Published Dec. 29, 2020 in The Orlando Sentinel
Central Florida’s Wekiva River and its springs are facing a double whammy: declining water levels and nutrient pollution.
Two state plans meant to address the problems fall short and simply won’t protect an ecosystem that generates $60 million in revenue annually and supports 500 jobs.
Recently, the St Johns River Water Management District adopted its 2020 water supply plan for Central Florida. The plan predicts that by 2040, groundwater withdrawals will increase by about 36% from 2015 levels unless more aggressive water conservation programs and alternative water supplies are used. However, the same plan estimates that the aquifer can support only a 14% increase.
According to the plan, projected groundwater withdrawals will cause flows in the Wekiva River and Wekiwa Springs to drop below the state’s adopted minimum flow and level between 2025 and 2030. However, district data show that flow from Wekiwa Springs has been at or below its required level 60% of the time from 2003 to 2018. And the plan acknowledges that flows from Palm and Starbuck springs, which also feed the Wekiva River, are already less than the minimum needed to maintain healthy ecosystems.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection has proposed new rules that would limit groundwater withdrawals by public utilities to their projected 2025 water demands. But that’s only half the story.
The rules also would allow utilities to continue withdrawing more groundwater for up to five additional years, with approval only from the water management district’s staff. And the district’s board could even approve variances to the rules, potentially allowing utilities to withdraw even more groundwater.
Other users, such as commercial, institutional, agricultural and landscape/recreational users, would need to demonstrate only how much water they need in order to continue withdrawing from the aquifer. We need withdrawal limits that protect our natural resources and leaders who will stick to them.
A second plan by DEP addresses increasing pollution — primarily nitrate and phosphate — that help fuel algae that chokes the river. That plan is also woefully inadequate.
In 2018, DEP estimated that more than a million pounds of nitrogen annually flows into the portion of the upper Floridan aquifer that supplies water to Wekiwa and Rock springs and other local springs. More than 50% of the nitrogen comes from fertilizers used on lawns, sports turf and agricultural lands. Another 30% comes from septic tanks.
Nitrate and phosphate levels in Wekiwa and Rock springs are already 3 to 4 times higher than DEP says is safe for healthy ecosystems. However, DEP’s plan would reduce total nitrogen loads only by about 20%, which is insufficient to restore or sustain the aquatic ecosystem.
Friends of the Wekiva River challenged the DEP plan in January 2019, and in November 2019 joined other environmental groups in testifying at an administrative hearing. To date, the administrative law judge has not ruled.
The Wekiva River is an Aquatic Preserve, an Outstanding Florida Water and one of just two rivers in the state to be named a federal Wild and Scenic River. These designations recognize the river’s tremendous natural assets. And recently, FOWR joined with the East Central Florida Regional Planning Council to show the economic significance of the river and springs: $60 million in revenue yearly and 500 jobs.
Taking the following steps could help save this economic and natural resource:
1. Develop prevention and recovery plans for Palm and Starbuck springs.
2. Require utilities, industry, agriculture and other water users to implement aggressive water conservation measures, particularly for landscape irrigation. The district estimates that half of the water currently supplied for drinking is used for landscape irrigation — a very inefficient and costly practice.
3. Require Florida-Friendly Landscaping for new homes and businesses to reduce use of fertilizers and irrigation.
4. Offer incentives for conversion of existing lawns and landscaping to Florida-Friendly Landscaping.
5. Impose a per-gallon water use fee for water withdrawn from aquifers, streams and lakes.
6. Establish and enforce restrictions on irrigation of lawns and landscaping.
7. Provide more incentives for agricultural best management practices.
8. Require central sewer systems for all new subdivisions within the Wekiwa and Rock springs springsheds.
9. Install central sewer systems in existing Wekiva-area subdivisions that use septic tanks.
FOWR believes that groundwater withdrawals and excess nutrients will continue to degrade the natural treasures that have drawn people to Central Florida for centuries.
We must protect these environmental jewels for ourselves and future generations to enjoy.
Mike Cliburn is a retired environmental engineer and secretary of the Friends of the Wekiva River and the Florida Springs Council.