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Orlando Sentinel: Analysis: Floridan Aquifer can only handle 6% more pumping before serious environmental harm

Monday, August 26, 2013

Just how much more water can Central Florida pump from the Floridan Aquifer without causing real harm to the region’s environment? After years of debate, study and anxiety, state authorities say they have finally — and officially — figured it out.

The answer: hardly any.

Using the most advanced databases and computing methodology yet developed for such a task, a consortium of state water managers and local utilities have calculated that the current amount of water pumped from the underground aquifer each day can be increased by only about 6 percent — which means the region is already exploiting the huge, life-sustaining aquifer for nearly every drop it can safely offer.

For the past several years, Central Florida’s demand for aquifer water by all users — homes, businesses and agriculture — has averaged 800 million gallons a day. But that demand is expected to rise during three decades to 1.1 billion gallons a day. The problem is, pumping more than 850 million gallons a day from the aquifer will inflict a significant amount of damage to wetlands, springs and rivers, according to the consortium’s new analysis, unless a lot of costly environmental splints and bandages are applied.

“This should come as no surprise,” said Hal Wilkening, a director with the St. Johns River Water Management District. The consortium, called the Central Florida Water Initiative, hopes its new calculations will give utilities the financial courage to spend large sums of money on meeting the region’s rising water needs by pumping water from relatively distant rivers, lakes or even the ocean rather than from the aquifer.

Another option — one not considered likely by state officials — is to improve existing conservation measures so that demand for water is kept in check even as Central Florida’s population grows from nearly 3 million today to 4.1 million in 2035.

Members of the Central Florida Water Initiative, closely chaperoned by their lawyers and consultants, have spent the better part of the past year trying to mesh the historical and projected demands for water with the amount of drinkable water actually available from the region’s vast aquifer.

“It’s taken a long time to go through the excruciating amount of scientific analysis,” said Daniel O’Keefe, an Orlando lawyer and chairman of the South Florida Water Management District, one of three state-run districts involved in the project. “I’m encouraged, because now we can start focusing on solutions.”

The consortium’s boundaries take in southern Lake and all of Orange, Osceola, Seminole and Polk counties. Among the dozens of water utilities in that area, the two largest are Orlando Utilities Commission, which pumps about 80 million gallons a day from the aquifer, and Orange County Utilities, which pumps 60 million.

The consortium’s newly calculated bottom line for the region’s water supply is in line with long-standing thinking that the Floridan Aquifer is already being pushed to its sustainable limits. But the group’s recent presentation did offer hope that tens of millions of additional gallons can still be safely squeezed from nature’s cistern, though the aquifer’s health depends on it receiving 1 gallon of rain for every gallon of water pumped out.

Mark Hammond, director of resource management at the Southwest Florida water district, said 850 million gallons is probably a sustainable volume.

He acknowledged that even the existing average of 800 million gallons a day already causes measurable harm to springs and wetlands, requiring an assortment of countermeasures to fix that damage and prevent further degradation.

But if the region crosses the line of 850 million gallons a day, he added, the remedies needed to prevent even greater damage to the environment would become increasingly costly — to the point that cities, counties and agricultural operations could find it cheaper to build water plants and pipelines that draw from sources other than the aquifer.

Damage or no damage, the initiative’s analysis offers no hope of getting more than 925 million gallons a day out of the aquifer.

The findings also emphasize that certain parts of Central Florida are particularly vulnerable to environmental degradation — diminished spring flows, shriveled wetlands and shrunken lakes — because of water pumping from the aquifer.

Those areas include the Wekiva River and its array of springs; west Orange and west Seminole counties; and south Lake County.

The new pumping limit is to be made part of the water-supply planning by the three water-management districts engaged in the consortium’s work: the South Florida district (whose territory extends south from downtown Orlando to the Everglades), the St. Johns River district (responsible for areas southeast, east, north and west of Orlando) and the Southwest Florida district (which manages counties west of Lake and southwest of Orange counties).

There are no regulations in place setting 850 million gallons — or 925 million gallons — as a maximum for aquifer pumping. Instead, consortium participants are planning a campaign to generate public support for their findings.

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