Robert Ulanowicz In: Florida needs coherent strategy to avoid water catastrophe | Opinion | Our Santa Fe River, Inc. | Protecting the Santa Fe River in North Florida
Dr. Robert Ulanowicz

Florida’s water is the common property of all citizens. It is a vital necessity, free to all takers — a situation that guarantees the resource will be abused.

The controversy over Nestle’s request to bottle additional water from Ginnie Springs forces the question: What rational state gives away its natural resources for free, to be sold for profits that are then sent abroad? And this proposition is hardly the only absurdity surrounding Florida’s dwindling water supplies.

In Florida, regulation of water extraction is the charge of five regional water management districts. The districts issue Consumptive Use Permits — known as CUPs — as permission to withdraw a designated amount of water from the “regional supplies” (aka groundwater in North Florida).

The applicant for a CUP stipulates how much water they wish to withdraw, and for a nominal charge (usually about a $100 administrative fee), the applicant is free to pump the designated amount (sometimes millions of gallons per day) without cost.

The use of CUPs only sounds like regulation. In reality, there is no cap on the total withdrawal a district can permit. A CUP is virtually never denied, especially when the applicant is politically well-connected or wealthy.

Records of how much water is actually being extracted are spotty across the districts. Self-supply by domestic wells is significant, widespread and unregulated.

A secondary means of regulation is the establishment of minimum flow levels for all important rivers, lakes and springs. This “MFL” is the level below which significant ecological harm will ensue.

There are unavoidable ambiguities in establishing those levels, but a minimum flow level can be lowered whenever a powerful interest exerts pressure. This happened recently when developers pushed to lower the MFL of the already-impaired Rainbow River by another 15% to accommodate new projects.

This is not regulation — it is chaotic political football with ambiguous rules. The Florida Springs Institute has shown that virtually everywhere we are extracting more water than is being supplied to the aquifer by rainfall….

Florida faces the real possibility of collapsing into a dry-island Caribbean economy.

This regulatory charade must end. Florida desperately needs a new strategic, coherent and transparent policy to guarantee sustainable water supply.

One extremely effective remedy is taxing water use. When JEA (a community electric, water and sewer utility in Jacksonville) instituted tiered rates to supply water, per capita consumption rapidly fell by almost two-thirds.

But taxes alone are insufficient to solve our water ills. We need a verifiable cap on total use and universal monitoring of extraction.

Data on water balances exist and could be used to establish regional “maximal sustainable extractions,” but the districts seem reluctant to do so. However, citizen groups, like the Florida Springs Council, are equipped to assist with that task.

Many might contend that universal monitoring of water use is an impossible task. New technology exists, however, that makes the measurement, logging and reporting of usage by small wells economically feasible.

The Tennis Village condominium in St Augustine, for example, recently installed self-contained monitors on each individual unit that remotely report monthly usage to a secure auditor. The units cost about $250 apiece and paid for themselves within a year by rapidly reducing monthly community water charges from $9,700 to $3,700.

The solution to rescuing Florida’s economy is not rocket science and can be summarized in the mnemonic E=MC2: Effective management = Monitoring, Capping and Costing.

When effectively implemented, this triad will guarantee water to sustain Florida’s vitality for decades to come.

Robert Ulanowicz, a graduate of Johns Hopkins University, is professor emeritus with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and courtesy professor in biology at the University of Florida