State sets minimum flows for Lower Santa Fe, Ichetucknee rivers
By Christopher Curry
Published: Saturday, June 13, 2015 at 6:27 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, June 13, 2015 at 6:27 p.m.
Ending a process that included multiple legal challenges and the dissatisfaction of area environmental groups, Gov. Rick Scott this week signed the minimum flows and levels for the Lower Santa Fe and Ichetucknee rivers into law.
Those MFLs, as they are dubbed, set the point at which, officials say, any further loss of flow in a river or spring will cause significant environmental harm to the water body.
With the protections now in place, the Lower Santa Fe and Ichetucknee are both immediately flowing below their adopted MFLs. The state says the flow in the Lower Santa Fe at a measuring spot near Fort White is 11 million gallons per day below where it should be, and the flow in the Ichetucknee measured at a bridge near U.S. 27 is 2 million gallons a day below its MFL.
Despite the fact that both rivers are already below a healthy flow, existing groundwater pumping permits in the area may not be impacted by the new MFLs for more than four years. Instead, the MFLs will only be taken into account in water management district reviews of brand new applications for groundwater pumping permits or if any existing users apply to increase their maximum allowable pumping when renewing a permit.
Existing permits will be grandfathered in until after a new computer model showing the groundwater flow in areas of North Florida in the Suwannee River Water Management District and the St. Johns River Water Management District and in south Georgia.
At that point, the MFLs will be re-evaluated, a process that has to happen by the end of 2019.
Janet Llewellyn, the policy administrator for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s Office of Water Policy, said state officials are taking that “hold the line” approach because they feel the new computer model will more definitively show which permit holders are impacting the rivers with their groundwater pumping. Those permit holders would then be expected to mitigate the impacts of their pumping, possibly with taxpayer financial assistance.
A staff analysis projected that in the future 68 agricultural operations could be affected by the MFLs and have to offset a combined 13.8 million gallons per day of pumping. That analysis put the five-year price tag for those projects at $3 million and said state cost-share programs usually cover 80 percent of the costs to retrofit irrigation systems to reduce usage.
The DEP decided to grandfather in existing groundwater pumping permits until as late as the end of 2019 after a coalition of water utilities considered a legal challenge to the MFL rule.
That move then drew legal challenges from area environmental group the Ichetucknee Alliance and Bradford County resident Paul Still on the grounds that the protections did not do enough to protect the rivers. Still won his first challenge on narrow, technical grounds and, after the DEP added some supporting data not included in the first rule setting the MFLs, lost a subsequent second challenge.
In an email Thursday, Still said he continues to feel the rivers are not getting adequate protections.
“Unfortunately the MFL rule only applies to new or renewing applicants,” he wrote. “Current permit holders will not be required to take any action for 5 years.”
Typically water management districts set MFLs, but state law allows the DEP to handle the process when groundwater pumping in one district might be impacting the flow of water bodies in a neighboring district. The Lower Santa Fe and Ichetucknee are in the Suwannee River district, but they are impacted by pumping in areas of the neighboring St. Johns River district, and some permit holders in those areas of the St. Johns district may have to mitigate their impacts.
Against that backdrop, the Suwannee River district asked the DEP to take charge of setting the MFLs for the two rivers.