Posted Sep 11, 2018 at 2:00 AM
Nature’s water cycle is amazing and free. Solar energy lifts fresh water from the ocean as vapor, transports it over the land with wind currents and deposits precipitation on Florida at an average rate of about 150 billion gallons each day.
About 15 billion gallons of this rainfall daily recharges the state’s natural underground water storage and conveyance system. The remaining 90 percent evaporates or runs off in rivers to the ocean. This is like a natural Jacuzzi, bathing Florida’s environment in life-giving freshwater at no cost.
Fast forward to 2018. Humans have corralled and re-directed Florida’s natural water cycle to fulfill their own desires. Florida’s rivers and lakes are widely impaired due to poorly regulated pollutant discharges and excessive withdrawals. Increasingly, Floridians have turned to underground waters for supply, first for drinking water and then for nearly every other use, including landscape and crop irrigation that was traditionally supported by rain.
The consequence of this shift is the increasing depletion of Florida’s most precious and least plentiful fresh water supply — the groundwater in Florida’s aquifers. In north and central Florida, the resulting destruction of our natural springs and rivers that rely on groundwater inputs for dry-season baseflow is visible to all who care to look. Downstate in the absence of springs, aquifer depletion is harder to see.
Rather than facing this calamity head on by establishing a cap on groundwater pumping to reserve adequate water to protect natural environments, Florida’s leaders continue to kick the can down the road under cover of poor science and public apathy.
Some of us consume less than 30 gallons per day of groundwater for drinking, bathing and cleaning and are content to rely on rain to water our grass. But the average Floridan consumes closer to 100 gallons per day of groundwater. Just by cutting out unnecessary water uses, we could reduce the public’s 3 billion gallon per day groundwater habit to less than 1 billion gallons per day.
Fortunately, a few areas of the state are concerned enough about depleted aquifers to have already cut historic water uses in half. Unfortunately, the benefits realized by this growing Florida water ethic are undone by a much smaller group of water users — namely for-profit business owners who shamelessly drink for free at the public water trough. With no charge for using groundwater, the cunning few who control the water-permitting system easily gain permits to withdraw gigantic quantities of groundwater at no charge.
While water bottlers are a convenient target for public wrath about this corporate welfare, they are a drop in the bucket compared to phosphate mines, paper mills, industrial farms and others. More than 30,000 consumptive use permits allocate nearly half of all groundwater recharge in Florida’s Springs Region. Averaging more than 150,000 gallons per day each, these permits legalize groundwater extractions that are collectively killing our springs.
Despite compelling evidence that Florida’s springs are drying up, the state’s leaders continue to promote their costly charade justifying new water consumption permits based on obfuscation and flawed groundwater flow models. While restoring Florida’s springs is as easy and free as reducing permitted groundwater allocations, the water management districts would rather bilk taxpayers for the cost of their own water.
For example, St. Johns River Water Management District leaders seriously considered putting a pipe in the Ocklawaha River downstream from Silver Springs and pumping the water to a treatment and recharge system next to the spring at an estimated capital cost of more than $100 million and annual operating costs of nearly $1 million. District employees privately dubbed this ridiculous idea the “Jacuzzi Project.”
The same water district is implementing a $40 million scheme to pump water from Black Creek to restore water levels in the Keystone area lakes. Once again, the cost for this Ponzi scheme will be borne by taxpayers rather than by the businesses who continue to profit by depleting the aquifer.
A series of similar projects are in the planning stages in the Suwannee River Water Management District. Together these two water districts have projected a $300 million price tag to provide “alternative” water supplies to meet future demands.
How can these “public servants” continue to expend public money to implement these unnecessary water supply projects? The simple answer is that they are desperate enough to try anything to keep their jobs. If we don’t demand better of our leaders, you can bet we won’t get it.
Dr. Bob Knight is director of the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute in High Springs.