Springing to action

If the award-winning documentary "Wekiva: Legacy or Loss?" can't move you to activism on behalf of Florida's beleaguered wild places, nothing can. With awesome photography, shot partly in the Wekiva River's dangerous, never-before-explored main spring, and a smart script by co-producer Bill Belleville, the film creates a mythical sense of place and an urgent sense of time running out.

A screening at 7:15 pm Monday, Feb. 12, at Rollins College should inform those who missed the film's premiere last fall on public television. Extraordinary underwater footage was made possible by a team of seasoned, professional cave divers who generated a new map of the spring's cave system. Wekiva's uncommon clarity made it possible for filmers to capture the rich diversity of life beneath the water, including their astonishing discovery of a specie of snail previously unknown to science and found nowhere else on earth.

While to the uninformed, such a finding may seem minuscule, the snails are tiny treasures: Each spring has its own specie that exists solely to eat algae in that particular place -- a biological barometer of the river's health that can only survive in clean, flowing water. No snails equals trouble in river city.

And indeed, there is trouble.

Slow flow

"Think about it," says Belleville, an accomplished outdoors writer when he's not making films. "All the springs in the Wekiva system that have been measured for outflow are declining, and will continue to do so. By 2020, they will have individually declined -- since the 1960s and the onslaught of development -- by 30 to 60 percent.

"In prehistory, swelling spring water created underwater caves. Now, because of that drop in magnitude, they are dry enough that you can actually breathe inside of them," he says. "That is very startling, and graphically illustrates how dramatically the aquifer is declining -- and that it is no longer an infinite gift."

The documentary was funded by a $62,000 grant from the Florida Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation, matched by WMFE- Channel 24, the Orlando-based public broadcasting station. The goal of Belleville and his producing partner, Bob Giguere, was to not only record the uniqueness of the Wekiva system, but to touch people's sensibilities, connect them with it, and inspire their advocacy for its care.

"This is our last natural wild area in this region, or what's left of it," says Belleville. "On paper, it is the best-protected river in Florida. In truth, we are in serious danger of losing it to development. We can not even rest on what was legislated 10 years ago, because people today are trying to end-run that protection."

The Rollins College venue lends itself to the educational aims of the pair, who have set up a website to further their mission. "We have a strong component devoted to curriculum," says Belleville, "so it will be a particularly good time to emphasize how the Wekiva River can be brought into schools."

That component is "River Classroom," which includes summaries of five curriculum packages relating to natural history and conservation of wild areas. Designed by Belleville, from his review of materials from the. St. Johns River Water Management District and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the packages and videocassettes of "Wekiva: Legacy or Loss?" both are for sale on the site.

A second element, "Valuable Web Links," is a virtual library about the history and condition of the Wekiva River system. An excellent aid for teachers, it includes springs' health reports, an extensive bibliography of research for the documentary, and live links to all the public-land owners and managers who oversee the 110 square-mile Wekiva Basin.

Capitalizing on kids

"Unfortunately, Florida does not integrate natural history into normal `classroom` curriculum," says Belleville. "We are trying to find ways to include local versions of natural history, hoping for long-term public awareness, which leads to legislation.We feel schoolchildren of all ages are the best bet to affect change, as in a few years they will be charged with the stewardship of this river system."

Bruce Stephenson, of the Rollins College Environmental Studies Department, is already using the film. "It's a visual representation of all the theoretical analysis we do, and underscores how vital this river system is to the health of Central Florida. It also exposes problems we didn"t know existed," he says.

"Unfortunately, we don't even know how the Wekiva system works. Worse, we can kill it before we figure it out."

Against that dark possibility, the filmmakers plan ongoing presentations to teachers at all grade levels -- kindergarten through college -- and to the many professionals who work with Florida's state parks. An estimated half-million viewers have seen the documentary since its November 2000 broadcast premiere on WMFE-Channel 24; hits to the web site have soared. Slated for national distribution, the film already has won two awards: a National Award of Distinction from the Communicator Awards, a contest among television broadcasters with entries from six countries, and a Telly Award, which honors "outstanding non-network television programs."

Based on the success of this and other projects, Belleville and Giguere formed Equinox Documentaries Inc., a nonprofit effort dedicated to making environmental documentaries. And none too soon. "Wekiva: Legacy or Loss?" underscores the destruction to Florida's delicate ecosystem -- alarming because we are as much a part of that system as the exotic snails of the springs.

"Meet the Filmmakers" presents Bill Belleville and Bob Giguere screening their 54-minute documentary, Wekiva: Legacy or Loss? on Monday, Feb. 12 in Rollins College's Bush Auditorium. Reception 6:30 pm; screening 7:15 pm, followed by a question-and-answer session. Free.

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