Water, water everywhere, but…

Could drought, pollution, population growth and other threats to our drinking water eventually hurt local business?

Few areas of the state are blessed with as much fresh water as North Central Florida. Indeed, in the Suwannee River Valley, of which Western Alachua County is a part, there are more freshwater springs than anywhere else on the planet according to the Dixie-Gilchrist-Levy Tourist Development Board.
Yet our huge pool is facing numerous threats that could impact the business community long-term.
Experts says business owners could end up paying more for the water they use in operations, as well as the water they drink. The area eventually could face mandatory conservation measures. And one day we could face water-use restrictions that impact future development and growth.

 

What’s Leading Us to an Emergency?

Critics cite several reasons for the looming water crisis.
Drought. The region has been in an extended drought for years. According to Teresa Monson of the St. Johns River Water Management District, the driest years Florida experienced since record-keeping began in 1932 were 2006 and 2007. This year, with the return of a strong La Nina phenomenon and an uncharacteristic lack of tropical storms, drought continues. “It’s odd because we’re a peninsula surrounded by water and have thousands of lakes, springs and rivers,” she says.
Population Growth. From 1990 to 2000 Florida’s growth rate was an astonishing 23.5 percent, climbing from 13 to 16 million, with much of that centered in urban areas such as Orlando.
To handle the demands of all those people and the ones still on the way, “By 2025, we’ll probably need two billion more gallons of water a day,” Monson says. And North Central Florida is one potential place to tap.
Pollution. Run-off from agricultural and lawn chemicals, plus untreated drainage from septic tanks and industrial contamination are polluting our aquifer, meaning we may have to spend more treating water to make it clean enough to drink.
Bottling. Whether this is a real concern depends on who you ask.
Between the Suwannee River and St. John’s Water Management Districts, water bottling companies are drawing 4.6 million gallons per day from local springs. But the bottling companies argue their actions have little impact on the water supply. And they have some support for that argument.
“To give these numbers context,” Monson says, “the total amount of groundwater (the primary source of water for public water supply, industry, agriculture and recreational water use) used in the St. Johns district in 2006 was 1.6 billion gallons per day. The amount allocated for bottling plants represents approximately 1/10 of one percent of the groundwater used.”
Still, springs authority Jim Stevenson wonders about giving away any our water when the region is in an extended drought. It’s like giving blood, he says: “How many pints can you donate before you die?”

 

Sending “Our” Water Elsewhere

When Tampa was in the worst of its water crisis a decade ago, there were discussions about piping water from the Suwannee district to that area. Because of citizen protest, environmental concerns and cost, Tampa Bay Water instead invested $158 million in a desalination plant that can product 25 million gallons of water per day. (That amount of water would completely supply Gainesville.)

North Central Florida dodged that bullet but now there are rumblings that Orlando might be looking at this area to meet its future water needs. According to the 2009 annual report for Orlando Regional Utilities, “We are considering using the existing Taylor Creek Reservoir (in Osceola County) and/or the St. Johns River to provide surface water as an alternate water supply.”

Tim Trudell of Orlando utilities says that while the utility understands water shortages are an issue, it does not perceive Orlando’s needs – at least not yet – as a crisis that could lead to a radical solution such as a pipeline.

Alachua County Environmental Protection Director Chris Bird agrees. “Building a pipeline from the Suwannee River to supply central Florida is not an issue in the short term,” he says, “but in long term who knows?”

The biggest current threat to our water source is all the users on the East Coast from Savannah to Daytona. Jacksonville Energy Authority, for example, has 134 deep artesian wells tapping the Floridan Aquifer we also use. As the coast draws down its part of the aquifer, water from our area naturally flows into theirs. Thus even without a pipeline, they are reducing the water available to North Central Florida.

How Water Problems Impact Tourism

One of the most visible signs that water problems are already impacting the economy is in businesses built around the area’s springs and rivers.

Diminishing water levels are already being felt on Payne's Prairie which, a century ago, was a vast lake.

Jim Wood, owner of Santa Fe Canoe Outpost on U.S. 41 at the Santa Fe River, says water flow in springs that feed his river is down this year and that has hurt business.

“At times, water at our dock has been so low we couldn’t launch and people have had to drag canoes three to four times on the run down to U.S. 27,” he says. “When they have to get out once, that’s OK; more than that is a disaster for us. Hauling people and canoes or kayaks longer distances to avoid the shallow and dry spots costs gas, time and money. People go elsewhere.”

Also, look at Silver Springs, says environmental scientist Bob Knight, founder and president of Wetland Solutions, a Gainesville environmental consulting firm.

“Florida’s first tourist attraction was why Ocala developed. It generates $60 million a year but water flow is down 30 percent and nitrate levels – from fertilizers and human and animal waste – are 20 times higher. Look how the town of Silver Springs and that area of Ocala have declined!”

Stephen Holland, a member of the board of directors for the St. Johns River Water Management District, agrees that water problems can affect tourism. “Lower water levels will certainly affect the outdoor recreation business—everything from boat sales and rentals to water skiing, diving, fishing and camping,” he says. And as a result, hotel room nights and restaurant sales.

DISASTER OR OPPORTUNITY?

For some businesses, a water shortage is bad news; for others it is an opportunity for positive change. In response to higher water prices and the drought, Haile Plantation Golf & Country Club has altered its seeding plan by season and drought conditions, says assistant golf pro Matt Porter. The club worked to reduce its water needs and now uses about 75 million gallons per year – half the national average for an 18-hole course. Three years ago, the club also started irrigating with reclaimed water from the GRU-Kanapaha waste water treatment facility. Course superintendent Joe Holden says the reclaimed water is essentially free and they worked to redesign fairways to reduce the amount needed.

Water Shortages and New Development

Arlen Jumper is a former Florida Farm Bureau president and one-time University of Florida football player. He now manages the Jones Turf Grass Farm and also is a board member of the St. Johns River Water Management District. Jumper predicts continuing demands for fresh water will soon lead to major changes for business owners and private citizens alike.

“We’re in the early stages of rule-making for water conservation,” Jumper says. “Soon cities and new developments will need [written] conservation plans.”

Indeed, the 2010 Suwannee Water Management District Plan (available in draft online) requires conservation plans for new development and new industry.

Barry Rutenberg hopes the plans don’t lead to restrictions that deter new development. A local developer and second vice chairman of the National Association of Home Builders, Rutenberg argues that new development contributes the lion’s share to the area’s tax base and before government starts threatening that income source it should look to low-hanging fruit, such as incentivizing businesses and industry to conserve and recycle water, and taking advantage of new technologies, such as rain sensors and low-flow toilets to reduce use.

The area might also want to make water a consideration in the types of businesses it tries to attract, says Tommy McIntosh, chairman of the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce and president of Prudential Trend Realty. He suggests we should balance the need for new jobs with water concerns and be cautious about recruiting businesses that require “excessive water.”

What’s Being Done

Is government on top of this situation? Yes and no.

The Suwannee and St. John’s districts both have developed water plans that focus on future demand, how that demand will affect the Floridan aquifer, and sources and costs of new water from conservation to desalination.

The Suwannee plan even talks about such specifics as retrofitting waterless urinals, leak detection devices, increased metering and employee awareness.

But so far, the focus is on conservation without any real consequences for overuse or restrictions on new development.

“We urge people to conserve, to save for the future,” says Chris Bird, Alachua County’s Director of the Department of Environmental Protection. “We don’t ticket [for improper watering or careless waste], but it could come to that. We’re going into an extended drought over the next six months. You can make the most difference by convincing people to cut lawn watering, which is up to half of all residential usage and the biggest single identifiable share of water use.”

Whitey Markle, the conservation chair of the Suwannee-St. Johns Group of the Florida Chapter of the Sierra Club, isn’t so sure. this strategy does enough.

“The population is expanding and there’s net in-migration,” he says. “Water in South Florida is absolutely gone. The only water left is here. Plus, the climate is changing. We don’t have enough water, but few people are listening.

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