Department of Landscape Architecture
Architecture Building

Thompson leads student team in springs study

January 31, 2012

Landscape architecture students are taking hands-on learning to another level: underwater.

The department recently completed a study that paves the way for slope stabilization and manatee habitat restoration work at one of Florida’s most important fresh water springs.

LAE master’s students Brad Weitekamp, Christina Lathrop, who is also principal at Dix.Lathrop, UF’s “partner-in-practice” on the study, and junior Tracy Wyman joined Kevin Thompson, assistant professor of landscape architecture, in mapping the project in September.

Members of the team have spent considerable time underwater taking measurements and making observations of geological formations, erosion and slope structure decline in the embankment areas of the springs.

“The issues challenging the health of the Three Sisters Springs are fairly typical to those that are affecting the health of springs across the state,” Thompson said. “Upstream nutrient loading is degrading water quality and human activity — both at the springs and on lands immediately adjacent to them — has a clear impact on these fragile aquatic environments. But, what makes this project unique is that it is also part of a national wildlife sanctuary providing important protected species habitat.”

Three Sisters Springs is part of a complex of springs that feed Kings Bay in Citrus County, which serves as refuge to the endangered Florida manatee and as an ecotourism destination that attracts more than 100,000 visitors annually.

Three Sisters drew national attention during the 60s when Jacques Cousteau used the springs to rehabilitate rescued Miami manatee “Sewer Sam,” Thompson said.

“That national attention also attracted developers though, and for many decades, the property fell into the hands of owners with commercial interest in the property,” Thompson said. “What sells land and what makes for good protected species habitat are not always complimentary forces.”

In 2010, a coalition of public and private entities managed to purchase the land, transferring ownership to public trust. The property is now owned by the City of Crystal River and the Southwest Florida Water Management District and is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the UF client on the project.

“The manatee continue to make this a special place, but it’s also really exciting to be involved with work in a place where there are so many people with an obvious impassioned commitment to protecting the area’s wildlife and natural environment,” Thompson said. “On any given day of the week you’ll see volunteer naturalists in kayaks on the waterways looking after the wellbeing of these creatures and their habitat. It’s uplifting.”

Contributing to the effort has been similarly uplifting for the students involved.

“I’ve been in waters around the world but I’ve never experienced anything as beautiful as I did at Three Sisters,” Wyman said. “It’s another whole world just below the surface: a maze of black tree roots against misty blue waters, fish darting about everywhere. I had to continually remind myself that I was there to look at a problem. Otherwise, I would have been stymied, mesmerized by the sheer beauty of it all.”

According to Thompson, the initial study is now complete, but there is still a lot of work to be done.

“You can’t undo a half century’s worth of misguided interventions in one short study,” Thompson said. “It’ll take years and a lot of continued caring to reverse the damage that’s been done. But now that the property and its management are in the right hands, there’s brighter hope for its future.”