Saving Crystal River

By Diane Bedard Posted on October 8, 2020

Crystal River was frequented by pre-Columbian Native people who enjoyed abundant fishing in the crystal-clear water. The cluster of 30+ springs in Kings Bay constitute a first magnitude springshed, with a coastal marshland ecosystem north and south. Kings Bay is Florida’s second largest spring.

The diversity of wildlife that make this area their home includes the west Indian manatee, a large herbivore sea mammal whose population had dwindled to the point of the endangered species list.

Residents and visitors to Crystal River have long coveted its clean, fresh water.

As more and more nutrients entered Kings Bay, it began deteriorating. From the 1960s through the 1990s, the waterways became clogged with unwanted plants. Fish and seagrass left or died off, and the 1993 “no-name storm” changed the water’s salinity causing a massive die-off. By the mid-1990s, the previous clear, healthy environment had a deep bed of muck over its natural sand base.

This image from Sea and Shoreline, the company hired by Save Crystal River to clean up the aquatic environment shows the dramatic difference between 2010 and today. On the left is the Lyngbya covered seabed, which had up to two feet of muck underneath it, choking out any of the native vegetation’s opportunity to grow.

Crystal River’s Citizens formed Save Crystal River in 2012, Looking for a Solution

In 2012, a concerned group of local citizens banded together to save Crystal River’s aquatic environment, restoring it to its former beauty.

The system had to reverse the effects of excess nutrient buildup, remove blue-green algae known as Lyngbya, and replant native sea grass beds.

They formed a 501c3 nonprofit organization called Save Crystal River.

“The Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD) and the City of Crystal River had tried several methods to remove unwanted vegetation from King’s Bay, including cutting the Hyacinth and Hydrilla that had taken over the area’s canals and planting seagrass,” explains Lisa Moore, one of the original founders of Save Crystal River. “Unfortunately, the clippings left in the water settled on the bottom causing more nitrogen blooms.”

An image of the Hydrilla that had taken over Three Sister’s Springs environment. Image courtesy of Florida Memory State Archives.

A Florida Company called Sea & Shoreline was Chosen for their Water Cleanup System

Dr. Michelle Sivilich, Executive Director of Save Crystal River, said, “We found Sea & Shoreline who had a system whereby they vacuumed up the muck from the floor of each canal until the original sand floor was found. They had developed a system to grow seagrass under cages, protecting it until the roots were established and manatees could eat it without killing the plants.”

A Sea & Shoreline barge, showing it’s vacuum hose and two team members. The orange hose feeds air to the diver through the headgear shown. This allows the diver to stay underwater for an extended period of time, utilizing tools to remove muck and plant healthy seagrass. Image by Diane Bedard.

Sea & Shoreline’s system is ingenious in how it incorporates proper planting and care techniques to establish native seagrass for the long-term.

After clearing the muck off the bottom, seagrass is hand-planted at the proper depth by degreed biologists. A group of “seedlings” are encased in the company’s proprietary herbivory exclusion devices (cages), which are hand-cleaned to ensure sunlight gets in to help the grass grow over its first year. The cages also protect the seagrass from overeating by hungry manatees.

Ryan Brushwood, Lead Biologist of the Aquatic Science Team for Sea & Shoreline, shows the approximate depth for proper planting of the eelgrass plants. Image by Diane Bedard.

A Shaker System cleans the Water, Returning the Clean H2O and Reusing the Mud to Fertilize Local Farm

The muck-filled water is run through a shaker system, according to Ryan Brushwood, Lead Biologist of the Aquatic Science Team for Sea & Shoreline. “The water is pumped to a processing station where a polymer coagulant is injected. This cleans the water in minutes by bonding with muck and debris in a huge bag with tiny pores (Geotube). The clean, pure water escapes through the pores and back into the canal. The bag fills up, is then left to dry, and the mud is shipped to a local farm to use as fertilizer.”

Huge Geotubes are located on Schatz Island, where the project is headquartered for the 2020 season. Here you can see a worker atop one of the Geotubes making sure the cleaned water gets out through its tiny pores. Muck and debris bond with a polymer agent and stay in the tubes. After a Geotube is full, it is allowed to dry and the mud is used as fertilizer at a local farm. Image by Diane Bedard.

City, County, Government, and Utilities: A Public/Private Partnership works Together

In 2012, Save Crystal River appealed to their Florida legislators. “We saw that this system could work, but it needed backing to become a reality. Senator Charlie Dean and Jimmie T. Smith championed the pilot project. Senator Wilton Simpson and Congressman Ralph Massulo have continued supporting us,” said Lisa Moore, President of the Save Crystal River Board, “Our united community worked hard to get the support we needed to Save Crystal River, with the City, County, SWFWMD, and Duke Energy supporting us.”

“We ran a contest for students to write their legislators about the importance of saving crystal river. We went to Tallahassee that year with over 7,000 letters written by local schoolchildren, as well as samples of Lyngbya to show the decision-makers, and it worked!” Lisa shared.

The first year saw 3.5 acres of area canals cleaned, eelgrass planted and maintained through Sea & Shoreline. The results were looking good – and then a hurricane came! Would it destroy the project?

There was some damage, but the sides of the canals held, and the bottom was replanted. Citrus County and the City of Crystal River found ways to help.

The System Works – Native Eelgrass is Growing and Regenerating the Aquatic Environment

Now, after five years of the Save Crystal River project, 46 acres of sustainable eelgrass has been planted and those plantings have been seen regenerating into new areas. “There have been three hurricane events since the project began and it’s still working,” Lisa gladly shares.

Children in Citrus County Schools plant eelgrass as part of their science curriculum. They begin in first grade and continue each year. In 5th Grade, they are able to plant their own eelgrass in Kings Bay! This program is sponsored by Duke Energy and the SWFWMD, giving the next generation a tangible way to care for their Bay.

Early on, manatee tour operators were leery of the Saving Crystal River project, with Sea & Shoreline barges taking up part of their tour space, but with the tremendous success of the program clearing the water and more manatees staying in Crystal River year-round, the locals gladly share the River, and tell the seagrass story to their visitors. Image by Diane Bedard.

Early on, the Manatee and Eco Tour Operators Association (META) was somewhat at odds with the project. Now with the project making the water clearer and with more manatees staying in Crystal River, META has expressed its gratitude by telling the seagrass story to their visitors.

Save Crystal River hopes to become a Model of Restoration for other Communities

There are three years left in this amazing success story, and its goal is to complete about 100 acres of restoration for Crystal River’s Centennial in 2023, and to become a model of aquatic restoration for other communities.

Save Crystal River hopes to become a model of Aquatic Restoration for other communities. You can help by donating to their organization and by spreading the word.

Save Crystal River Project Facts

  • Public/Private Partnership began in 2012
  • Pilot Kings Bay Restoration Project began in 2015 with 3.5 acres restored
  • As of September 2020, 46 acres have been cleaned and restored
  • The restored areas have begun growing into previously damaged areas on their own
  • 500 spring vents opened
  • 163,000,000 (163 million) pounds of muck removed and cleaned
  • 130,000 eelgrass plants planted
  • Hundreds of manatees have returned to Crystal River
  • The diversity of plants and fish has increased as the ecosystem has been restored

** Featured image is of Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River. Note the sandy bottom and spring vent. Image courtesy of Hunter Springs Kayaks.



seeabove says

I have visited this area several years ago and so enjoyed the beauty of the area.

Jim says

While I applaud the ongoing efforts, how much cheaper would it have been to just put sufficient regulations in-place to have avoided having to do all this in the first place?

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