The Fight to Save Three Sisters, Crystal River’s “Environmental Jewel”

Crystal River and its partners are striving to purchase Three Sisters Springs, which would preserve the ecosystem and uplands for endangered manatees and a diverse collection of other wildlife.

My mom and I wandered into a Crystal River dive shop during a summer vacation to Florida when I was 12 years old. She grew up watching Sea Hunt and had always wanted to scuba dive. I was fascinated with the underwater world and dreamed of becoming a marine biologist. It was an easy decision.

West Indian manatees seek shelter in the rivers and springs of Florida's Citrus County

On the first day of our scuba lessons, we began our training outside an area called Three Sisters, named for the three springs at this site. I struggled against the current in the spring run but soon reached the first spring. The crystal-clear waters opened up to a giant sandy bowl, more than 20 feet deep. The sun beamed down from above, illuminating a tiny flounder camouflaged perfectly in the sand. The second and third springs were wilder and even more mysterious, with low-hanging branches and submerged tree limbs hiding a variety of fish.

When I put my head above water, the view was equally breathtaking. We were enveloped by trees and by quiet. I couldn't believe how close we were to civilization, because we seemed a world away.

Fifteen years later, Three Sisters remains one of my favorite places. Now working with Save the Manatee Club, I am part of an enormous and incredibly worthwhile effort to purchase the springs and the surrounding land to ensure their protection. Three Sisters is part of the larger Kings Bay springs complex, which consists of more than 30 known springs that flow into Crystal River. Three Sisters is located within the city of Crystal River and, while its urban location makes it unique, it also makes preservation even more challenging. Like many of Florida's springs, water quality and flow have been threatened by increasing groundwater demands for human consumption. Manatees are perhaps the most well-known visitors to Three Sisters; this site provides one of the state's most important natural warm-water refuges for this endangered species.

Helen Spivey is one woman whose name is synonymous with the fight to save Three Sisters; she first snorkeled at Three Sisters in the late 1970s and described it as "absolutely gorgeous." Since that time, Spivey has been at the forefront of numerous attempts to get the 60-acre parcel that includes the springs into public hands and prevent development. Previous fundraising attempts have fallen short; this has kept the property under private ownership. The most recent sale occurred in 2005, when the property was purchased for $10.5 million and slated for high-density development and drinking water withdrawals.

With the help of multiple partners, Spivey, now 81, is as close as she's ever been to seeing her dream for Three Sisters realized. In September 2008, the project received a $6.3 million grant from the Florida Communities Trust. Three Sisters ranked 10th out of 90 projects vying for funding. There's still work to be done. The grant requires a $2.7 million match, to which the city, county, federal government, private foundations and nonprofit organizations, including Save the Manatee Club, have contributed.

Patrick Rose, executive director of the Save the Manatee Club, has close ties with Three Sisters. An aquatic biologist, PADI instructor and underwater photographer and cinematographer, he first filmed the springs from underwater in late 1960s, using with a homemade underwater movie camera housing. He considers the purchase of Three Sisters crucial to both the long-term survival of manatees and to the preservation of the springs themselves.

If the city of Crystal River and its partners are successful, the Three Sisters Springs ecosystem and uplands will be better preserved for endangered manatees and a diverse collection of other wildlife. Improved water quality gained through better filtration will benefit the natural resources and human visitors, including snorkelers and divers. Visitors, residents, and city and county governments will see benefits from enhanced ecotourism, recreation, and environmental education opportunities.

Today, approximately $170,000 in donations is required to complete the match; additional funds may be needed, depending on the findings of two state appraisals. High appraisals may mean that there are not enough funds available to complete the purchase, while low appraisals could cause the current landowner to back out of the deal. If the funding falls short, the property will be developed by the current owner and a critical preservation opportunity will be lost forever.

Three Sisters has always been a magical place to me, but during a recent visit, I imagined the land covered with houses and condos, and forever changed. The stakes are high for this property, but with enough support from other visitors who have been captivated by Three Sisters, I'm confident we can keep the magic alive here for generations to come.

You can help by visiting Save Three Sisters and making a donation.

© Alert Diver — Fall 2009