By Scott Mitchell
There are only a handful of places one can see mermaids in Florida. Weeki Wachee State Park is well-known for these sirens of the deep, as are several kitschy “undersea” bars in South Florida and the Keys. For one weekend in March, Ocala is also on the list, with the Florida SpringsFest. The festival, now in its 22nd year, is Marion County’s mermaid hub and a lot more.
What do mermaids and springs have in common, you may ask? Well, both mermaids and humans need fresh clean water to live and thrive. The mermaids (sometimes joined by mermen) appear each spring to promote the springs. It may seem touristy and a little silly but, in all seriousness, it is a critically important mission. Florida is a wonderful place to live. So many of us call it home that we have become a burden on its limited natural resources—fresh water being the most important.
The goal of the festival, set for March 5th and 6th at Silver Springs State Park, is to help people understand the fragile nature of our drinking water supply. Springs are what we can all see and touch, thus they are the centerpiece of the event. However, the real prize is the Floridan Aquifer, that vast underground reservoir that supplies fresh water to virtually all Floridians. Pretty much all drinking water, whether you depend on city water, own a private well or drink bottled water, comes from the same source. The catch is that the water was not always underground.
We are blessed with porous sand and limestone, which allows rainwater (or at least some of it) to seep down and replenish the water we draw out from the aquifer. This introduces the very real problem of pollutants (such as chemicals from pesticides and fertilizers) also percolating into the water supply. In simple terms, we drink what we put on the ground.
The second threat to the aquifer is over-pumping. Taking out more than nature puts in is the issue. Consider that only between 7% to 15% of rainwater actually makes it down into the aquifer and it is easy to grasp the problem (most precipitation evaporates, runs off or is absorbed by plants).
The Florida SpringsFest is as unique to Marion County as our wonderful springs are to North Florida. The collective goal of the festival is to help people understand how vulnerable our freshwater supply is and what we can do to preserve and protect it. Simple actions taken by us all, individually and collectively, can make a big diff erence. Conserving water and being aware of how pollutants get into our water supply are tops on the list.
Generally speaking, people tend to protect what is important to them. There is nothing more important than a reliable supply of clean drinking water. The next time you see a mermaid, just ask; they’ll tell you.
Scott Mitchell is a fi eld archaeologist, scientifi c illustrator and director of the Silver River Museum & Environmental Education Center.