Big Sugar believes that people on the coast do not know what they are talking about. (See the end of the article.) What happens, though, when we run out of water? – Guardians of Martin County
By Chad Gillis
October 20, 2016
The economy is based largely on beaches, fishing and waterfront real estate, and the Sunshine State has thousands of miles of rivers, springs, lakes and bays to explore. That’s the water we love, and that’s the water shown in tourism ads and on “best beaches” lists.
When the vast wetland system floods – which happened in January and then again this summer – the focus shifts to drainage and keeping farm fields and backyards dry. We hate that water, and we send it 15 miles or more into the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean.
“The over-drainage that has occurred has shunted water that would have naturally recharged our aquifers,” said Jennifer Hecker, natural resource policy director at Conservancy of Southwest Florida. “We naturally used to be able to hold that freshwater and have it available for our needs in the dry season.”
But it’s the struggle to essentially control rainfall and Mother Nature, some say, that is at the center of water quality problems, which sometimes cripple local economies.
Shallow, cheap drinking water aquifers have dropped as much as 9 feet in Lee County since 1995, which leads the state. Drought years force some homeowners to abandon their well system in favor of a new one, which costs thousands of dollars.
Aquifers are water storage areas that can be tapped into for drinking water and irrigation supply. Historically, homeowners could get water by digging 20 feet or more below the surface and using a pump to send water to their home. That water has been largely used up and doesn’t get replenished because of excess drainage and demand.
“Drinking water supply is shrinking because (drinking water aquifers) are not getting enough sheet flow,” said Daniel Andrews, a fishing guide and member of Captains for Clean Water. “And then you run into saltwater intrusion because there’s not enough pressure from the freshwater (that was historically stored there).”
Ocean water is constantly putting pressure against drinking water aquifers beneath Florida. If too much freshwater is removed from the aquifers – for either farming or human consumption – saltwater can force its way into the aquifer and potentially ruin that drinking water supply.
Losing that drinking water would force utilities to adapt expensive technologies like reverse osmosis, which uses a membrane to remove salt and other undesired material.
Logic suggests there should be enough water for both people and farming, as South Florida sees more than 4 feet of rain during an average year – more than Nevada, Arizona, California and Idaho get combined.
“We have concerns that the water has already been over-allocated,” Hecker said. “We’ve asked for years for a detailed water budget to know how much water is available at which times of the year and how much (water is guaranteed by the state).”
When Hecker and others say “water budget,” they’re talking about the amount of water that is available throughout the historic Everglades system, which includes 16 counties and stretches from just south of Orlando to the Florida Keys.
The Conservancy of Southwest Florida and other groups have asked the state for what is essentially a permit for the Caloosahatchee River so it doesn’t get cut off in the future. There is no legal guarantee that water will flow down the river, but there are legal guarantees that the state will provide water to big users like farms and developments.
If too much water is allocated through permitting, Hecker and others fear nature and the public will suffer.
Nature’s not meeting the drinking water needs of Cape Coral, which already has one of the world’s most advanced reverse osmosis systems. Hooking up to that fancy system, though, can cost $20,000, a cost that wouldn’t be required if water were properly managed, critics say.
Water consumption forecasts show increased demands across most of the state, with agricultural interests actually wanting more water in the future although they’ll be farming fewer acres.
That scenario has Hecker and others concerned that U.S. Sugar will eventually run out of productive muck soil and look to develop tens of thousands of acres of what has been farm land for the past 80 years or so and was part of the Everglades before that.
The company submitted plans to the state in 2014 that outlined a large residential and commercial development near Lake Okeechobee, essentially a new town with a footprint larger than Miami.The proposal drew criticism from both the South Florida Water Management District and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
“It would be a permanent constraint that might eliminate our ability to send water south to Everglades National Park,” Hecker said. “And it would increase the amount of users and need while decreasing our ability to store water. Essentially it’s a double-whammy.”
Building towns south of Lake O would also bring more people to the edge of one of the most dangerous water management structures in the nation. Insurance companies suggest agents don’t provide coverage south of the lake because the Herbert Hoover Dike is behind only Lake Pontchatrain in Louisiana in terms of potential loss of life and property damage should it fail.
U.S. Sugar executive and former water management district governing board member Malcolm “Bubba” Wade said the company has let its plans for the town expire, so it will no longer pursue the Sugar Hill Sector Plan.
But, Wade said, development will eventually come to that area of the state because the coastal areas have largely been developed.
“There is no more expansion on the coastal areas and rural Florida is like Orlando,” he said. “That is where people are ultimately going to move.”
Legally, water supply for those towns would already be guaranteed through existing agriculture permits.
The state says it will meet future water needs but that utilities must do their part by finding other sources.
“One of the district’s core missions is to assure there is sufficient water supply to meet South Florida’s needs through the regulation of water use,” Randy Smith, district spokesman, said in an email. “In 2008 the district adopted a strong regional water availability rule which limits withdrawals from the Biscayne Aquifer and requires water reuse and conservation measures. This stringent rule has also required utilities to seek alternate water sources such as the deeper Floridan Aquifer.”
The Biscayne Aquifer supplies water to millions of people on the east cost. Water in the Floridan Aquifer is brackish and requires relatively expensive treatment methods.
What about flooding? If the second most dangerous water control structure in the country is bad for the 40,000 or so people that live there now, wouldn’t new development just add to that problem?
These are common arguments from Hecker and others.
“That’s just a matter of engineering,” Wade said. “There’s a lot of people who really don’t understand the issues on the coast – people who don’t really know what they’re saying – and it doesn’t make sense.”