By Dr. Robert Norman
Although you may be familiar with cenotes in Mexico, did you know this rare and unusual geological feature can be found in Florida? Warm Mineral Springs, in North Port between Venice and Port Charlotte, is also the largest natural mineral water spring in the world, covering 1.4 acres at depths up to 250 feet. In addition, it is the only publicly accessible hot spring in Florida, staying a constant 87°F year-round.
Warm Mineral Springs has a long and storied history. According to the website, “Geologically, it was once a cave above the earth’s surface, as stalactites and stalagmites are present deep beneath the waters. And it is deep, with ledges at 45 feet, a debris cone at 148 feet, and the spring itself at 250 feet deep. Below a certain depth, the water has extremely low levels of oxygen. Remains of saber-toothed cats, mammoths, prehistoric camels, and human remains have been found by underwater archaeologists, the first of whom explored the spring in the 1960’s. Human remains carbon-dated at more than 5,000 years old are buried within the spring along a ledge more than 90 feet below the surface of the spring.”
The Warm Mineral Springs opened as a tourist attraction in the 1940’s, attracting bathers who wanted to “take the waters” for their health. The springs offer the highest concentration of minerals found in any United States spring.
“Florida has more than 750 springs, including 33 first magnitude springs, a greater number than in any other state. “Springs are the window into the health of our groundwater, which is the source of 90 percent of drinking water for Floridians. Some springs support entire ecosystems with unique plants and animals. They also flow into rivers dependent on the spring’s clean, fresh water,” is on the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s website. For those who have been able to experience the wide variety of Florida’s springs, you know that each offers many recreational opportunities such as kayaking, swimming, and diving.
As you read the landscape, look around and see what surrounds and flows into the springs. Reading the landscape must be fueled by knowledge obtained from researching and asking questions of those who are knowledgeable in the challenges facing natural Florida. Identifying evidence of land and water use that has occurred in the past allows you to better understand how these have influenced the health and function of ecosystems in the present.
In the case of Florida’s springs, various complex threats, including spring flows that decrease because of declining water levels in the groundwater aquifer that sustains them, and excessive nutrients, mainly nitrate from fertilizer, storm water and wastewater runoff, can lead to excess algal growth and habit degradation. The process is also known as eutrophication. Severe algal growth blocks light that is crucial for plants, such as seagrasses, to grow. When the algae and seagrass die, they decay, and the oxygen in the water is used up. Low levels of dissolved oxygen in the water can kill fish and other aquatic animals.
Floridians need to commit to investing in nitrate-reducing capital projects and water-quality projects to protect and restore springs as well as in conserving and acquiring land in spring recharge zones to prevent nitrate contamination. Although much has been done to date, there is much more work to be done for springs restoration and long-term protection. In 2016, the Florida Legislature identified 30 Outstanding Florida Springs that require additional protections to ensure their conservation and restoration for future generations. These protections are outlined in water quality restoration plans, known as Basin Management Action Plans (BMAPs). These plans are focused on reducing nitrogen pollution impacting the water quality of these springs.
Please note that Wekiwa Springs State Park, Blue Spring State Park, Gilchrist Blue Springs State Park, Rock Springs at Kelly Park, and Rainbow Springs State Park also have camping.
For more details on Florida Springs, see https://floridadep.gov/springs at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. For more information on the geology of Warm Mineral Springs, see http://www.sarasota.wateratlas.usf.edu/upload/documents/Geology-of-Warm-Mineral-Springs-Rupert-1994.pdf.
Open 9-5 daily except Christmas, Warm Mineral Springs is owned and operated by the City of North Port. Phone: 941-426-1692. Bring your own lawn or beach chair.
Get out and enjoy The Great Florida Outdoors!