“If there was ever a time for bold leadership in water management, it is now. But bold leadership in Florida water management is not in evidence today. … Currently , this leadership is lacking,” says Jim Gross, professional certified geologist, total of 12 years with Florida water management districts, 38 years experience.
Jim Gross: Water management in Florida is lacking in bold leadership
By Jim Gross
Special to The Sun
Published: Sunday, June 21, 2015 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, June 20, 2015 at 12:47 a.m.
Florida’s population is rapidly approaching 20 million. We have surpassed New York to become the third most populous state in the nation, and our growth rate is increasing as the economy improves. Florida’s water supplies are being stretched to and past sustainable limits.Jim Gross: Water management in Florida is lacking in bold leadership
Studies have shown that saltwater intrusion is impacting more wells. Wetlands are stressed. Springs are suffering the double whammy of reduced flows and degraded water quality. If there was ever a time for bold leadership in water management, it is now.
But bold leadership in Florida water management is not in evidence today. The water management districts have become more focused on issuing new water-use permits than taking the steps needed to sustain water supplies for generations to come. And yet, sustainability is one of the principal reasons these agencies were created.
Water management indecision has too often been justified by lack of scientific data and tools to assess the data. I am a licensed professional geologist with 38 years of water-resources experience. Eighteen of these years have been involved with water-management issues in Florida. As a scientist, I am often the first to agree that additional data and better tools are desirable. However, there is already a wealth of data in Florida, and our tools are better than they have ever been.
Regional groundwater-flow models are powerful tools for effective water management when properly applied. These models provide essential insight about how flow systems respond to groundwater withdrawals. However, no single groundwater-flow model is best for every application.
Different approaches to model design and calibration yield different results. Moreover, even well-calibrated models yield results that do not fully agree with observed data. These sources of uncertainty must be considered when interpreting model results.
There will never be enough geologic and hydrologic information to eliminate all model uncertainty. However, it is not necessary to eliminate all model uncertainty for effective water management. Professional experience and judgment are essential. Continued monitoring and refinement of models reduces uncertainty, prudent course corrections can be made as needed.
This approach requires water management districts to hire and retain competent geologists and hydrologists. It also requires the districts to cultivate an environment in which geologists and hydrologists are confident in expressing their professional opinions without fear of retribution.
Despite uncertainty, model results provide critical information for water managers. For example, during my tenure at the St. Johns River Water Management Districts, I worked closely with hydrologists simulating many different withdrawal scenarios using groundwater-flow models. The work focused on protecting minimum flows and levels. Scenarios included restricting withdrawals by location, by water-use category and by aquifer.
The results were clear. The cumulative effect of all groundwater withdrawals is the central challenge we face in achieving water supply sustainability. We must limit withdrawals from the Floridan aquifer system.
Some may be surprised that this finding is not a recent discovery. Work at the St. Johns River Water Management District in the 1990s showed the effects of cumulative groundwater withdrawals. Even before the district completed its first regional water supply plan in 2000, it was aware that the high permeability of the Floridan aquifer system caused drawdowns from withdrawals to spread widely across the Florida peninsula.
It has been common over the years for hydrologists to delineate sections of the Floridan aquifer system based on varying hydrologic characteristics, often using groundwater-model results. However, the purpose of identifying sections of the aquifer system is not to imply that there are separate and isolated groundwater basins in the Floridan Aquifer system.
The Floridan Aquifer system is essentially a single groundwater basin across the entirety of the Florida peninsula. The delineated sections only illustrate differing flow responses to withdrawals caused by differing geologic conditions.
Sustainability need not be a partisan issue. Ten years ago the three largest water management districts in Florida came together under the leadership of state government. They all concluded that groundwater withdrawals in Central Florida must be capped to protect water resources. This conclusion was reached with significantly less data than we have today, and with significantly less powerful groundwater modeling tools.
The constraints to groundwater supplies recognized in Central Florida years ago are now evident over broader areas of Florida. Both humans and natural systems rely on the Floridan aquifer system. Sustainable management of this precious resource requires cooperation from all of us.
It will take political leadership at the highest levels of state government to achieve such cooperation. Currently, this leadership is lacking.
Jim Gross is a professional geologist in Gainesville.