By voting to purchase Blue Springs Park in Gilchrist County, the governor and Cabinet have preserved another small slice of natural Florida. The 407-acre park has been privately owned and meticulously protected from the development, overuse and pollution that has befallen many Florida springs. Now it will be up to the state to be equally good stewards of this unique land.
Blue Springs has a colorful past, as reported by the Tampa Bay Times' Craig Pittman. Owned by Ed C. Wright, a wealthy St. Petersburg investor and businessman, the six springs and surrounding land along the Santa Fe River were just one piece of the 20,000 acres he owned across Florida in the 1950s. When Wright died in 1969, he left his entire $50 million estate to his longtime secretary — and secret sweetheart — Ruth Kirby. She treasured the tranquil getaway and decided to share it with the public rather than sell to developers. She built a diving dock and boardwalk, then charged a dime for admission, Pittman wrote. Today, the price is up to $10 but the waters are the same crystal blue.
Kirby's descendants, who ran the recreation spot in the decades since, wanted out of the public park business and put the property up for sale in 2013. The state bought it last week for $5.25 million, marking a shift in the recent practice of buying only the development rights to environmentally valuable land rather than the land itself. The purchase is an appropriate use of Florida Forever funds, which are intended for conserving natural land. It's also a positive and promising early step by Noah Valenstein, the new secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection, who said he intends to seek similar acquisitions.
Florida's treasured springs need more advocates. Saltwater intrusion, algae blooms and pollution, primarily caused by overpumping of the underground aquifer to accommodate development, have badly damaged springs throughout the state. Just last month, the Southwest Florida Water Management District voted to allow the flow of Crystal River and the 70 springs that feed Kings Bay in Citrus County to be cut by up to 11 percent, a level the agency claimed would provide for more groundwater pumping without causing "significant damage" to the environment. This was at the same meeting they imposed residential watering restrictions because of drought conditions.
The purchase of Blue Springs by the state isn't the wholesale change Florida needs in its water policy, which is too accommodating to developers at the expense of natural resources. But by converting this rare jewel into a state park, the state at least is preventing it from being lost to private development and ensuring that generations more Floridians will be able to enjoy it.