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Water wars, water shortages

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Most of our groundwater lies in the northern part of the state, but it is the southern cities of Florida that are gobbling up the water because of increasing population every year.


Water wars, lawsuits and economic problems due to projected water shortages have plagued Florida and neighboring states for a decade. Tampa Bay counties have been grabbing each other’s water since the 1970s.

Currently, Florida and Georgia are involved in a lawsuit because Georgia’s population is burgeoning and Florida fears their neighboring state’s high water consumption will impact the seafood industry in Apalachicola Bay.

Florida is mostly surrounded by water. We drive over it and around it and through it often. It would be easy to assume we will never run out of water here. We don’t live in the desert, in Texas or in California. We scoff when scientists and economists tell us water will be our most valuable resource one day soon.

What are experts saying about the Florida watershed and aquifers? With our coast and major cities becoming more and more populated every year, are we at risk?

Water shortage predicted

According to the controversial nonprofit advocacy group Natural Resources Defense Council’s 2010 “Climate Change, Water and Risk” study, Florida is one of the 14 states predicted to face high-risk water shortages by the year 2050.

Last month, an article published in Scientific American pointed to a report issued recently by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The study was based on 12,000 papers submitted by scientists and reviewed by their peer group — Working Group II — who said after studying the data it possible that climate change was already causing problems.

“We see impacts from the equator to the poles, and the coast to the mountains,” Christopher Field, a Stanford biologist, said in the article. He is also the co-chairman of Working Group II.

In spite of the ever-increasing fossil fuel industry requirements and standards that the Environmental Protection Agency asks of industry owners — in particular, coal-fired power plants — the increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere may have already taken its toll. 

EPA scientists have learned that climate changes prior to the Industrial Revolution in the 1700s can be explained by natural causes, such as changes in solar energy, volcanic eruptions and natural changes in greenhouse gas concentrations.

This new research study also implies that human activities, not natural causes, explain why, since the mid-20th century, we have observed a warming of the Earth’s climate. There is a meltdown of the polar ice cap and glaciers, a rise in sea level and drought as early indicators, they say. [However, not all scientists fully agree with this reasoning.]

These scientists are saying the biggest impact from global warming may be the lack of fresh water in our near future.

Though Florida has fewer problems with water than states like California, Arizona and Texas, it behooves us to be aware of their current situation when it comes to water.

The Southwest has already endured 14 years of drought with low snowpack in the Rockies and the Colorado River’s reduction in water flow over years due to increased population in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, San Diego and Phoenix.

Texas has been in drought since 2011. The state has assigned a committee headed by Rep. Todd Hunter (R-Corpus Christi) to research whether it will be worth the money and effort to desalinate seawater. It will cost up to $6 a gallon for water to be produced by this method.  Water per 1,000 gallons costs about 25 cents now.

To date, Texas has already built more than 40 desalination plants to process brackish water, or inland sea water, to produce fresh water. Now Texas may turn to the Gulf of Mexico to ensure that its citizens have water for domestic, agriculture, municipal and industrial use in the future.

California growers locked horns with environmentalists in March when the state approved a bill that will limit water deliveries from the northern part of the state to southern California. Both sides want to preserve the environment, but water is necessary to produce crops and to warm wine grapes when there is a frost. 

Florida is in a similar situation. Most of our groundwater lies in the northern part of the state, but it is the southern cities of Florida that are gobbling up the water because of increasing population every year. Tampa Bay is also growing by leaps and bounds annually.

Florida’s water reality

At the first Sayfie Review Florida Leaders Summit last September in Orlando, state Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam told those gathered that Florida’s freshwater supply would be a top problem if the state tried to maintain its economic and residential growth.

“The water issues in Florida historically have been viewed as someone else’s problems,” Putnam told a Florida House natural resources committee later that year. “There is now not a single corner of the state that is not impacted by this.”

The Sayfie Review is named after Justin Sayfie, a lawyer and attorney who organized the two-day summit that included a mix of leaders from across the state. The goal of the summit was to try to raise awareness statewide.

We get our water from groundwater, surface water and desalinated seawater from the Tampa Bay Seawater Desalination Plant, which is providing 25 million gallons of water a day.

Southwest Florida Water Management District, often referred to as Swiftmud, manages Citrus, DeSoto, Hardee, Hernando, Hillsborough, Manatee, Pasco, Pinellas, Sarasota and Sumter counties, and portions of Charlotte, Highlands, Lake, Levy, Marion and Polk counties.

Swiftmud’s area is approximately 10,000 square miles and serves five million people. It and other water management districts administer flood protection programs, perform technical investigations into water resources, direct water management programs for water shortages during droughts, as well as excess water during storms.

Our region in Swiftmud has the responsibility of managing four major watersheds: Hillsborough River, Tampa Bay/Anclote River, Alafia River and Little Manatee River.

As surprising as it seems, with the freshwater resources residents and tourists enjoy in the rivers, lakes and wetland areas found throughout Florida, most of the state’s freshwater lies underground in aquifers.

An aquifer is a layer of underground rock, or sand, that stores water.

Rainwater that soaks into the ground serves as the source of most of the ground water within an aquifer. The majority of rainfall returns to the atmosphere through evaporation and transpiration, or runs off across the land into surface water bodies.

An overdraft of water occurs when the amount of ground water withdrawn for our use exceeds the amount of water that naturally recharges the aquifer.

An overdraft also occurs when the population exceeds the demand.

Demand for water

Melissa Meeker, former head of Swiftmud, was vice president for CSA Ocean Sciences, an environmental consultant, when she sat on Sayfie’s panel last year. She shared the statistics on future water demands for Florida. Meeker said the demand for water will increase by 1.4 billion gallons a day to 7.9 billion gallons by the year 2030.

Meeker has long urged Florida legislators to work toward increased water storage and recovery systems because of the 1.7 billion gallons of freshwater that flow out to the Gulf and ocean daily.

“We have 1.7 billion gallons of water going to tide,” Meeker said as part of the Sayfie’s panel, “just lost forever.”

She became the new executive director of WateReuse Association and Research Foundation last month. The Foundation’s mission is to promote research on the reclamation, recycling, reuse and desalination of water.

Next month, the 2010 Florida water-use calculation will be posted on the United States Geological Survey site (fl.water.usgs.gov). In spite of the 53 inches of rainfall that year, the 2005 total freshwater withdrawals for Florida were 4,242 million gallons per day. The 2005 fresh surface water withdrawals were 2,626 million gallons per day. 

The permanent Florida population in 2005 was 17.9 million and nearly 86 million tourists visited. In 2013, the population of Florida was 19,552,860 total residents, just under New York’s population of 19,651,127.

It is predicted by the U.S. Census Bureau that Florida, with growth showing a 3.75 percent increase annually since 2010, will have more residents than New York sometime this year.

You do the math.

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