Keep the Straws Out of the St. Johns

Depending on whom you talk to, Central Florida has either reached or will soon reach the sustainable limits of its primary source of water, the Floridan Aquifer. As a result, the three water management districts in a five-county area — the St. Johns River Water Management District (SJRWMD), South Florida Water Management District and Southwest Florida Water Management District — created the Central Florida Water Initiative (CFWI) to identify alternative water supply (AWS) sources to meet future demand.

Recently, the CFWI released its Draft Regional Water Supply Plan, which relies heavily on surface water withdrawals from the St. Johns River, instead of more responsible and cost-effective water conservation and efficiency options. The plan calls for potentially siphoning more than 150 million gallons of water a day from the St. Johns at an estimated cost of nearly $1.5 billion. The Ocklawaha River, one of the most important tributaries of the St. Johns, is also identified for potential withdrawals.

In addition, the SJRWMD recently released its Water Supply Plan for the 18 counties within its jurisdiction. The District’s plan calls for the siphoning of an additional 125 million-plus gallons of water a day from the St. Johns River and more than 85 million gallons from the Ocklawaha River.

Unfortunately, these proposed surface water withdrawals are being justified based on the findings of a flawed and incomplete study by the SJRWMD. A group of independent scientists and experts from the National Research Council (NRC) conducted a peer review of the St. Johns River Water Supply Impact Study (WSIS). They identified significant shortcomings and expressed concerns about many of the study’s conclusions.

According to the NRC, “The WSIS operated within a range of constraints that ultimately imposed both limitations and uncertainties on the study’s overall conclusions.” The NRC report goes on to say that “the modeling conducted by the District did not have a water quality component, and the District considered the potential ecological effects of significant increases in degraded stormwater runoff, as well as changes in the frequency distribution of stream flows in urbanized areas, to be outside the scope of the WSIS.”

Subsequently, St. Johns Riverkeeper has serious concerns that these proposed withdrawals would worsen existing pollution problems, increase the frequency of toxic algal blooms, further reduce flow and increase salinity levels farther upstream, and adversely impact the fisheries, wildlife and submerged vegetation in and along the St. Johns and its many tributaries.

Many of these withdrawals would require treatment by reverse osmosis, resulting in a byproduct with a high mineral and/or salt content that would likely be discharged back into the river. This concentrate would only create additional pollution problems for an already-polluted and threatened waterway. In addition, once communities become reliant on this water, it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to turn off the spigot during low-flow drought conditions or if environmental damage occurs.

The plans have also been criticized by utilities and other stakeholders for overestimating future demand projections. The larger the projected deficit, the less likely it is that conservation will be prioritized. Instead, utilities will be forced to pursue expensive alternative water supply infrastructure projects that may ultimately prove unnecessary. And, once those projects are included in an approved water supply plan, they are available for state funding and presumed to be in the public interest, making them more attractive and more difficult to challenge.

The bottom line is that water conservation does work, can potentially meet most if not all of our water supply needs, and is much more cost-effective and environmentally responsible. Previously, the SJRWMD determined that nearly 288 million gallons of water could potentially be saved with a $1.6 billion investment in conservation. The 2005 District Water Supply Plan’s analysis “indicates a reasonable possibility that a substantial portion of the projected increase in SJRWMD water use between 2005 and 2025 could be met through improved water use efficiency.”

Instead of siphoning millions of gallons of water a day from our rivers, our water managers and public officials should be focused on aggressive conservation and efficiency measures. Regrettably, both water supply plans downplay the potential of conservation to meet future demand. The CFWI’s Draft Regional Water Supply Plan determined that only “3.9 percent of the projected demand for 2035 can be eliminated by water conservation.”

This is absurd. We know how to use water much more efficiently, and opportunities clearly exist for significant reductions in water use at a fraction of the cost of risky alternative water supply projects. When irrigation accounts for nearly 50 percent of total residential water use and leaks are responsible for 10 percent of indoor use, we are obviously just scratching the surface of what is possible with conservation.

However, we must first acknowledge that our real problem is one of use, not supply. Then, we need to get serious about addressing the root cause of our water use problem by implementing aggressive, proven and quantifiable conservation strategies.

Unfortunately, the Central Florida plan only estimates the potential of water conservation “based on voluntary consumer actions.” Voluntary measures alone are simply not sufficient. Mandatory requirements must also be implemented and enforced. We don’t have voluntary water quality standards, so why should the use of this essential public resource be any different?

Also, pricing strategies are necessary to achieve maximum conservation and efficiency benefits. Tiered rates for utility customers need to be much more aggressive, and consumptive-use permit holders must begin to pay for the right to use the public’s water.

Despite the looming water shortages and calls for new sources of supply, our state water management districts continue to issue frivolous consumptive-use permits that will further deplete our aquifer. Recently, the SJRWMD approved a permit from the California-based Niagara Bottling Company to nearly double groundwater withdrawals for its water bottling facility in Lake County to 910,000 gallons of water a day — an 88 percent increase. The time has clearly arrived for moratoriums on new withdrawals from the aquifer and permit increases, until we have a sustainable plan of action in place and a better handle on the hydrologic performance of our aquifer system.

Let’s keep the straws out of the St. Johns, quit over-allocating our groundwater and finally get serious about addressing the root causes of our water use problems by exhausting all opportunities to use existing water resources more efficiently. o