Springs Fever: A Field & Recreation Guide to 500 Florida Springs.
3rd Edition by Joe Follman and Richard Buchanan

Sulphur Spring

Hillsborough County

Summary of Features

  • Scale--2nd magnitude 
  • Scenery--blighted urban area, near dog track and housing projects 
  • How Pristine?--dangerously polluted, pool encircled in concrete with
  • spillway, adjacent to municipal pool and developed areas
  • Swimming--not allowed because of pollution
  • Protection--restoration efforts being considered 
  • Crowds--none at spring, can be heavy at adjacent pool
  • Access--excellen
  • Access--excellent

Quick Directions

Phone and directions: (813) 931-2156, 713 E Bird Street Tampa, 33604

The spring is located about 1/8 mile east of Interstate 75 where it crosses the Hillsborough River. From I-75, exit onto Bird Street and go one block east (in front of dog track) to U.S. 41 (Nebraska Avenue). Go right or south on U.S. 41 just past dog track to the spring on the right just before the Hillsborough River.

Spring Description

The spring is encircled in concrete and about 50 feet in diameter. The pool was fenced off when visited in 2000, but previously was fairly clear and about 30 feet deep. Flow from the limestone openings creates large slicks on the surface of the pool. Water in the spring has a sulfurous odor. Water exits the concrete enclosure over two spillways and into a shallow and sandy run of about 200 yards to the Hillsborough River. Large fish may be seen in the run. There is a concrete retaining wall along part of the run outside the pool and a sidewalk around the pool. A pumphouse is next to the pool. About 100 yards west of the spring is a domed structure that for years pumped water from the spring into a small drinking fountain.

The spring is in a densely developed area of homes, businesses, and highways. An historic domed structure is just north of the spring. Water from the spring was pumped to a fountain in the building, and people could drink and collect water from the fountain. It is current closed, and water is no longer pumped to this structure.

According to Dumeyer (in Abstracts of . . . 2003), the spring's tributary area contains numerous sinkholes, many of which are used as urban stormwater drains because the area has no natural surface drainage to the [Hillsborough] river. The only natural surface channel is Curiosity Creek which drains 3.5 miles of the NW part of the area and originally flowed into Blue Sink, a swallet, where the surface flow entered the solution channels to Sulphur Springs. Blue Sink became plugged in 1974 and the surface waters now have to be pumped to the river. In addition to the creek, Blue Sink was also fed by Ewanowski Spring, a third magniude spring located 300 feet to the NW of Blue Sink. The plugging raised local water levels by 7-8 feet and blocked the flow from the spring. Initial pump testing showed that Ewanowski Spring could yield about 6 cfs if the Blue Sink water level was lowered to the original level. The Sulphur Springs flow recored show a subsequent decline after Blue Sink was plugged (p. 13).

An investigation is being made to see if Blue Spring can be unplugged to help restore the historic flow of Sulphur Springs. The partners in this research are the Tampa Water Departemnt, the Hillsborough River Basin Board, and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (Abstracts of . . . 2003).

Florida's Springs: Strategies for Protection and Restoration (Hartnett, 2000), records that Sulphur Spring suffers from high levels of coliform bacteria (perhaps from septic and local sewage system intrusion), nitrate levels as high as 0.89 mg per liter from stormwater runoff, reduced flow due to the filling of sinkholes that fed the spring, and increased levels of sodium in the springflow (p. 19).

A 2012 article in the Tampa Bay Times by Craig Pittman noted that pollution of the spring was deemed to be too endemic and severe to fix: Twelve years ago, when a panel of experts published a report on everything wrong with Florida's springs, one meager ray of light came from Sulphur Springs in Tampa. In the late 1800s, Sulphur Springs became a popular spot for settlers looking to cool off with a swim and to socialize with a picnic on its sandy shore. Homes and stores grew up around it. When Tampa built a streetcar line, the springs were its northernmost terminus.

In modern times, though, what made the spring off Interstate 275 near the Tampa Greyhound Track important was its steady flow of water even during droughts. That gush from underground would flow into the Hillsborough River, the main source of Tampa's drinking water. Since the 1960s, every time the river's flow dipped too low, the city would pump water directly from Sulphur Springs to its reservoir two miles away. The city continued using the water even though the spring suffered from such high bacterial counts that the swimming area was closed in 1986, replaced by a pool unconnected to the spring.

The pollution increased even as the flow declined by 44 percent, a drop due in part to increased pumping of water from the surrounding aquifer. Sulphur Springs appeared to be "a prime example of the serious degradation that can occur in the absence of planning and protection," the 2000 state springs report said. But that could all change, the report pointed out. The city and the Southwest Florida Water Management District--commonly known as Swiftmud--had hired two hydrogeologists to study how the spring might be restored, improving both its flow and its cleanliness.

Sulphur Springs' main problem, they found, was that it was connected underground to a more than a dozen nearby sinkholes that funneled water into it from the surface. The biggest one became clogged in the 1950s. A car dealer had built a lot next to it, and during a major storm a Dumpster slid into the sinkhole and blocked it off completely, said John Dumeyer, who did the Swiftmud study with Peter Schreuder.

Other sinkholes were clogged by garbage that had been tossed in over the years. Schreuder said they found "refrigerators, car parts, tires and battery casings." Plastic bags tossed in the holes caught on twigs and tree limbs that fell in naturally, "and it forms a dam," he said. "It's a terrible shame," Schreuder said. Those weren't the only things blocking it, either.

"Many have been deliberately filled with soil and concrete debris to facilitate construction of homes and businesses," Schreuder and Dumeyer wrote in their study. And at least two of the remaining sinkholes had been converted to stormwater ponds by the city. Pollution collected in those ponds--fertilizer, gasoline and a host of other contaminants--flowed straight into the aquifer feeding the spring.

Cave divers hired by the city in the mid-1990s to explore the spring saw the consequences of the pollution pouring in. "You could see the slick on the surface from the petroleum product in the water," cave diver Jeff Peterson recalled. "I know people who would dive in and said they would get sick from E. coli (bacteria).'' Peterson said he didn't suffer any health effects, but the pollution took its toll on his wardrobe: "The elastic on our waistbands would break up after two or three dives."

Later, the divers made an even more disturbing discovery. While diving the freshwater spring, they found saltwater vents had opened up in the spring's tunnels. Thanks to increased pumping from the aquifer, the pressure pushing fresh water out of the spring had dropped and allowed chloride--salt--to intrude. Ultimately, after checking scores of monitor wells and consulting with the divers, Dumeyer and Schreuder concluded that Sulphur Springs was too far gone to be restored. In their 2004 report, Dumeyer and Schreuder wrote that the underground tunnels that once ran between the sinkholes and the spring were too clogged. The connection between the main sinkhole and Sulphur Springs was "not feasible to reconnect," they wrote. "There's no way to put a Roto-Rooter into those underground channels," Dumeyer explained. The engineers also warned that Tampa's continued dumping of stormwater in those sinkholes "will further endanger the connection" because debris and pollution were affecting the stability of the walls.

The continued blockage of those sinkholes cut the flow of water in the spring by 10 million gallons per day, the report noted, so that "the salinity of Sulphur Springs increased proportionally with the decline of freshwater recharge" from the clogged sinks. They decided that the only way to get the missing water from the sinkholes over to the river or reservoir would be to spend millions building a pipe above the ground to bypass the spring entirely, Dumeyer said. The failure of the spring restoration plan, and the report on everything wrong with it, did not discourage city officials from continuing to tap the spring for water. During droughts in 2000 and in 2004 the city pumped water from the spring to its reservoir. In 2009, the city spent three months pumping 3.2 million gallons a day out of the spring. They have to keep an eye on the salt so it doesn't make the reservoir too salty, explained Brad Baird, director of Tampa's water department. But they're not concerned about all the pollution, which he said is easily handled by the city's water treatment process. Go down by the spring run and walk along the footbridge over the channel that runs to the river, he said. "It's a nice setting," he said. "And if you look at the spring run, you'll see it's clear water."


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