WATER WARS: Hearing Begins on Tapping St. Johns

Steve Patterson has written an article in the Florida Times Union detailing the latest attempt to withdraw water from the St. Johns River.  Read on for the article which appeared in the Times Union on Oct. 2, 2008, or click HERE for the original article.

WATER WARS: Hearing begins on tapping St. Johns

Lawyers air arguments on river withdrawals in Central Florida.

Steve Patterson


SANFORD – A high-stakes legal fight over using St. Johns River water in Central Florida utilities opened Wednesday with lawyers arguing about the need for and impact of the river withdrawal.

An administrative law judge could spend most of this month hearing witnesses before deciding which argument should prevail.

The St. Johns Riverkeeper, Jacksonville City Hall and St. Johns County are all fighting a proposal to withdraw water for Seminole County residents to use in drinking water and lawn sprinklers.

“Taking this water from the river will cause the river harm,” Riverkeeper attorney Ken Wright said, arguing Seminole hasn’t done enough to stop wasting water it already has

Wright said river withdrawals could affect the river’s salinity, as well as algae growth and underwater grass important to fish.

“It’s a big river with big problems already,” Wright said. “Taking this water from the river is not going to help.”

Opponents worry a host of towns and counties could follow Seminole’s example as the region’s growth overburdens aquifer supplies.

The St. Johns River Water Management District has discussed potentially allowing up to 262 million gallons of daily withdrawals from the St. Johns and its largest tributary, the Ocklawaha River. The district has since started a two-year science study to re-examine environmental consequences.

But lawyers were warned not to look beyond Seminole’s plans.

“This hearing is about this application only,” Administrative Law Judge J. Lawrence Johnston said.

The immediate application is a lot smaller, just 5.5 million gallons on an average day. Utility managers designed a system large enough to pull 50 million gallons from the river, however, saying it might be used by other communities, too.

A series of other utility systems have expressed interest in the project, said Seann Frazier, a lawyer representing Jacksonville.

Frazier called the permit amount “a legal fiction.”

Seminole County needs a permit from the water management district to take water from the river. District staffers supported the permit, but the district’s governing board hasn’t acted. Opponents filed a legal challenge that argued the district’s staff didn’t review the permit request correctly.

Water would be taken from the river about 140 miles before the waterway empties into the ocean at Mayport.

A lawyer for the county utilities, Edward de la Parte Jr., said nearly 2 billion gallons of water per day flow through the river at that point.

“The water quality effects of this particular withdrawal … are really insignificant,” he said. “There won’t be any environmental harm.”

A consultant overseeing Seminole’s utility plans testified the river was the most cost-effective water source available besides the aquifer, and that the water management district required the county to find an alternative source.

“This is a very reasonable withdrawal for a very high beneficial use,” said Matthew Alvarez, a project manager for consulting company CH2M Hill.

He said the city of Melbourne in Brevard County has taken drinking water from the river for more than 50 years, with no reports yet of any harm. Sanford and Cocoa began taking water from the river in 1999; together the three cities use about 30 million gallons a day.

steve.patterson@jacksonville.com, (904) 359-4263

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