TAPPING OUT

Folio Weekly has, over the years, been a consistent supporter of the idea of draining the Rodman Reservoir and reestablishing the original flow of the Ocklawaha River. Now it appears the goal is one step closer to achievement. The question is, is it the right thing to do, or could draining the reservoir be an environmental blunder of epic proportions? Permit me to explain.

Environmentalists have been trying to get the dam torn down and the reservoir drained for more than 44 years now. The goal is closer to achievement today because St. Johns Riverkeeper and JaxPort have reached an agreement to spend approximately $40 million of taxpayer funds to knock down the dam, drain the reservoir, and reestablish the flow of the original river. The city of Jacksonville and the Chamber of Commerce are supportive of the plan. Why? Because with this “feather in the cap” of the Riverkeeper, opposition to the dredging of the St. Johns River to 47 feet will disappear, and the harbor-deepening project will proceed. That is how politics works.

Before Folio Weekly jumps on the Drain the Rodman bandwagon, it should get answers to some important questions. First: If draining the Rodman Reservoir will add 300 million gallons of water a day to the St. Johns River as the Riverkeeper says, where will that water come from? Secondly, will draining the Rodman Reservoir draw water from Florida’s aquifer?

Before I explain any further, I should say that I have no emotional attachment to Rodman Reservoir. I’ve never fished on it, boated on it, or used it as a recreational area. I like the outdoors, I drink lots of clean water, breathe lots of clean air, believe in climate change, oppose the instant replay in baseball, and support dredging of the St. Johns to make way for larger ships. Before looking for an ulterior motive, I ask you to look unemotionally and logically at the question I’ve posed: Will draining the Rodman Reservoir damage Florida’s aquifer?

Water is neither created nor destroyed, and in Florida, the flow of a river is determined by two things: the amount of rainfall and the amount of water contributed by freshwater springs. The Rodman Reservoir is about 18 miles long, covers an area of about 15 square miles and, currently, contributes about 650 to 700 million gallons of water to the St. Johns River each day. If draining the reservoir is going to increase that flow by 50 percent, by an additional 300 million gallons a day, unless the Riverkeeper has a way to increase Florida’s annual rainfall, most of that additional water will come from the Floridan aquifer.

Some of those 300 million gallons will be the result of less evaporation. Because the Rodman Reservoir is slow-moving, it has a lot of evaporation, at a rate of about 30 million gallons a day. If we assume, for the purpose of argument, that if restored, the Ocklawaha River will have no evaporation, draining the Reservoir will save 30 million gallons of water each day. However, that still leaves an additional 270 million gallons a day unaccounted for.

The Rodman Reservoir covers approximately 20 submerged freshwater artesian springs that are fed by Florida’s aquifer. Those springs go by quaint names like him Fish Hook Spring, Blue Spring, Bright Angel Spring and Tobacco Pouch Landing. However, the fact is that Florida relies upon these springs for its freshwater supply. The water pressure from Rodman Reservoir acts as a sort of a “cap” on approximately 20 springs. If you remove that cap, those springs will flow more freely, putting more freshwater into the St. Johns River and thereby dumping that water into the Atlantic Ocean. Is dumping freshwater into the Atlantic Ocean really a good solution to increasing salinity?

Some of the largest springs in the world are located in Central Florida, but they’re already drying up. Many Central Florida springs are down 30 to 40 percent over the last 80 years. Some of them, like Poe Springs in Alachua County and White Springs in Liberty County, have stopped flowing altogether. Florida’s aquifers are already dropping at the rate of approximately 2 inches each year in North Florida. The output of Silver Springs has dropped from 500 million gallons a day to about 300 million in the last 50 years.

Let’s consider another problem. If global climate change is real (and I believe it is), then the No. 1 thing Floridians have to fear is not fear itself, but rising seawater levels. According to one tide gauge in Miami, the sea level there has risen 1.27 inches each year over the last five years. According to other measurements, sea levels in the Northeast jumped five inches from 2009 to 2010 due in part to a decrease in the flow of the Jet Stream. Rather than focusing on the raw numbers, we should prepare for the fact that the Atlantic Ocean around Florida will rise, more saltwater will flow into our rivers, including the St. Johns River, and that this increasing head pressure from the Atlantic Ocean will cause saltwater intrusion into the Floridan aquifer. Saltwater intrusion will make Florida’s drinking water brackish and eventually unfit to drink.

If global climate change is coming, is it smart to withdraw an additional 270 million gallons of freshwater from the Floridan aquifer and dump it into the Atlantic Ocean every day? Jacksonville uses a mere 150 million gallons of freshwater a day. Wasting almost twice that amount every day to reduce the salinity of the St. Johns River may be the environmental blunder of the century.

Let’s get these questions answered before we drain the Rodman Reservoir, knock down the Rodman dam, and cause our state a perpetual drought in fresh potable drinking water.

The author is a professor of law at Florida Coastal School of Law. For the record, this magazine has not taken a position on the recent proposal to drain the Rodman Reservoir.

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