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Running Out of Water

The counties that make up the St. Johns River Water Management District have at least one problem in common: There’s a good chance none of them will have enough water in 20 years unless they find new sources or conserve what they have.   Continue reading the article by Fred Hiers which appeared in the Ocala Star Banner.  The original article was published in the  on Monday, July 6, and can be seen HERE.

 Running out of water

St. Johns water district seeks solutions for thirsty counties

By Fred Hiers
Staff writer
Published: Monday, July 6, 2009 at 6:30 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, July 5, 2009 at 10:42 p.m.

The counties that make up the St. Johns River Water Management District have at least one problem in common: There’s a good chance none of them will have enough water in 20 years unless they find new sources or conserve what they have.


But state water managers will hold a series of meetings starting this month in hopes of altering this dire future.

The meetings will focus on what the counties in the St. Johns River district can do as their growing populations continue to demand more water and discuss its water shortage predictions. The meetings are mandated every five years by Florida law.

The problem has only gotten worse for Marion and Alachua counties.

Five years ago, only a sliver of Marion County’s southern border was thought by the water agency to be at risk of not having enough water by 2030. But the agency’s draft Water Supply Assessment report now predicts all of Marion and Alachua counties might not be able to meet their water demand.

Marion did its own study two years ago and thinks it will come up 2 million gallons per day shy of meeting its water needs by 2030.

The purpose of the meetings, the first at 10 a.m. Thursday at the district’s Palatka headquarters, is to discuss some of the methods the district used to make its predictions, to look at new methods for conserving water and to consider alternative water sources such as rivers, including the St. Johns River and the Ocklawaha River in Marion County, said Jim Gross of the St. Johns River Water Management District.

The water agency is currently establishing minimum flows and levels for Silver Springs and the Ocklawaha and Silver rivers. The tabulated flows and levels are expected to be concluded by 2011. Minimum flows and levels show how low a river can be allowed to fall before there is damage to the river’s wildlife and vegetation.

The water agency can use that information to decide how much water it can allow cities and counties to siphon from those rivers to meet their water needs.

The water district already is studying minimum flows and levels for the St. Johns River and discussing the effects of withdrawing some of its water.

Guy Marwick, an environmental activist and executive director of the Felburn Foundation in Ocala, said he’s afraid the meetings will focus on the need to tap surface waters.

“They want the cheapest water possible. That’s why they’re looking at surface waters,” he said.

If the water agency was interested in conservation, Marwick said, the state should impose much stricter conservation requirements such as limiting lawn watering to once every few weeks and investing in desalination plants and pumping the treated water inland, he said.

“I feel they’re just using [water shortage predictions] to tap surface water,” Marwick said.

Wanting to tap surface water before conserving isn’t new for the water district, he said.

Two years ago, the water district and more than a dozen county and city utilities also met about withdrawing water from the lower Ocklawaha River in Marion County. The plan was shelved when Marion County objected, saying the water district hadn’t yet done a minimum flow study on the river.

The county also threatened to block the move in court.

Gross, who is the water district’s technical program manager, said that even though tapping surface waters is controversial, it has to be discussed and considered.

Counties are under pressure to look for new water sources because Florida’s water districts announced a few years ago that they would not issue any more groundwater withdrawal permits after 2013 and that counties will have to get any additional water from other sources, including surface water.

Water districts put the brakes on permitting groundwater withdrawal after 2013 because of fears that continued siphoning would adversely alter aquifer levels and the springs and rivers they feed.

Marion County Commissioner Barbara Fitos warns that the water agency focuses too much on surface waters. She thinks the primary issue during the meetings should be conservation.

“I believe we have not yet exhausted the full scope of what conservation can do for us,” Fitos said.

“And unless collaboration [between the water agency and individual counties] really starts happening … it’s just going to be viewed as more attempts to tap the water-rich areas of the state,” she said.

Fitos said the water agency needs to focus on establishing conservation goals rather than look to alternative water sources like the Ocklawaha River.

“They have a hard time grasping greater restrictions,” she said of the water district.

Fitos said the St. Johns Water District should focus on changing Florida residents’ “mind-set” about water’s purpose.

“What is our ultimate goal? Is it a green lawn or protecting our water resources?” she asked.

And without that focus, the water agency has created a “credibility issue” with local governments and residents, she said.

Among north central Florida counties, Marion County is one of the greatest water users per capita.

In 2008, Marion County used almost 250 gallons per capita per day, about 30 gallons a day per person more than residents of neighboring counties use.

The county also leads Florida in the amount of water it withdraws through private wells, according to a 2005 University of Florida study.

It currently uses about 14.4 million gallons per day. It expects to use about 19 million gallons a day by 2030.

While Marion County can look to surface water when the groundwater tap can’t be opened anymore, that’s not an option for Gainesville, said Ron Herget, director of the city’s water and groundwater engineering.

“We don’t see surface water as an option,” Herget said.

Pulling water from rivers outside the county, such as the Sante Fe River, would not be politically feasible because of likely resistance from Alachua County’s neighbors, Herget said.

“So we see conservation as our largest draw,” he said.

Predictions of district-wide water shortages get his attention.

“It sends up a red flag that there could be a problem and we need to meet and talk,” Herget said. “It certainly raises a level of concern.”

But Todd Petrie, Marion County’s assistant utilities director, said that until the St. Johns district meets with its member counties, it’s too soon to discuss how to solve water shortage problems and where additional water will have to come from.

Maybe new conservation efforts and reclaiming water will solve the problem, he said.

“We don’t know,” Petrie said. “Until that’s determined, it’s somewhat premature.”

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