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  • How we got our Hart back

    by Cindy Butler & Brian Williams

    Hart Springs is a county maintained park in Gilchrist County with a large run to the Suwannee River. The Hart Springs basin, which is fed by the cool, crystal clear waters of the Floridan Aquifer, has become one of Gilchrist County’s favorite swimming holes. Unfortunately, the heavy use has also caused some increased problems with the actual spring basin. Over the past several years improvements have been made to the area including sand brought in and spread around the edge of the spring basin which has created an inviting beach for swimmers and sunbathers. The park’s visitors have enthusiastically responded by coming here every weekend in the summer by the hundreds. Years ago, a retaining wall with metal rebar, collapsed into the main spring and down into the vent opening. In combination, the concrete and rebar from the wall and excess sand and debris had now completely blocked off the flow of water through the main spring vent. Water was still able to enter the basin via a smaller, satellite vent further downstream. The restoration of the headspring would allow the run to return to historic flow levels contributing to the health of the spring.

    In January 2004, Amos Philman had been talking to Patty Davis, about the clogged head spring at Hart Springs Park. The flow had been very low in the run the year before and a large amount of algae had grown over the area. The water at the spring was now completely stopped in contrast to the historic boil that used to emit from the spring. Patty Davis contacted Cindy Butler and mentioned the problem to her. Cindy called Amos and made arrangements to take a look at the problem. She also contacted her dive buddies for help. Duncan Price was visiting from the UK who is an experienced sump diver and digs in caves frequently in that country. Brian Williams is cave diver on DEP projects and experienced dry cave digger. Al Heck is also an experienced cave diver, surveyor and another team member on the DEP projects. This core group went to check out the spring and determine if there was anything we could do to help. Unfortunately, the river was flooding at the time we went to Hart Springs. Tannic river water was filling the run, the spring vent was reversing, and visibility was less than 12 inches. Duncan and Cindy dropped down into the headspring and found the vent opening, dug a little and discovered a small siphon flow. It looked like sand, rocks and chunks of cement were blocking the spring vent. Brian and Al both checked the area also in addition to checking the siphon further downstream at the second vent. After surfacing and de-rigging, we had a discussion on how this could be handled. At the time of the visit Amos the manager had also expressed an interest in having cave divers back in the park on a guided dive basis. He is actively trying to improve the park and could use the funds that cave diving could provide. Cave diving was banned in Gilchrist county over 6 years ago and Hart Springs was closed to all cave diving.

    We knew we were going to need some manpower to get this job done. Having had some very good experiences with dry cavers and grottos that function here locally, Cindy decided that we could get some help and try to dig open the spring vent to reestablish flow. The Florida Speleological Society has done many digs and sinkhole clean-ups and has experience and willing volunteers. In addition, the Tampa Bay Area Grotto has also worked with the FSS on many sinkhole digs. We also enlisted the aid of several of more dry caving and cave diving buddies who were experienced sump divers and cave diggers.

    Of course, any event has its glitches. Amos and I had to put in a proposal to the Gilchrist County Commission to allow the clean up and diving for the weekend. Much of the work would have to be done in overhead and cave diving was illegal in that county. Amos managed to get the proposal for the clean up through the Gilchrist County Commission. It was decided to use a dredge to remove the massive amounts of sand that was on top of the rocks blocking the vent. That required a permit from Suwannee River Water Management. Amos managed to get both a permit for the dredging and a grant for the actual rental of the dredge we were to use and spent many days making all the necessary arrangements to make this work.

    Our first goal was to improve conditions at the park for swimming and then to work on getting the cave system re-opened for guided diving. The clean up would be a great start to show the park management and the County Commission what cave divers can really do to help with a natural resource that we enjoy in different ways. Not only would the cave diving community be able to once again enjoy this fragile and beautiful cave system, but additional year-round revenue could be generated for the park, and the run would flow again to enhance the swimming for the general public day use.

    We started calling Wes Skiles per Amos’s request about this time. Wes had been done some filming there for “Water’s Journey” and Amos felt he should be involved. Wes is pretty busy and by the time I got my first call back from him we had already received the go ahead on the clean up from the County and the needed permits. We started putting the team together with the help of Brian Williams who had previously helped Wes with the

    Vampire sink clean up. Brian quietly started getting needed volunteers together.

    After the flood subsided on April 7th Al Heck, Brian Williams and I revisited the cave system to enter the Black Lagoon and check the guide-line and general condition of the cave system. We were becoming a believer in the goals for the park that Amos Philman had and after experiencing this cave system after 6 years of closure, we were hooked. It’s a wonderful park, a beautiful cave system and Amos is really committed to making this park a better place for different forms of recreation. Another thing we discoverd that day was the water and the river were both clear but still no flow from the spring vents at the head of the run. On the same day, Cindy was able to meet with Suwannee River management people and the owner of the dredge. It looked like we were ready for the effort to open the spring vent.

    The weekend of May 1st and 2nd we held the spring restoration effort at Hart Springs with over 25 cavers and volunteers working together removing sand, debris, rocks and concrete from the spring. The spring restoration effort was an incredible success! Volunteers included, a Boy Scout group, park personnel and locals. Park manager Amos Philman was the driving force behind getting this work begun and along with Cindy Butler the event was well organized and the participation from the Florida caving community was overwhelming. We used the pump to remove over 6 ft, of sand and debris from the spring head. We also removed a couple of tons of rock and old concrete by using lift bags attached to wire baskets. Surface support from the dry cavers and the scouts helped get these rocks up and out of the spring area.

    We worked all day Saturday and Sunday. By Saturday afternoon we had removed enough debris to allow flow to resume from the spring head. By Sunday afternoon we had the basin running again with clear blue water and a good boil on the surface. The spring has not had a boil for over 6 years. Kids were swimming and enjoying the beautiful new are by the end of the day Sunday.

    Current status: May 3rd, 2004.

    The Gilchrist County Commission heard testimony and viewed plans given to them by Cynthia Butler and Pete Butt for the re-opening of Hart Springs Cave system to cave diving. Amos Philman the manager of Hart springs also gave testimony supporting cave diving and reported on the results of the two day clean up of the springs put on by local cavers belonging to the FSS and TBAG. The vote was taken and passed four to one to allow the opening of the cave system owned by Gilchrist County at Hart Springs to guided cave dives as proposed by Cynthia Butler and overturning legislation that made cave diving in Gilchrist county illegal. The formation of an advisory committee that was presented by Pete Butt was also passed. The cave system was closed to diving five years ago over concerns about liability to the county. Liability issues, future plans for the cave system, conservation, volunteer labor and income for the park were among the topics addressed during the meeting by both Cindy and Pete. Rob Anderson also attended the meeting support of the guide system and the opening of the cave.

    The opening date for the Hart Springs cave system is not determined at this time. The goal was originally to open for the CDS Workshop but that may not happen. The advisory council headed by Pete Butt and the Guide System that will be run by Bill Main will meet in High Springs on May 11. Several issues have to be resolved prior to the opening of the cave. The waiver that will be used, placement of gold line and the finishing of the parking area all need to be done prior to the cave opening. Everyone involved is working now to provide for the safety and the protection of the park and Gilchrist County. We want to do this right and keep the cave open for many years. An opening date will be posted soon. A lot of good people are working very hard to get this system open.