Is development draining the FL aquifer system beyond repair?
Clarification: This article has been updated to clarify that the springs referenced are not exclusively hot springs, as was previously stated.
The economic benefits of development and the preservation of natural resources are continually being weighed against each other. In a state like Florida, this conversation is often a protracted — even heated — one because so much of the state’s tourism industry is reliant on keeping its beaches, parks and springs as pristine as possible. The boon delivered by tourism also justifies questions about how new construction and expanding agricultural operations could put a dent in one of the state’s biggest revenue streams.
More than 112 million tourists visited Florida last year, a 5.9% increase from 2015, Florida Today reported. Those visitors spent $109 billion and generated 1.4 million jobs.
And some visitors are staying.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott announced last month that the state had seen the number of private businesses increase by 16.5% since December 2010. While many of the net 75,449 businesses added since then are homegrown, the figure also includes those coming from out of state to set up shop. The growth in the number of businesses in the state is one contributor to its strong population growth currently.
That’s good news and bad news for the state. The good news is that all those new people will need places to live, shop, work, learn, relax and seek medical care, which means a boost for the state's construction industry and its workers. Local and state agencies also get to collect more property, sales and other taxes as a result.
The bad news is that the strain on the state’s aquifer system — the subterranean limestone reservoirs that provide most of the water that Floridians use to drink, bathe and water their lawns — is starting to become evident.
Going to the source
Florida’s aquifer is made up of two primary systems. One is the nearly 100,000-square-mile Floridan aquifer, which encompasses the entire state of Florida and parts of Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and South Carolina. The Biscayne aquifer sits atop the Floridan in South Florida and provides the area with fresh water. If the Biscayne aquifer ever ran completely dry, utility companies could dig deeper and hit the Floridan. However, according to attorney Spencer Crowley, a partner at the law firm Akerman in Miami, that water would need to be treated through a method like reverse osmosis to become potable.
When too much water is pumped from the ground, the level of water that flows freely through the porous limestone is reduced, said Robert Knight, founder of the Florida Springs Institute, in High Springs, FL. If that level falls too far, the pressure that maintains flow through the system and to the state’s hundreds of springs weakens.
The lack of flow to the springs can be devastating on both an environmental level and an economic level because so many tourists — and residents — come to the springs for recreational purposes. "Water flow is the lifeblood of the springs, so when you reduce their flow, they start getting sick," Knight said. More specifically, more algae forms, reducing water clarity and resulting in the stagnant, brackish water that repels both people and wildlife. If the spring goes dry, it can turn those vibrant natural resources into waterless holes in the ground.
For example, while not dry yet, Silver Springs, in Ocala, FL, once flowed at a rate of 500 million gallons per day, but over pumping has reduced its output by 60%, Knight said.
That’s not the worst-case scenario for reductions to the aquifer. Several of Floridia's major rivers, like the Hillsborough River in Tampa and the St. Johns, which runs through Jacksonville, are spring-fed. If those rivers were to stop flowing, it would be disastrous for the economies that depend on them, and it would also force wells deeper into the aquifer, resulting in them potentially withdrawing water at a rate faster than the aquifer can be replenished.
Finding a solution
So who’s to blame? As it turns out, everyone who uses water is contributing to the problem. According to the High Springs Institute, aquifer levels have fallen below what is necessary to maintain a healthy aquifer-spring system. A 10- to 20-foot reduction in aquifer levels is enough to stop a spring from flowing, and some urban areas have already recorded 30- to 90-foot drops. According to the United States Geological Survey, groundwater in the Tampa–St. Petersburg area has been pumped to the point that saltwater has entered the supply, a series of sinkholes have formed and surface water has been depleted.
Determining whether the state is doing enough to conserve water includes looking at new development and how permits are issued.
When developers establish the water needs for a subdivision or other large project, they must contract with utility companies, Crowley said, which have water-use permits to withdraw the water. Those permits not only cover actual water use, but they also include conditions meant to mitigate environmental harm caused by the withdrawal of water. The permits can also include conditions requiring the development of alternative water supplies, increased efficiency measures and the reduction of water loss that might occur from leaks or unmetered supply.
What it doesn’t cover is a charge for the water itself. Crowley said there is an argument to be made that a per-gallon charge levied on utility companies could provide the extra money for conservation efforts and help create efficiency in the water utility system. But those costs would also be passed on to consumers and businesses.
The future of water in Florida
There is a new wave of commitment on behalf of owners and contractors, according to Crowley, to make development and construction as sustainable as possible. That includes water management.
The effort to become LEED certified has had a big impact on the way developers approach natural resource management. He said one client developed a large collection system to divert rainwater into cisterns, which reserve the water for nonpotable uses. The move helped to keep stormwater out of the sewers, reduced the groundwater draw and earned the project LEED credits. For greenfield development, many developers are required to institute gray water systems that convert sewage into water for irrigation, Crowley said.
“What I like to think we're doing is that even though we're increasing the amount of people that are impacting the [aquifer] system, we're making that impact much more efficient,” Crowley said. “Everyone’s trying to make an effort.”
Older developments that use septic systems instead of sanitary sewer connections, for example, pose a bigger threat to groundwater than new developments, which do not use those types of waste disposal systems anymore, he said. Retrofitting them can be a costly and time-consuming experience.
It will most likely take a strong economic message — like a drop in tourism dollars — to encourage lawmakers take another look at Florida’s water-use laws and try to balance commercial interests with environmental ones.
However, much of Knight’s frustration comes from what seems to him like an unwillingness on the state’s part to crack down on those over-pumping or polluting the aquifer system. “They are exploiting what is free,” he said, “and killing the goose that laid the golden egg.”
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