HOMOSASSA, Fla. — Florida springs and the rivers they feed into are some of Florida’s most precious resources, including the Homosassa River. It serves as a habitat for wildlife and plants, and is used recreationally by both residents and visitors alike.
But over the years, an invasive algae has taken hold. Now, concerns grow as funding for restoration efforts hangs in the balance.
Retired firefighter Steve Minguy is the president of the Homosassa River Restoration Project. He recalled when he first moved to the river community with his wife.
“We were about 15 years out from retirement and we were looking to retire on the water,” Minguy said. “A friend told us about Homosassa, I came out and took a look at it. I think a month later, we owned our house.”
Minguy’s boat is docked not even a quarter mile from the section of the river the locals call the blue waters.
“It is beautiful, we thought. But all the neighbors and the longtime residents kept telling us how beautiful it used to be,” Minguy said.
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It was a river much clearer and full of vegetation. But over the last few decades, Minguy said the area has been overrun by a toxic blue-green algae known as lyngbya. It coves much of the riverbed and if it’s allowed to keep growing, it’s projected to kill of 90 percent of the river’s native vegetation.
In 2016, Minguy and other concerned residents learned of the same issue just north of them at Crystal River, where restoration efforts had already begun.
“We were invited up to Crystal River to see what they were doing up there and I’d say within 10 minutes of being on one of their boats, I wasn’t even listening anymore,” Minguy said. "I just decided we have to do it here at the Homosassa.”
A grassroots effort took off and the Homosassa River Restoration project was formed. The group took their cause to Tallahassee, worked and reworked plans. Finally, in 2020, Minguy says he got a call that $2 million in grant funding had come through.
“I was dancing in the living room,” Minguy recalled with a laugh. “It wasn’t pretty.”
At last, work on the river could finally begin.
The goal is to replant seagrass, so that it grows, forms meadows and takes back the riverbed. It’s all done by a team with Sea and Shoreline, the aquatic restoration company contracted to do the work, the same company working successfully on Crystal River.
The first step is vacuuming the riverbed. A diver uses a hose to suck up the algae. The water is then cleaned and put back.
“These guys are down there, sometimes in zero visibility, removing all of that,” said project biologist Jessica Mailliez. “So when the biology team comes in they have a nice natural bottom to put those plants in.”
The team uses eelgrass, which is grown in the Sea and Shoreline nursery. Often, cages are installed for protection until the plants are established enough for removal.
Already, Mailliez says the team is seeing success and manatees are feeding on newly formed meadows.
“We have a strong root hold and these plants, even though they’re being munched on, springtime next year, when the manatees move back out to the gulf, these plants will grow tall again,” Mailliez said.
And it’s not just food for the manatees. The grass provides cover for smaller marine life, helps to filter water and stabilize the riverbed. Mailliez said what the Lyngbya algae destroys will eventually affect us, too.
“A lot of people may not understand how bad this river system could be without restoration efforts. We could lose our crabbing industry. We could lose recreational and commercial fishing,” Mailliez said. “We could just lose the enjoyment of hanging out in the river in the crystal clear spring water. It will be just a downfall for the community.”
By the end of this planting season, Sea and Shoreline will have completed phase one of the project, a total of 25 acres cleaned and planted.
Minguy recalled what it was like to first see grass growing in place of the lyngbya algae.
“To go up there after all these years and to go underneath the bridge and see nothing but grass meadows, white sand and no algae was gorgeous,” he said. “We couldn’t wait to get in the water.”
It was a rewarding feeling, though Minguy said there is still a long way to go. To date, the Homosassa River Restoration Project has received a total of $9.5 million in state funding. But to finish all 53 acres of the blue waters, another $9 million is needed — even more if efforts are to continue further down the river.
Right now, that funding has stalled. An earmarked $10 million, approved in the most recent state budget, was vetoed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, despite an equal amount approved for the very same work being done in Crystal River. In fact, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, funding for the efforts at Crystal River have now reached $37 million.
“We are basically the same type of river. We have the same issues and we’re using the same project and we’re getting the same results. So it would be nice to get the same funding,” Minguy said. “However, I love it when Crystal River gets funding. That means they’re going to get their project done. I’m just hoping that down the line, we’re shown the same love.”
Hope now hinges on the latest round of grant money the Homosassa River Restoration Project has applied for: $4 million dollars in grant funding, which would allow planting to continue at least another season.
As Minguy and all those involved anxiously await word on funding approval, they worry about the possibility that the progress they’ve made will be overcome once again by the toxic algae.
Spectrum News reached out to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to find out the status of those applications.
“The Homosassa River Restoration Project and Save Crystal River, Inc. applied for $2 million in Springs Restoration funding for their respective multi-year projects,” responded Press Secretary Alexandra Kutcha, in an email. “Additionally, both groups have also requested grant funding through the Spring Coast Water Quality funding. While we don’t have an exact timeline for when these funds will be awarded, it is this fiscal year’s funding so awards will be announced in the near future.”
Kutcha also outlined the overall financial commitment that state has made specifically to springs restoration, citing $300 million over the last four years.
“This record funding has enabled the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to assist local governments and other stakeholders to identify and construct projects that are imperative to achieving restoration goals,” said Kutcha. “Two examples of this are the restoration projects at the Homosassa River and Kings Bay along Florida’s Gulf Coast.”