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Orlando Sentinel: A drought-proof water future includes purifying seawater

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

As chairman of the Florida House Subcommittee on Agriculture & Natural Resources Appropriations, I have traveled the state listening to concerns and bringing awareness to one of the most important elements of Florida’s future — water supply.

Our state and local economies depend on clean, fresh water to support farming, livestock, other agribusiness and residential uses. Water keeps us going. Although the peninsula of Florida is surrounded by seawater, life-sustaining fresh water is much more limited in supply.

As Florida’s population continues to grow, the need for drinkable water is expected to follow suit with a drastic increase. We are currently in an extended period of drought, a cycle that appears to be recurring with greater frequency.

The underground aquifers that we have depended almost exclusively upon for fresh water for centuries are becoming less reliable as long-term sources. Excessive groundwater pumping of these aquifers not only increases the speed at which they will be exhausted, but also causes inadvertent consequences, including sinkholes and saltwater intrusion.

With the compounded constraints of extreme drought conditions and rising water demand, Florida’s elected officials, community planners and water managers are realizing the need for a comprehensive water action plan that will help our state prevent an inevitable crisis.

Many Floridians, farmers and local water utilities are already doing their part to protect our fresh water through conservation, but with finite sources of water being used at record rates, conservation alone won’t solve the problem.

Florida’s future water sources must include — in conjunction with ground and surface water — alternative water sources that are “drought-proof,” meaning supplies that are not impacted by Mother Nature’s increasingly frequent dry conditions.

Some municipal officials are now evaluating how to expand and diversify their water supply portfolio by adding drought-proof components such as seawater desalination. This foresight should be applauded — now is the time for this type of thoughtful, bold leadership.

This past legislative session, a consensus emerged among legislators, executive branch officials, water users and environmental organizations to support new legislation designed to “promote the sustainability of natural systems through the diversification of water supplies through the development of seawater desalination plants.”

During this session, state leaders received ample testimony explaining that modern seawater desalination is a reliable, drought-proof, clean and safe water supply source that can now be delivered at a competitive price. This is particularly true in locations where access to local sources of fresh water are not readily available or cannot support demand.

The desalination process removes the salt from seawater and eliminates virtually all mineral, biological and chemical compounds necessary to produce quality water suitable for drinking.

A single seawater desalination plant is capable of producing enough fresh water for up to 150,000 Floridians all day, every day. Modern technology improvements now allow this to be done with much greater efficiency, resulting in less energy use compared to older plant designs, and an increased cost-efficiency.

The legislation passed with strong support, a testament to the collaboration of these non-traditional allies. This is yet another positive step in the right direction.

Over the next year, I will continue to bring attention to Florida’s need for thoughtful water planning. I will continue to gather input and ideas to help guide a new comprehensive plan to protect Florida’s fresh water sources and explore alternative water supplies.

As lawmakers, we must start planning now to ensure we have adequate water supplies for generations to come. We must listen to local communities and eliminate barriers they face as they plan projects for necessary water supplies, including drought-proof supplies from seawater.

Together we will listen, lead and plan for Florida’s water supply future.

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