Is Our Aquifer Limitless? Some Water Managers Think So.

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Who should be concerned about our aquifer?  Ron Cunningham thinks we all should, if those paid to do so are not doing it, and they are not. He writes about the Floridan aquifer today, Sun. Nov. 29 in the Gainesville Sun.  Thanks to Ron Cunningham for writing this and the Sun for printing it.Scroll

Assuming aquifer is limitless is believing in miracles

Published: Saturday, November 28, 2015 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, November 24, 2015 at 11:57 a.m.

It’s a miracle really

Water bubbling up out of the ground from who knows where? Clean and pure and free. As though a gift from God.

Ron Cunningham

Gainesville was born of a miracle. If not for the gift of water bubbling up from the ground, Gainesville would not have been voted into existence as the new Alachua County seat during an 1854 picnic at Boulware Springs. But by 1913 Gainesville had outgrown Boulware’s still pure but too meagre offering, and we went after the source — the Floridan Aquifer — with drills and pipes and pumps.

We have been pulling cheap clean water out of the ground to sustain us and support our growth for so long that we take it on blind faith that the miracle of subterranean water is the gift that will keep on giving. And not just here in Gainesville but across Florida and around the world.

But to assume that the bounty of pure underground water is limitless is to truly believe in miracles. This summer, scientists from the University of California Irvine warned that many of the world’s largest aquifers are being overpumped and overstressed. And our faith in miracles notwithstanding, we simply don’t know enough about what lies beneath to say with any certainty how long the water will last.

“Available physical and chemical measurements are simply insufficient,” UCI professor Jay Famiglietti said in a release. “Given how quickly we are consuming the world’s groundwater reserves, we need a coordinated global effort to determine how much is left.”

His concern is underscored by a bulletin from the United States Geological Survey pointing out groundwater sustains fully half the nation’s population, and that agriculture alone consumes 50 billion gallons of groundwater a day. Overpumping, the USGS says, is beginning to deplete aquifers in the American Southwest, High Plains, Gulf Coast, Pacific Northwest and elsewhere.

Here in Florida, “Groundwater development in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area has led to saltwater intrusion and subsidence in the form of sinkhole development and concern about surface-water depletion from lakes in the area,” USCG notes.

Meanwhile, back in Gainesville, the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute has long been sounding the alarm, not only about falling aquifer levels but increased nitrate pollution of the underground water that feeds our springs and supports nearly all of Florida’s 20 million people.

Earlier this year institute Director Robert Knight called for more stringent water testing in Alachua and Gilchrist counties to determine if rising nitrate levels are exceeding safe drinking water standards.

Current testing, Knight insists, is inadequate “considering the human and ecological health risks posed by these elevated pollutant concentrations … This sampling effort should be expedited and results need to be widely publicized so that local residents are aware of the risks they face and the alternatives they have to avoid those risks.”

The apparent solution favored by Florida water managers is neither increased conservation nor stepped up monitoring and anti-pollution enforcement, but rather to simply supplement our dependence on underground water with surface water. Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet have signed off on a plan to withdraw water from the St. Johns and Ocklawaha rivers. And with that precedent set, other parts of the state will surely follow.

Of course, if anything Florida’s rivers and lakes are even more polluted and more vulnerable to drought and climate change than what lies below. And the idea that we can keep the miracle going just by adding surface waters to the mix is simplistic to the extreme.

Equally simplistic is the notion that our aquifers are inexhaustible and infinitely refillable. The National Geographic makes that point in a recent article that carried the ominous headline, “If you think the water crisis can’t get any worse, wait until the aquifers are drained.”

“Some shallow aquifers recharge from surface water, but deeper aquifers contain ancient water locked in the earth by changes in geology thousands or millions of years ago. These aquifers typically cannot recharge, and once this ‘fossil’ water is gone, it is gone forever.”

When that happens we will all be praying for a miracle.

— Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun

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