Florida Springs In Trouble

For GLO, Golf Life Orlando magazine, March 2007

We are unique in how we obtain our public water supply. Most places in the country draw water from lakes, reservoirs and rivers. In Central and North Florida we drill massive wells deep into the ground to draw water directly from the source, the massive Floridan aquifer which sits under Central and North Florida.

It has been our source of public water for decades, a seemingly limitless supply.  We turn on the tap and water comes out.  It’s one of the most dependable acts of our everyday lives. But as the population grows, and greater demands are put on the aquifer to supply more water to more people, water managers are warning that our long-standing source of cheap, clean water is soon to reach its limit.

In Central and Northeast Florida, the area covered by the St. Johns River Water Management District, we use 1.5-billion gallons of water a day. The water usage figure is forecast to increase to nearly 2 billion gallons a day in the next 15 years. That’s a staggering 300 gallons of water daily for every man, woman and child. The biggest uses are lawn irrigation, filling back yard swimming pools, and agricultural irrigation.

But the Water Management District says to draw 2-billion gallons daily from our existing water sources will cause “unacceptable adverse impact” on the environment.  According to the District, it will lead to the loss of wetlands, lower lake levels, and a reduction of water flow in the rivers.

Already we can see the impact on the Floridan aquifer.  The aquifer bubbles to the surface at nearly 700 freshwater springs, believed to be the largest concentration of springs in the world.  Tapped for municipal and agricultural water supplies, the volume of water gushing from the springs has declined since the 1960’s.  The output from Wekiva Springs in Seminole County is down 30-percent in the past 40 years. The flow at Blue Springs in Volusia County is down 20-percent.

With reduced flow, spring waters are more vulnerable to pollutants, storm water contamination, and chemical leaching of nitrates from pesticides and fertilizers. The less flow of water into the springs, the more concentrated the levels of pollutants are.

The spring system that feeds Central Florida’s Wekiva River is among the most threatened.  Water flow calculations over the next 20 years predict 15-percent less water flowing into the river, meaning noticeable changes in the Wekiva ecosystem as water levels drop and vegetation dies.

“Less water in the river means changes in the character of the river’s ecosystem”, says Nancy Prine of the Friends of the Wekiva, a conservation group that is devoted to protecting the Wekiva River and springs.  Prine says lower water levels will change the nature of vegetation lining the river, most noticeably meaning fewer hard woods growing along the river banks.

According the Prine the single most important action to protect the Wekiva river “is to reduce withdrawls from the aquifer for public water supply”, and the best way to do that is to reduce the amount of water used for irrigation.

Using native plants and grasses will help reduce the water and fertilizer use on our lawns. Both Bahia and “Sapphire” St. Augustine, a new strain of the long popular grass family, are considered drought resistant and require less fertilizer. Some homeowners have replaced lawns completely, opting instead for groundcovers of ivy, ferns and palmetto, which can grow wild without irrigation or fertilizer.

In 2004 the Florida Legislature passed the Wekiva Parkway and Protection Act, requiring the counties of Orange, Lake and Seminole, and 15 municipalities to amend their comprehensive plans to protect the Wekiva River and springs watershed recharge area. They are required to improve waste water and storm water treatment to reduce nitrates and pollutants in the water discharged in the springs area.

“The quality of the springs is directly related to the quality of the ground water that goes into the aquifer”, says Jim Stevenson, a springs consultant to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

Nitrate levels, caused by pollutants such as fertilizers, have increased as the population has grown.

“The more people, the more nitrates”, says Stevenson.

Nitrate levels at Blue Springs have more than doubled since surveyed in 1976, when development in the springs recharge area began to boom.  The levels at all springs tend to fluctuate greatly, depending on drought conditions, population growth, and other factors that affect the water levels in the aquifer recharge areas.

Rock Springs, a major contributor to the flow of the Wekiva River, was closed to swimming several times in recent years because of high bacteria counts. Rock Springs Run, which flows east into the Wekiva River, has become clogged with hydrila vegetation because of excessive nitrate levels in the water. Eureka Springs in Tampa, once a city water source and popular swimming spot, is closed permanently, the water polluted and the flow less than half what it was 20 years ago.  Gemini Springs in Volusia County is permanently closed because of high bacteria counts.  All across the state springs are feeling the pressures of development and population growth.

So what can be done to improve the quality and quantity of our water supply?

Charging more for water may serve as a deterrent to excessive water use. A state task force has recommended that the state buy up large tracts of undeveloped land in the recharge areas to take some of the pressure off the springs and the Floridan aquifer.

The solutions to the region’s future water supply are expensive.

“Spring water is cheap,” according to Barbara Vergara, Director of Water Supply Management for the St. Johns River Water Management District.  “You draw it out, throw a little chlorine in it and that’s all you have to do.  Compared to other parts of the country, our water is very inexpensive.”

In the future, the Water Management District plans to draw surface water from the St. Johns River and the lower Ocklawaha River to meet the region’s growing demands for fresh water.

Drawing murky and tannic water from the rivers will be more costly.  Water Management District estimates for river water treatment in the future are three to four times higher than the costs of treating spring water.

But regardless of price, even the rivers can not supply enough water to meet central Florida’s increasing demand.

Water experts see the inexhaustible supply of seawater as the only long-term solution to the state’s growing demand for water.

The search for new water supplies will likely lead to high tech solutions, such as desalination. Flagler County water managers already have plans for a major desalination plant at Flagler Beach, which could handle the county’s freshwater needs by 2025.  The proposed plant would also serve portions of Volusia and St. Johns counties.

Other desalination plants are being discussed for the Indian River in Brevard County and New Smyrna Beach in Volusia County.

Desalination is already being used in the Tampa area, where a plant with a capacity of 25-million gallons per day has been operating for the past six years.  A smaller plant in Key West has been used successfully for decades.

The plight of the springs and the region’s fresh water supply are probably the number one issue facing the future development of Central Florida.  Growth is directly tied to the availability of water.

In order to protect our water supplies the future will need to hold more environmentally friendly development.  That means less development within the immediate recharge area of the springs, using less fertilizer on our yards, and restricting the amount of water used by residential, agricultural and business customers.

None of that is easy to do given the pressures for growth in the region.

But the Florida Department of Environmental Protection has already had some success working directly with developers who are building within spring watersheds.

An example of environmentally friendly development is the 3,000 acre Villages at Rainbow Springs in Marion County.  It is a residential community with a golf course, built on the banks of the spring fed Rainbow River.

Working with the Department of Environmental Protection, the developers designed the golf course to use less fertilizer and water.  They used Bahia grass in the rough, which doesn’t require fertilizer or irrigation. They built berms along the course nearest the river to minimize runoff.  They planted native wild flowers in landscaped areas to reduce the amount of irrigation needed. And they left 130 acres nearest the river in a natural state.

Eco friendly conservation measures will help take some of the development pressure off the springs and rivers.  But the Florida population is expected to go up another 50% in the next 20 years.

“You can’t stop growth anymore than we can stop a hurricane”, says Jim Stevenson.  But hurricanes sometimes change course and go away. The growing demand for water will not.

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