Robert Knight: Going with the flow?
By Robert Knight
Special to The Gainesville (FL) Sun
Published: Sunday, October 18, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, October 16, 2009 at 12:49 a.m.
What happens when a 500 pound gorilla sucks on a straw in a milkshake with two young children on straws in the same glass?
That is an apt analogy for what is already happening due to large water withdrawals from the Floridan Aquifer by the northeast area of the St. Johns River Water Management District.
Water users and natural environments in the relatively unpopulated Suwannee River Water Management District and in rural south Georgia are losing their share of the milkshake.
For years the people of North Florida have been alarmed about a pipeline potentially transferring “our water” to those more highly populated and industrialized areas to the south and east. Recent work published by the U.S. Geological Survey indicates that a natural “pipeline” has always been in place.
It is called the Floridan Aquifer, a honeycombed mass of limestone underlying the whole northern half of Florida and extending well into the coastal plain of Georgia and also South Carolina.
The results are in — whoever pumps groundwater the fastest from this shared reservoir gets the most. In fact, the rainfall recharging the Floridan Aquifer over more than 1,250 square miles of North Central Florida that formerly contributed to flows in the springs and rivers of the Suwannee River Water Management District is now flowing to the area around Jacksonville.
That water is flowing through an underground “limestone pipeline” from one water management district to another, as an unauthorized and presumably unintentional inter-basin transfer of precious groundwater.
The lost flow through this underground pipeline was recently estimated by the USGS at more than 125 cubic feet per second or 81 million gallons per day — equivalent to the entire flow of Manatee Springs. A recent analysis of long-term flow data from the Ichetucknee River indicates that this one spring system has lost about 60 cubic feet per second (39 million gallons per day) since 1935 or about 15 percent of its historic flow.
The Florida Geological Survey has estimated that Fanning Springs has lost about 37 cubic feet per second (24 million gallons per day) or about 32 percent of its flow over the same time period. The balance of the estimated 125 cubic feet per second flow reduction is in fact distributed over the remaining springs in the “Springs Heartland” many in state and county parks all along the Suwannee and Santa Fe rivers.
One would think that since there are no physical walls separating the various water management districts in Florida, or Florida from Georgia, the potential for unintended water transfer would have been anticipated.
Since publication of the USGS report in 2008 the light bulb of awareness has come on and the Suwannee and St. Johns districts are now collaborating for the first time on water supply planning, namely the process of deciding how much more water they have available to allocate through new Consumptive Use Permits (CUPs).
But wait — the Ichetucknee has already experienced a flow decline of about 15 percent, Fanning Springs has experienced a decline of about 32 percent over the same time period, and all of our springs appear to be flowing less than they were in the past, not just due to rainfall declines, but in more and more cases due to human consumptive water uses.
Where does this stop? If we are already seeing harm, then shouldn’t we be thinking about recovery? Are we going to let our springs go the way of the ivory-billed woodpecker, the Carolina parakeet and the passenger pigeon?
Every well in the Floridan Aquifer draws from the same source — we are literally all connected to one another through our water supply. It is clear now that large wells near the Atlantic Coast can divert water from springs more than 90 miles away and across political boundaries.
If a company puts in a well for profit, it is taking water away from other users, including private and public water supplies and the environmental systems such as Ichetucknee Springs that depend on that same water for their life.
Industrial enterprises, water bottlers, large agricultural interests, nurseries, turf grass, etc., are taking the groundwater that used to flow to our springs and rivers. This is not wise management of a scarce resource.
Existing human uses of water must be better allocated and higher prices must be paid by those for-profit enterprises or wasteful individuals using water.
Water is public property in Florida. It is owned equally by all of the people. Our water management districts have the sacred duty to manage that water for all of the people and to protect and nourish the environment on which we depend. That is a weighty responsibility since there is no life without water. People must have water to live as do all of the plants and animals in Florida’s springs.
It is increasingly clear that excessive water uses are causing harm to our groundwater resources and to the natural systems that are dependent upon this water.
Our springs are what make North Central Florida special and unique compared to the rest of the world. It is discouraging to see these natural environments always getting the short straw.
Robert Knight is an aquatic and wetland scientist and has been conducting applied research in springs and wetlands for over 30 years. Dr. Knight is president of Wetland Solutions Inc. in Gainesville and teaches a graduate-level course in springs’ ecology at the University of Florida.