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Florida’s dwindling water supply needs conservation, regulatory reform

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Florida is facing a water supply crisis. Large portions of the state are deemed “Water Resource Caution Areas” (WRCAs). The Legislature has directed the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and regional Water Management Districts to identify “alternative water supply” sources, including reclaimed and reused water and even expensive desalinized seawater.

How did Florida arrive at this critical point? The answer lies partly in the fact that water has always been thought of as plentiful, and free for the taking. We have a culture – and a regulatory system – that encourages permitting groundwater withdrawals for virtually any use from golf course irrigation to cattle ranching to subdivision development.

Public water supply and agriculture are by far the largest water users statewide, according to DEP’s 2016 annual water supply planning report. With over 1,000 people a day moving to Florida, DEP expects public water consumption to reach 3 billion gallons per day (bgd) by 2035, while agricultural use will increase to 2.8 bgd.

In the Suwannee River Water Management District, agricultural irrigation and industrial use are primary water users. Together, these uses accounted for 81 percent of estimated water consumption in the region in 2015. Declining groundwater levels have resulted in WRCA designations for the Suwannee District basins.

While adaptive measures like conservation and reuse will necessarily play a major role in ensuring adequate water supplies for Florida’s future, the state will ultimately also have to address regulatory shortcomings. There is currently a presumption in favor of granting water permits whether or not supply is available, resulting in the gradual depletion of groundwater.

A key flaw in the system is that once a permit has been issued, it is rarely revoked, even if water supplies continue to dwindle. Moreover, agricultural use typically is not metered, meaning that it is virtually impossible for regulators to really know how much groundwater is being withdrawn. Ultimately, Florida’s best-laid plans for water supply planning are based on insufficient data about one of the state’s largest water use sectors.

Some farmers are taking it upon themselves to engage in conservation and best management practices to increase efficiency and reduce consumption, with help and incentives provided by DEP and the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Individual Floridians can likewise take steps to reduce water use by adopting Florida Friendly Landscaping (http://fyn.ifas.ufl.edu/) techniques, including planting native and drought-resistant plants to reduce the need for domestic irrigation, which accounts for an estimated 50 percent of domestic water use. Concerned citizens can also participate in the Florida Water Star certification program (www.floridawaterstar.com) for new and existing homes and commercial developments, and use high-efficiency appliances to reduce indoor water consumption. Working together to reduce domestic, industrial, and agricultural water use, Floridians can ensure an adequate water supply sufficient to support public water use and sustain the natural environment for generations of Floridians to come.

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Anne Harvey Holbrook, JD, MS, is the staff attorney for Save the Manatee Club, where her work focuses on water quality and quantity and endangered species issues.

 Anne also serves as Conservation Chair for the Big Bend Sierra Club. She has her JD from Georgetown Law and her Masters in Aquatic Environmental Science from Florida State University.

For information on manatees and their aquatic habitat, visit Save the Manatee Club’s website at savethemanatee.org.

The Club also offers a free online course, “Springs Conservation in the Classroom,” that is geared toward high school students and the general public. Go to “savethemanatee.org/info” and click on the link for “Educator Resources.”

 Contact Save the Manatee Club by calling (407) 539-0990.