By the time the 2014 legislative session ended last week, the House and Senate had looked at nearly 1,000 bills each. They’d addressed everything from the establishment of a Law Enforcement Officers Hall of Fame to penalties for the possession of spiny lobsters in Florida to creating an official Florida Storytelling Week. But one issue they refused to address, at least not in any meaningful way, is the potentially devastating water shortage staring down the entire state.
“Another year has gone by without tackling one piece of water quality or quantity issue legislation,” says state Rep. Linda Stewart, D-Orlando, who sponsored the Springs Revival Act, introduced in the House on March 4, that went nowhere. “We’ve had not one single discussion about it.”
The problem, says Stewart (and water-conservation experts), is that the state keeps putting off dealing with water conservation and quality issues, despite the fact that our population is growing quickly — as a result, water demand is going up while supply is becoming dangerously low.
According to the Central Florida Water Initiative, a joint venture of the St. Johns River Water Management District, South Florida Water Management District and Southwest Florida Water Management District, Orlando is using as much water as it safely can from the Floridan Aquifer, where 90 percent of the region’s potable water comes from — and consequently, the CFWI has proposed raiding the St. Johns River to make up the difference. Though Central Florida treats the aquifer as if it had a never-ending supply of water, the quantity is finite.
“The current levels of groundwater withdrawals in the Orlando area are reaching the limits of sustainability,” says Hank Largin, public communications coordinator for the St. Johns River Water Management District. Currently, Central Florida pulls approximately 800 million gallons of water per day from the aquifer — and the aquifer can’t handle much more. “Technical experts from the Central Florida Water Initiative teams have determined that only about 50 million gallons per day remain.”
But growth projections (and constant requests from businesses, cities and counties that want permission to pump ever more water from the aquifer to meet their needs) say that over the next 30 years, demand for water is going to far surpass what the aquifer can deliver.
As Central Florida pumps more and more out of it, that region runs the risk of saltwater intrusion — as aquifer levels run low, they make way for coastal waters to flow inland. Saltwater intrusion can make fresh water undrinkable, increases the presence of minerals and nutrients in bodies of freshwater, and can harm crops. Too much pumping will also mean noticeable drops in the water levels in local lakes, rivers and streams, and reduction of flow in springs (which is already happening), as well as shrinking wetlands, which are vital for filtering pollutants from the water that reaches them.
Yet, water-management districts continue to issue permits to businesses that want to increase the amount of water they consume.
“They continue to give away consumptive use permits as if we had water to give,” Stewart says. “But we don’t have it. They just passed legislation to approve a 30-year consumptive use permit request — yet we don’t even have enough water for consumptive use past four years, let alone 30. They simply do not understand, nor do they even acknowledge, that there’s going to be a problem.”
“Right now we have an anti-regulation, de-regulation leadership in this state,” says St. Johns Riverkeeper Lisa Rinaman. “They want to fuel growth, and they don’t want people to think we have a water problem and we have to conserve, when that’s really what would sustain future growth if we do it smartly.”
Though the Floridan Aquifer supplies water for drinking and irrigation in Central Florida, what happens down there matters here in Northeast Florida, especially if the CFWI makes good on plans to drain 150 million gallons a day from the St. Johns, which critics say could lead to a host of environmental problems that would be very difficult and pricey to reverse, and have potentially disastrous effects on our region’s ecosystems.
Though the Senate has moved on some water-conservation bills this session, the House has failed to do so. And without similar or matching legislation in both houses, bills to address the state’s water-shortage problems were a dead issue this session. Stewart says that the House leadership decided it would rather wait another year before dealing with the water crisis. Why? Politics.
Stewart says House Speaker Will Weatherford held off on water legislation because he wants to leave it for Majority Leader Steve Crisafulli to address when he becomes speaker next year.
“Weatherford stated in the House that he would fund a lagoon project, some funding for the Everglades and for Lake Okeechobee, which runs into the Everglades, and that’s it,” she says. “His comment was that he wasn’t going to do anything further because when Crisafulli gets in as Speaker, that’s what he wants to tackle. He wants it to be his legacy,
so we’re going to let him do it. … It’s extremely frustrating.”
In the meantime, she says, the CFWI — a committee charged with figuring out how, exactly, Central Florida is going to meet its water needs in the coming years while accessible sources literally dry up — is working on a comprehensive regional water supply plan. A draft of the plan was finished late last year and should be finalized in May.
Among other things, it says that by 2035, the population of the area covered by the CFWI is projected to grow from 2.7 million to 4.1 million; to make sure that people have enough water to drink, Central Florida will need more than 1,100 million gallons of fresh water per day. That’s 300 million more gallons than it draws now — and about 250 million more gallons than the aquifer even contains to be pumped. Short-term solutions for meeting those needs include pumping water from nearby rivers and tributaries, including the St. Johns, but that carries with it a price. The St. Johns is already suffering from more nutrients than it can easily dilute — storm water runoff, fertilizers and wastewater running into the river are poisoning its waters — and pumping water out of it will only compound the problem. Desalinization plants that can remove the salt from seawater are also being considered, but they are wildly expensive. Plants that can safely sanitize wastewater will likely also have a growing role in the future of the state’s water supply.
“We’re going to be saddled with the future pollution problems in the St. Johns,” says Rinaman, “and we as a community will be responsible for cleaning it up. If we don’t start living within our water means, it’s going to cause us paying for more expensive water. The costs of making the water potable will get more expensive and will be passed on to the consumer. It’s pay now or pay later.”
Right now, Stewart says, our legislators should be funding water conservation, management and protection — something they’ve been historically slow to address.
“This is going to have to be dealt with,” Stewart says. “You cannot give water to subdivisions or to people that you don’t have. I think we only have like a year or two left in the aquifer — we don’t have that fresh source of water that we have always had access to, so we’re going to have to put plans together to do deals, and they are not cheap. … Water has been abused and misunderstood for over 10 years now, and we’re getting to a critical point.”
Though lawmakers declined to do anything meaningful this session, later this year, voters will have a chance to address the issue for themselves. Amendment 1, which will appear on the Nov. 4 ballot, will ask voters to amend the state’s constitution to set aside one-third of all real-estate documentary stamp tax revenues (paid when a property is sold) to fund water conservation, management and restoration projects. If the amendment passes, Stewart says, it would force the state to put plans into place for spending money to conserve the water resources we’re overusing.
Conservationists estimate that the amendment could generate up to $5 billion over the course of a decade if it passes.
Of course, Stewart says, expect to see a big pushback by business interests who don’t want the doc-stamp measure passed. “Their idea is to go and stick a straw in the [Econlockhatchee River, a tributary of the St. Johns River] and suck the water down so they can have water for a subdivision,” she says. “You’re going to see all kinds of ideas come up for how to get water, but unless you tackle water quality and quantity and new water resources, you are not going to tackle water. You’re just not.”
“There’s all these ways for us to live within our water means,” Rinaman adds. “We’re not getting serious about doing so. Until our elected officials start focusing on aggressive conservation, it’s going to force these extremely expensive infrastructure projects that are going to damage our rivers and springs.”
A version of this story originally appeared in Orlando Weekly. Additional reporting by Travis Crawford.