Donate online

Join Sierra
Join our Facebook facebook logo
Join us on Meetup

Nature reserves the right to inflict upon her children the most terrifying jests.

~Thornton Wilder
Written by Marjorie Holt   
Wednesday, November 12 2008

Bubbling to the Surface
By Cynthia Barnett - 11/1/2008

Water Fight: Central Florida utilities want to withdraw up to 262 million gallons of water a day from the St. Johns River (pictured here in Putnam County). Environmentalists and economists argue the region hasn’t done nearly enough to reduce demand. [Photo: © Bill Yates / CYPIX]

Meandering 310 miles from the coastal marshes of southeastern Florida up the Atlantic coast, the St. Johns River shifts back and forth from river to lake to swamp to estuary as it makes a slow journey toward Jacksonville. It’s the longest river in Florida — and the newest battleground in the state’s water wars.

The St. Johns River Water Management District is considering letting central Florida utilities withdraw up to 262 million gallons of water a day from the St. Johns and its largest tributary, the Ocklawaha River, to supply future population growth. Utilities and water managers say such alternatives are crucial to wean the region from its unsustainable use of groundwater. Environmentalists and economists argue the region hasn’t done nearly enough to reduce demand to justify the costs to Floridians and the environment.

St. Johns Riverkeeper, the city of Jacksonville and St. Johns County have gone to court to fight Seminole County’s request for withdrawals, the first in a long line of permit requests.

Some observers such as St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker, chairman of Florida’s Century Commission, fear a repeat of the Tampa Bay water wars, in which six local governments in the region ran up millions of dollars in legal bills in a decadelong fight over Pinellas County and St. Petersburg’s pumping from out-of-county wellfields.

This fall, the Century Commission hosted an ambitious Water Congress in Orlando with the goal of finding sustainable long-term solutions to Florida’s water needs. Delegates — 120 in all, from commissioners in water-worried counties to sod farmers to environmentalists to utility directors — spent two days trying to reach a consensus on a broad range of recommendations submitted by all of the parties and the public.

Utilities executives had bought into the Water Congress idea early on; eight committees of the Florida section of the American Water Works Association had spent nearly a year working on their recommendations, compiled into a proposal called Florida 2030. Contributions from environmental groups were slim by comparison. The lopsided input created lots of cynicism. Still, by the end of the two-day Water Congress, the disparate groups had agreed on 18 steps, some of them bold: Requiring landscape efficiency as a condition of consumptive-use permits and development orders, for example, and setting per-capita water use goals for Floridians.

Water Congress:
Top 4 Recommendations
Reinstate Florida’s annual
funding for developing alternative water supplies.
Create strong incentives for regional partnerships such as water-supply authorities.
Consider conservation projects
a type of alternative water supply, as eligible for funding as any infrastructure project.
Set per-capita goals for water use and provide a stable funding base for the Conserve Florida program. 

The four steps ranked most urgent by the congress were divided equally between the supply side and the demand side [See "Top 4 Recommendations," at right]. Still, no one seemed to challenge the underlying assumption of the state’s water-planning machine — and that of the congress: That Florida must find 2 billion more gallons of water a day by 2025 to meet future population growth.

Florida’s water-use statistics show the state is using less water all the time, even as its population and economy grow. (The national pattern is the same.) Florida’s overall water use dropped from 8.1 billion gallons a day in 2000 to 6.8 billion gallons a day in 2005. Per-capita consumption in the state dropped from 174 gallons per person per day to 158 in the same period.

Later this month, the Century Commission will consider the 18 proposed steps — with an emphasis on the top four — for its annual report to the Legislature.

But where will the good ideas go from there? Last year, the commission’s report helped spur lawmakers and Gov. Charlie Crist to take action on energy policy — for example, the governor’s call for an 80% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by electric utilities by 2050. Some criticized Crist for not participating in the Water Congress. But Century Commission executive director Tim Center says that between the delegates’ buy-in and the 50-year sustainability charge of the Century Commission, “I think the state will — and should — take the recommendations quite seriously.”

Links: Final 18 recommendations of the Water Congress

› USGS report on Floridians’ latest water-use statistics

› American Water Works Association’s Florida 2030 Task Force

› University of Florida peer review of Florida 2030 report

› Reforming the Florida Water Resources Act of 1972


Last Updated ( Wednesday, November 12 2008 )
< Prev   Next >