-sponsoring 12 other events with local organizations. These include full moon paddles on evenings of March 2, 30 and 31, 10Can’s 4th Annual Survival Race For heroes at Blue Springs State Park on March 3, Rum 138 Rumba concerts on March 10 and 24 featuring a variety of local music acts and the O’Leano Chilli Cook off and Springs celebration on April 7. Additional information is available at OurSantaFeRiver.org.
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