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Miami Herald: Don’t let drought catch Florida by surprise

Friday, October 25, 2013

With recent months bringing large amounts of rainfall to Florida, it can be easy to forget our ever-repeating history of drought conditions. In fact, Florida has consistently faced intense drought year after year. Just two years ago, severe drought forced communities across the state to implement stern water restrictions.

Conditions were so bad in parts of southeast Florida that West Palm Beach was less than two months away from running out of water. At the time, water managers warned that Florida’s cyclical water supply challenges would only get worse if we did not begin to invest in new, drought-proof sources of freshwater.

During droughts, conservation measures call for Florida residents to drastically cut their outside water usage to avoid worsening already precariously dry conditions. But, brown lawns aren’t the only side effect of water scarcity. Businesses and industry, like agriculture, golf courses and landscape services, suffer economic blows due to the limited availability of freshwater, adding job loss to the long list of negative drought effects.

While drought is all too common in Florida, potable water usage in the Sunshine State is not diminishing. The demand for this vital resource is predicted to rise by approximately 1.4 billion gallons in 2030. Conservation will continue to play a critical role, with a need to focus on voluntary and incentive-based initiatives, as well as education and marketing efforts. At the same time, it is also critical to focus on diversifying and developing alternative water sources to drought-proof our economy.

Traditional water supply sources feed our natural systems, including wetlands, springs and rivers. Expanding these sources can be costly — and in certain regions simply not possible due to the capping of withdrawals from certain aquifers. In many areas, traditional alternatives are no longer the easiest or cheapest water supply solutions, making it critical for Florida to take additional steps toward more effective methods of meeting our state’s water needs.

Here’s the good news: Advances in technology have decreased the costs of previously prohibitively expensive alternatives that can augment water supply, including aquifer storage and recovery, reuse, and desalination of brackish or ocean water. These important technologies allow engineers to store and access water sources that were previously unusable.

For example, Florida is a national leader in water reuse with more than 480 provider facilities across the state. Yet, Southeast Florida still lags behind the rest of the populated areas with between just 15 percent and 45 percent of available reuse being utilized. We need to view wastewater as a critical water resource rather than a disposal challenge.

Another method gaining rapid momentum among experts is seawater desalination, a process that would take advantage of the vast amount of seawater that surrounds Florida. This proven technology has been deployed successfully worldwide for many years. Developing coastal desalination projects in Florida could provide a potentially unlimited, high-quality, drought-proof water supply for our future.

Today, both reuse and desalinization are viable options for Florida. The cost of these technologies continues to decrease and, with a vast coastline providing access to seawater, there is no doubt that these are renewable resources.

Although our lawns are currently green and rain is plentiful, it won’t always be. Let’s not sit back and allow drought conditions to continually catch us by surprise.

Just as Florida plans and prepares for hurricanes, so too should we plan and prepare for droughts. We must mobilize with action-oriented preparation that includes aggressive water conservation programs and the exploration and development of new drought-proof water supplies. Let’s learn from other areas around the world and challenge decision makers to expand and develop sustainable technologies to ensure our economy and natural resources are protected for future generations.

Melissa L. Meeker is former executive director of the South Florida Water Management District.

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