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Public Meeting In Jax Tonight On St. Johns River Water Withdrawal Plan

Kevin Meerschaert

The possibility of draining freshwater from the St. Johns River for use in Central Florida is again being raised in the Sunshine State.There’s a meeting Thursday at Jacksonville City Hall that again pits Central Florida development against environmental concerns downriver.

According to the St. Johns River Water Management District, the population in the area from Jacksonville to Orlando will increase by 1.8 million people by 2035 and use an additional 345 million gallons of water a day.

Their experts say that much growth cannot be satisfied by just using water from Florida’s underground aquifer.

The district is collaborating with South Florida and Southwest Florida district’s on the Central Florida Water Initiative to find a solution to the problem.

Assistant Division Director Tom Bartol is project manager for the initiative.   

"We're required by Florida statute to prepare water supply plans that have really two purposes," he said.

"One is to ensure that we have the means to meet the future water demands for the district and our area and population and at the same time protect the water resources of the area."   

Part of what’s being considered includes siphoning millions of gallons of water daily from the St. Johns and that has environmental groups in an uproar.

St. Johns Riverkeeper Lisa Rinaman said that would dramatically affect the ecological balance of the river.

"Not only will it worsen pollution problems that are already happening in the St. Johns it will also reduce the flow and have more salinity impacts and so what you'll see are damage to wetlands as well as submerged grasses which are so important to the overall health of the St. Johns River," she said.  

Rinaman said the state should focus more on sustainability and not building housing projects in areas that can’t handle the growth.

"We need to focus first on living within our water means and on aggressive water conservation, make sure we're doing everything we can to conserve water," she said. "You know right now we are still as a state putting 50-percent of our drinking water on our lawns and that's something that we can't do long term if we continue to grow like we're planning to."     

But Bartol said conservation is always the top priority of the Water Management District.

He said they have always pushed new developments to use reclaimed water for their lawn and irrigation purposes. Some are using 100 percent reclaimed water, and he said Central Florida is leading the way.

"Frankly in North Florida we don't beneficially use waste water as much as we do in other portions of the St. Johns River Water Management District and in particular as compared to the greater Orlando area," he said. 

Bartol said this debate shouldn’t be seen as a battle between Central and Northeast Florida and that the problem of finding enough freshwater to meet future needs is a statewide problem.

"I don't want you to think that...the future water supply issues are only in Central Florida," he said "There's just as much of an issue with meeting demands in North Florida too."

"So North Florida has to do something, the Jacksonville area, Duval, St. Johns, Clay County, they have to do things also to meet their future demand."     

The water management districts will be holding a meeting tonight from 5:30 to 7 p.m. in the Council Chambers at Jacksonville City Hall.

They want to get public comments on a draft plan. They’ll be collecting public comments until February 20.  The final report is expected to be released late spring or early summer.

You can follow Kevin Meerschaert on Twitter @KMeerschaertJax.

Kevin Meerschaert has left WJCT for new pursuits. He was the producer of First Coast Connect until October of 2018.