Guarding Our Silent Treasures

Guarding Our Silent TreasuresPreserving the Timeless Natural Beauty of Econfina Creek


By Faith Eidse

Econfina Creek flows steep and narrow beneath forest canopies through Jackson, Washington and Bay counties, its corridor largely preserved and guarded by the Northwest Florida Water Management District. The steepest gradient of any designated canoe trail in Florida, it speeds through winding chutes and passes waterfalls that drop from high bluffs. As the creek approaches State Road 20, it slices into the ancient limestone of the Floridan Aquifer and gathers abundant flows from numerous springs.

Econfina Creek is fed by 11 springs or spring groups composed of 39 individual vents, most of them within a mile of State Road 20, according to a recent Water Management District spring inventory. Along Econfina, the district has purchased more than 42,000 acres of surrounding land to create the Econfina Creek Water Management Area and is working to restore habitat and protect listed species and natural systems.

“I hope our spring inventories will inspire people to hit the foot paths and canoe trails to see this incredible natural resource,” said study author Kristopher Barrios. “It is the public, after all, who will ultimately decide the fate of our springs.”

“The purpose of this study is to help educate people to preserve the quality of Florida’s springs,” said Northwest Florida Water Management District Executive Director Douglas E. Barr. “The aquifer doesn’t remediate any pollution we create, so it is up to us to protect our critical water resources and quality of life for generations to come.”

Plans are under way to restore and protect the Econfina Springs Complex, which includes Pitts, Williford and Sylvan springs. The Water Management District also wants to preserve cultural resources and control erosion to the numerous Sand Hill Lakes, some linked directly to the aquifer.

The creek flows into Deer Point Lake Reservoir, which supplies Bay County’s drinking water. Regular releases from Deer Point Lake dam also provide critical fresh water to St. Andrews Bay.

The creek’s groundwater contribution zone is large and includes a significant Water Management District-owned portion of the nearby Sand Hill Lakes area. Under moderate flow, groundwater makes up 82 percent of the creek’s discharge to Deer Point Lake Reservoir.

The Econfina Creek Water Management Area is open to the public for swimming, fishing, hiking, camping, bicycling, horseback riding, hunting, wildlife viewing and canoeing, as long as these activities don’t harm natural resources.

Gorgeous Gainer Springs

Springs, and springs groups, are classified according to the magnitude of their flow. The lower reach of Econfina Creek slows to a gentle sway where the Gainer Springs Group enters from numerous vents, one of Northwest Florida’s five first-magnitude springs. The Gainer Springs Group, a collection of vents located along the middle portion of Econfina Creek just south of the Bay and Washington county line, is the most significant part of the Econfina, measuring a first-magnitude flow of 114 million gallons a day.

Concentrated about a half mile south of the Highway 20 bridge, these springs are accessible by canoe or kayak. Paddlers are advised not to harm the springs’ banks and to respect property owners’ wishes.

The first group in the Gainer Springs features includes nine separate vents, including a 40-foot pool that is 11 feet deep. McCormick Spring, also a part of this group, emerges into a pool about 25 feet across and creates a gentle boil as it rises from some 11.5 feet deep.

Glorious Emerald Spring also claims membership in the Gainer Springs Group. This breathtaking body of water boils from a crack at the base of a 25-foot limestone bluff and features a cove about 30 feet across and 12 feet deep, as well as a small beach that has eroded due to trampling. A crack in the limestone bluff to the north of the main vent also discharges groundwater. The vent is surrounded by private land.

West of Econfina Creek on private land is the third group of springs in the Gainer collection, also popular with paddlers. The spring run turns north and parallels the creek for 400 feet. A pool about 250 feet across and 11 feet deep features a small beach eroded by visitors with a small island in the center. There are several vent openings in the bottom, near the edges of the pool, which create surface boils.

Emerging beneath a 20-foot limestone bluff into two small coves next to the creek is Gainer Springs No. 4 group. The largest cove is shallow and about 20 feet across. The second cove adjoins the first in high water but usually is separated by a thin spit of land. The vents are surrounded by private land a little over one-half mile south of the Highway 20 bridge.

The fifth section of the Gainer Springs group emerges from beneath a limestone bluff into a shallow pool that is about 12 feet wide. The spring run is approximately 200 feet long and runs parallel to the creek. In high water, this pool and run are covered by the creek.

Glowing Spring to Devils Hole

Four springs or spring groups on Econfina Creek are classified as second magnitude (between 6.5 million and 64 million gallons a day). They are Glowing, Devils Hole, Williford and Sylvan springs.

The Sylvan Springs group is located north of Highway 20 and consists of several vents on the west side of the creek. The spring group is on Water Management District land and is a popular destination along a foot path from Pitt Spring.

Williford Spring is a single large vent at the head of its run, located north of State Road 20 in Washington County. However, several smaller vents contribute to the run before it enters Econfina Creek.

Devils Hole discharges from beneath a limestone ledge about 11 feet deep on the west side of the main channel of Econfina Creek almost a mile above Walsingham Bridge. A significant boil is visible at normal stage levels.

Glowing Spring is a 13-foot-deep crack in the limestone at the bottom of Econfina Creek on the west side, about 3.5 miles north of the Highway 20 bridge. The surface boils noticeably when the water levels are lower.

Caves, Pools and Campsites

Six springs or spring groups are classified as third magnitude (between 64,000 and 6.5 million gallons a day). They include the Blue and Strickland springs groups and the popular Pitt Spring. Measurements indicate that water spends a short time underground, which means that springs are vulnerable to daily activities on the surface.

The Blue Springs group consists of three principal springs and numerous smaller vents and seeps. From Blue Spring No. 1, three vents emerge into a 40-foot-wide pool with varying depths. The largest flow is from a half-submerged cave beneath a 6-foot high limestone bluff. Visitors can enjoy this wonder of nature from the group campsite and picnic area created by the Water Management District. From the bluff, a wide cement stairway leads to the edge of the water to give campers a closer look.

Other points of interest in the Blue Spring group include a shallow, 34-foot-wide pool that emerges from beneath a collapsing carbonate bluff about 8 feet high. The pool is 3 feet at its deepest point.

Located just north of Highway 20 is popular Pitt Spring. The vent emerges from beneath a submerged limestone ledge into a 40-foot pool. The mouth of the 50-foot run is on the west side of the creek, and during typical weather conditions, there is a gentle surface boil. The Water Management District has constructed restrooms and picnic shelters near the pool, and these remain open to visitors for picnicking and hiking until sunset. The maximum depth measured in the mouth of the vent is 11.5 feet, but the conduit extends further down.

However, recent drought conditions have lowered spring and creek levels and have led the Water Management District to close the pool to swimming since it has stopped flowing.

“It is important to protect these windows to our aquifer,” said William O. Cleckley, director of the district’s Division of Land Management and Acquisition. “If we treat these resources with care, our water can remain pure, our natural systems will be sustained, natural beauty will flourish, wildlife will thrive, and recreation can be enjoyed for generations to come.”