Immediate action needed to head off Florida water crisis

The Florida peninsula is in the midst of an unprecedented water crisis that will literally shut off the faucets in parts of the region in the next five years, if drastic steps aren't taken.

That's the collective opinion of hydrologists and other scientists who recently met here at Rollins College to discuss how the crisis developed and what -- if anything -- can be done to avoid it.

The current crisis was sparked by a severe decrease in rainfall over the last two years, but its long-term causes run much deeper. For instance:

* Recharge areas where rainfall could percolate into underground aquifers have been developed for commercial or residential purposes at an alarming rate over the last decade.

* A state where half of the terrain once was flood plain has been ditched and drained so that low-lying areas could be used for development. Ground water seepage and rains are then channeled by canals into rivers and eventually into the ocean, where they are lost for practical use.

* Heavy irrigation by the citrus and other agricultural industries and seasonal home irrigation during the warm, but dry, spring months have put even more demands on an aquifer that is as much as 12 feet lower than normal in some areas. Shallow wells are drying up. Sinkholes -- of which there were over 200 last spring -- are becoming more frequent. In these, the ground literally opens up to swallow what is above it.

The shallow lakes and streams of Florida's flat topography don't have the ability to hold much water, so over 90 percent of the supply must be groundwater. Since up to 70 percent of all rainfall is lost to evapotranspiration, even heavy rains associated with tropical disturbances won't help restore the groundwater supply.

Florida is one of the few subtropical peninsulas in the world that is not a desert because of the abundance of water stored in its four limestone aquifers. The capacity of the major source, the Floridan Aquifer, which stretches up into Alabama and Georgia, rivals that of all the Great Lakes. It was once believed that the Floridan Aquifer alone would provide all the water future generations needed.

But, ''only a small part of that capacity is actually potable,'' says Dr. Garald Parker, a private hydrologist who identified and named the aquifer while serving as head hydrologist for the Southwest Florida Water Management District. ''Most of it is in dead storage. Everywhere, at some depth, the aquifer is underlain by salt water.''

As the aquifer level drops, salt water intrusion occurs both vertically and horizontally. Management officials in Volusia and Brevard counties along the mid-Atlantic coast have already reported salt water intrusion this winter. When the temperate winter months give way to the warmer, water-use months of March and April, that intrusion is expected to worsen.

Intrusion has even been detected 40 miles inland from Tampa, where heavy use of water by the phosphate industry has created a hydrological ''Red Hole,'' lowering the aquifer 10 feet beyond that of the rest of the state. ''In five years they'll be taking out more than they're putting in. I don't think they've made provisions for the crash that's coming,'' says Dr. Parker.

Ironically, Florida passed some landmark environmental laws in the late 1960s and early 1970s -- most notably the state Water and Land Conservation Act and the Water Resources Act. But, the effectiveness of the laws in conserving either water or land depends on the local politicians charged with administering the statutes. ''The local (environmental) management plans range from the sublime to the ridiculous,'' says Dr. John DeGrove, who helped write the Water Resources Act. Development-oriented realtors either influenced elected officials or got themselves elected and circumvented the state-wide plans.

Instead of resorting to emergency water-use plans, the high-density coastal areas in the state, where 75 percent of the population lives, appear to be taking a more expedient route. ''When their water starts running out, those coastal areas will vote in the legislature to ship water down from central and northern Florida by pipeline,'' says Dr. William Taft, Director of the Mote Marine Laboratory.

For instance, the Tampa Bay area needs 70 million gallons of water a day. It can no longer depend on the flow of the Hillsborough River which only provides up to 32 million gallons a day during the dry season. Lawn watering and car washing are prohibited during those times. But the population is still growing. Local government leaders have already discussed piping water from inland springs , such as the abundant 500-million-gallons-a-day Silver Springs in Ocala, the world's largest spring. Initial reaction from inland governments has already proved hostile.

Dr. Parker claims that the five regional water management districts throughout the state have ''knuckled under'' to agriculture, citrus, and phosphate interests. This is also suggested by the fact that pending legislation to require the local districts to inventory available supplies and emphasize conservation before issuing water-use permits is now under fire from water-supply lobbyists. They want to delete a portion of the bill that would allow the districts to judge the negative impact a water-use permit might have on surrounding property.

Yet, there are some measures that can be taken to head off the predicted shortage:

* The most immediate of those solutions is reclamation of those river basins that are threatened with dredging and filling by private owners. On the upper east coast, the St. Johns Water Management District agreed to spend $80 million to buy critical marshlands in a three-county area along the basin of the St. Johns River. The once-healthy river flows through 18 counties and was a major source of water until dikes and drainage began destroying the river's natural water-retention and cleansing abilities. Funds for the purchase of the 38,000 acres come from a ''Save Our Rivers'' state trust fund derived from a 5-percent property sales tax surcharge. The trust fund, recently mandated by the state legislature, is expected to generate $320 million over the next 10 years. But with all the districts splitting the funds, it may be another case of too little , too late, especially for the St. Johns, a 320-mile tract that is prized by developers.

* The extension of mandatory water cut-backs. During last spring's dry season , some high-density areas of the state were under 25-percent mandatory rationing , while less affected areas were put on a 15-percent ''optional'' program by the water management districts.

* A significant price increase, as high as 10 times the current water rates, to discourage excessive use. As Dr. Thaddeus Seymour said at the Rollins Conference: ''We love our lawns more than our children.''

* Mandatory programs for recycling agricultural water. ''Water from the lower ends of the field should be pumped back up over and over again until it becomes too saline to use,'' said Dr. Parker. More efficient irrigation methods, such as drip irrigation which doesn't lose water to evaporation, should be required. ''In the American Southwest, you could be fined heavily for allowing irrigation water to waste,'' said Dr. Parker.

* An emphasis on landscaping with native plants. The Florida Conservation Foundation has even formed a ''Native Plant Society'' which stresses the use of local plants to save water, as well as conserving wildlife habitat and controlling surburban sprawl.

* Recyling dead anaerobic settlement ponds formed by the run-off from processing plants and other industries into aerobic ponds suitable for use as an alternative source.

Despite these positive recommendations, hydrologists remain skeptical about the willingness of local governments to comply. Some cited a 1971 emergency conference on water management called by former Gov. Reubin Askew. The summary report of the conference warned both that there was an impending crisis in South Florida and the potential for similar shortages elsewhere in the state. It urged that corrective measures be taken.

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