Jan 15, 2008

Battle Over Water Resources in North, Central Florida

Regions dispute possible environmental damage

North and central Florida, struggling to meet exploding population demands, are battling over water from the St. Johns and Ocklawaha rivers, The Associated Press reported.

Central Florida plans to take millions of gallons of water a day out of the rivers, which angers north Florida residents and officials who say that could result in severe environmental damage, especially to the north-flowing St. Johns River, according to the AP.

"It is madness. We do not believe there is surplus water in the river," said Neil Armingeon, a St. Johns riverkeeper. Armingeon is a privately funded advocate for the river. "We are not going to stand by and let the St. Johns and Ocklawaha rivers be degraded."

The plan would destroy the delicate balance of saltwater and freshwater needed to preserve critical biological habitat and submerged vegetation, according to north Florida cities such as Jacksonville, St. Johns County and a river advocacy group.

The St. Johns River Water Management District, which developed the proposal, said it will consider a new two-year, $1.8 million plan to study its possible effects, the AP reported.

But John Cirello, director of environmental services for Seminole County near Orlando in central Florida, said he does not understand north Florida's opposition.

"I think they are misled," Cirello said.

The proposal was developed after the district determined that areas of central Florida could reach groundwater limits within five years, and that by 2025 it will need 200 mgd from alternative sources, according to the AP.

Half a billion gallons of water are being pumped out of the deep underground Floridan aquifer each day, partly because of the rapid population growth of central Florida.

The seven counties of central Florida had a population of about 3 million in 2000; it's about 3.6 million today. The population is expected to hit 5 million in 2030 and 7 million by 2050, according to figures from the Bureau of Economic and Business Research at the University of Florida, the AP reported.

The district says about 155 mgd can safely be taken from the St. Johns River, a meandering 310-mile-long river that begins in Indian River County and then travels north until it runs into the Atlantic Ocean near Mayport. It also says the Ocklawaha River can be tapped for an additional 90 to 108 mgd.

Treating water taken from the rivers is less expensive than desalinating sea water, which could cost five times as much as getting water from wells, said Hal Wilkening, director of the water management district's resource management department. The district also wants to reuse treated sewage water for irrigation.

Utilities in central Florida are already designing plants to capture the river water, treat it, and sell it to customers.

Seminole County is planning to build an 80 mgd facility for drinking water on behalf of 17 utilities serving parts of Orange, Lake and Volusia counties. The cost is estimated at $400 million to $500 million, the AP reported.

But taking so much water from the river could affect the salinity at the mouth of the river near Jacksonville, Armingeon said.

The district said the added salinity would not be enough to harm plants and animals.

According to Cynthia Barnett, author of “Mirage," a book on Florida's water, the region should conserve. "There is a great deal of efficiency to be made up before you begin tapping the river," she said.