In April 2015, the University of Florida and the University Press of Florida launched Gatorbytes, a digital book series following the innovative research taking place at UF. Intended to pique the interests of the intellectually curious and to share the stories behind the discoveries being made at UF, the books are written by professional journalists.
“They know how to take complex material, break it down into manageable chunks and tell a story,” says Meredith Babb, director of the University Press of Florida.
We’re taking a closer look at each of the works in the Gatorbytes series to spotlight the journalists working to share these amazing projects and to offer even more behind-the-scenes information about the groundbreaking research.
In this Gatorbyte, Tapping the Source: Inside UF’s Water Institute by Terry Tomalin, the late outdoors editor at the Tampa Bay Times, readers get an inside look at the University of Florida Water Institute and the researchers who work to preserve and restore one of Florida’s most precious natural resources: water.
Wendy Graham, director of the UF Water Institute, didn’t start with the passion for water she has today. She originally wanted to be an astronomer, until the Love Canal disaster of 1976 changed the course of her life and research. Watching the devastating contamination on T.V. opened her eyes to the effect that water has on human lives.
“It had a big impact on my life,” she tells Terry Tomalin. “For a while I thought I was going to clean up Love Canal.” Ultimately, Graham’s interest led her from Love Canal to the study of groundwater, something that Florida has in spades.
The Floridan aquifer, perhaps the most mysterious part of Florida’s aquatic ecosystem, is a shelf of spongy, water-filled limestone that runs under the entirety of Florida and parts of Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi. The Water Institute researches tirelessly to understand how the aquifer works, and there are still many questions that remain unanswered.
The aquifer is both the least understood part of the aquatic ecosystem and arguably the most important. It contains water that has been dated at 17,000-26,000 years old, and that water is what feeds Florida’s springs, rivers, and eventually oceans.
The UF Water Institute doesn’t work alone in conserving and managing Florida’s water supply. Though it may seem to have a narrower focus in water management, the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Science (IFAS) demonstrates how deeply water affects every aspect of human life, especially in Florida. Their researchers work hand-in-hand with the UF Water Institute to better manage our everyday and long-term use of water.
Tom Frazer, an aquatic ecologist, is a member of UF/IFAS and acting director of the UF Water Institute while Wendy Graham is away. Frazer, a surfer as well as an ecologist, is focused on studying and preserving marine environments and the ecosystems that line Florida’s shores.
Frazer’s interest in sea grass beds has evolved over the years as he has discovered more about the interconnectedness of aquatic ecosystems. Seeking out the origin of the water that finds its way to the coast has led him to Florida’s springs—the beating heart of the state’s myriad of rivers, lakes, and estuaries.
Springs and aquifers are the life force of not only Florida, but almost the entire world. “Everything starts right here,” Frazer says to Tomalin. “If you want the big picture, you start right here.”
The key to water conservation is raising awareness and keeping constantly vigilant about water quality, movement, and use. Florida is more naturally open to noticing the changes than anywhere else in the United States, Frazer thinks. “Here in Florida, we see our water in our springs, rivers and lakes,” he says to Tomalin. “Floridians love their water and I think they understand that what we do on land will have an impact on our estuaries and our oceans.”
There are a lot of mysteries surrounding Florida’s water and its aquifer, but one thing that most researchers agree on is that water management is vital to Florida’s (and the world’s) continued survival, and the UF Water Institute is at the head of that effort.
Watch these videos for some tips on how to manage your own water usage both outside and inside the home: