Water Withdrawals Surface In Debate Over Resources

Mar 18, 2015

St. Johns Riverkeeper Lisa Rinaman joined lawmakers from Northeast Florida at the Florida Capitol Tuesday for the annual St. Johns River Caucus. One topic of consideration: a plan to withdraw millions of gallons of water per day from the river. The proposal doesn’t wash with conservationists.

In December, Florida became the third most-populous state in the country. And all those people use a lot of water. In Northeast and Central Florida, scientists estimate the area will need an additional 314 million gallons per day to meet the demand two decades from now. The St. Johns River Water Management District is heading up the search for more water.

Scientists use spectrophotometers, ammonia analyzers and orbital shakers to inspect the water in the St. Johns River. The data went into the District's Water Supply Impact Study. It was a big undertaking: around eighty scientists and engineers spent four years and three million dollars to perform the analysis.

One big conclusion: taking 155 million gallons of water per day out of the St. Johns River is sustainable.

"There would really be no effects other than minor and negligible effects on the biology and water quality of the river," District Chief Scientist Ed Lowe said.

Conservationists disagree

"Pulling freshwater from the St. Johns River is not sustainable from a water quantity perspective or a water quality perspective,"St. Johns Riverkeeper Lisa Rinaman said. "The more you pull out of the St. Johns, the more saltwater you pull in. And as the river gets saltier and saltier, at some point it's not going to be an adequate source."

The Distict's study was peer reviewed by the National Research Council who found it to be competent and adequate, although questions were raised about some of its conclusions.

But Rinaman says policy makers need to do more to curb water use before we talk about pulling more from rivers.

"In the state of Florida, we're still using 50 percent of our drinking water from our aquifer on our lawns - to water our grass. We have a water use problem and not a water supply problem. We really first need to focus on water conservation to live within our water means," Rinaman said.

Competing bills

The Florida Legislature is debating water policy in the form of competing bills in the House and Senate. Steve Robitaille with the Florida Defenders of the Environment says the House version, which passed nearly unanimously on the third day of the legislative session, falls short.

"It's going to do little to solve Florida's water issues. And we think the [Charlie] Dean bill [in the Senate] is a better bill. We believe that will put Florida's springs and water on a road to better health," said Robitaille.

The Senate bill is sponsored by Republican Charlie Dean of Inverness.