Crystal River students Celebrate Water Restoration with Community
On May 17, the fifth-grade students of Crystal River Primary School gathered at Hunters Springs Park to participate in planting eelgrass and celebrate the restoration of their local waters. After growing seagrass in their classrooms throughout the 2022-2023 school year, it was finally time to plant!
This planting is the highlight of their EcoWeek curriculum, a program unique to Citrus County and supported by Save Crystal River, Duke Energy, Sea & Shoreline, the Citrus County Education Foundation, and other local businesses. The program’s purpose is to get local youth involved with Crystal River’s aquatic environment, restoring and caring for it throughout their lives.
“The pulse that runs through our community is the river,” said Save Crystal River President, Lisa Moore, “yet, it is because of the passion, dedication, hearts, and hard work of people- legislators, community supporters, volunteers, our school children, and our vendor partners- that we are standing here today. I hope there is shared pride in knowing that what once seemed unachievable- reversing an entire ecosystem of almost 93 acres- has been achieved!”
When Lisa was growing up in Crystal River, the water was crystal clear, the seagrass flourished and her peers enjoyed a myriad of springs-based recreational pursuits. As time passed, the water wasn’t quite so clear. Then the no-name storm of 1993 wreaked havoc on the area. Algae and hydrophilia began taking over areas that once held pristine seagrass-based ecosystems.
By the late 2000s, lyngbya, an algae that doesn’t require a lot of oxygen to thrive and has a slimy consistency, had taken over most of the Kings Bay area of Crystal River. Spring vents were clogged so water movement was slowed and the seagrass had mostly disappeared.
Save Crystal River was started in 2012 by a concerned group of citizens with the goal of cleaning up the local waterways and finding a way to keep them clean for generations to come. The story is heartwarming, as “it took a village” to move legislatures to fund the initial cleanup. Read it here.
Growing a Healthy Ecosystem Becomes Crystal River’s Community Project
Today, the eighth year of fifth graders planting eelgrass in their home waters is a result of the community coming together to ensure Citrus County youth have a hands-on interest in keeping the waterways healthy.
David Dodd, Citrus County School Board member, has attended the sea grass planting every year since it began in 2015. He says, “As a member of the School Board, I think it’s important for our kids to have a hands-on opportunity to learn about the ecosystem and the value of the Crystal River and to be involved with all the people involved with Save Crystal River. It’s a win-win for all of us.”
In fact, there is a written curriculum for Crystal River Primary Eco School allowing for every class from kindergarten through fifth grade to plant and grow a tank of Rock Star Eelgrass. A grant from the Duke Energy Foundation kicked things off in 2017.
Mary McKeethan is a fifth grader who participated in eelgrass planting at the 2023 student event. She is a quiet girl who enjoys the water, her best friend, Aubree Kersey, and has grown her own eelgrass in the classroom.
“One week each year, all the grades get to plant eelgrass in the classroom. You let it sit by the window, make sure it gets enough light and nutrients that it needs,” Mary explains. “My favorite part is knowing that it helps our ecosystems, feeds our manatees, cleans our local waters.”
Community Makes things Grow
Students were joined by school officials, Save Crystal River board members and Sea & Shoreline biologists in celebrating the milestone of 92.4 acres of seagrass restoration. This original goal was set to coincide with the City of Crystal River’s Centennial celebration on July 3, 2023!
But the cleaning of lyngbya, along with the exponential growth of the planted seagrass allowed the project to be completed ahead of time – and for a goal of more underwater acreage to be restored.
The May event featured several education stations manned by local volunteers.
The education stations allow students to learn about manatee bones, the biology behind eelgrass, virtual reality headsets to immerse the students in a healthy bed of eelgrass (without getting wet), participatory demonstrations illustrating the harm anchors can do to the seagrass beds, and fishing skills.
Mermaids from the Mertailor’s Mermaid Aquarium Encounter in Lecanto were on hand for photos and to encourage the students in their aquatic encounters.
Even a lunch BBQ with hotdogs and drinks!
The Process of Restoring Crystal River’s Waterways
The process of cleaning and restoring former seagrass beds is extensive. Sea & Shoreline has completed the vacuuming, planting, and restoration of 92.4 acres of Crystal River.
Sea & Shoreline President Carter Henne was part of the event. He came up with the method of making the first 3.2-acre restoration project scalable. “Plants were put in the ground. There was a lot of algae coming in on a 3-4 week cycle, and the eelgrass would have to fight to stay alive.
First, we clear the algae, then we plant the eel grass, then the algae covers the plants and smoothers them. If we waited a week or so, the plants would push through with crinkled leaves 3-8” tall. Manatees and manatee tour boats would come into the planted area.
We found that 3.2 acres was too small. Between the manatees eating and the manatee tour operators, and the lyngbya returning, the seagrass would be destroyed before it could grow enough to sustain itself. We needed more acres to have a winning system. In year 3, flowers of the eelgrass were seen at the surface. Instead of ½ inch, it was three inches tall – and spreading.”
Now, permits have been approved, and commencement of Phases 5-7 of The Kings Bay Restoration Project, comprising of 85-acres of vacuum muck removal, planting, protecting, and maintenance of seagrass beds will get underway. Additionally, Sea & Shoreline is working on restoration in the Homosassa and Weeki Wachee Rivers!
Carter continued to explain that every year the grass gets a little taller and a little taller. “These additional phases are targeting the areas where the seagrass isn’t recolonizing. Together we are making it work! Save Crystal River was so good because they got involved hands-on with the project and the process, so they could articulate how things work in the community,” he explained.
When I asked Mary McKeethan about her participation in the seagrass program ending after this year, she said, “After fifth grade, if I could volunteer, I would.”
Whenever something big happens, there are usually many people that have helped to bring it to fruition. If you want something big made bigger and better, get your youth involved. The Kings Bay Restoration Project is a powerful example. What a joy to see the enthusiasm of everyone at Hunter Springs Park celebrating, working, and educating to make our world a more beautiful place.