U.S. Water News Online
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Florida's three-year drought is
over and lakes and rivers are brimming again, but water managers warn
of a different story beneath the surface.
The groundwater system is still below normal in central and
southwest Florida, and that's just a temporary woe. Shrinking
supplies caused by the lack of rainfall forewarned what could happen
in the next few decades if the state doesn't find new water sources,
Utilities, local governments and water management districts plan
to spend millions of dollars to develop water alternatives to ensure
surging demand doesn't exceed supplies. They're also urging residents
to conserve year-round.
``If we just depended on groundwater, we wouldn't have enough to
meet our needs,'' said Michael Molligan, spokesman for the Southwest
Florida Water Management District, which covers 16 counties from
Osceola to Monroe.
In central Florida, wetlands, lakes, and streams will start to dry
up by 2006 if all the permits to withdraw water are granted and new
supplies aren't identified, said Kirby Green, director of the St.
Johns River Water Management District, responsible for 16 central and
north Florida counties.
The drought ``helped solidify the need to look at alternative
sources,'' he said.
Water use is forecast to increase 30 percent from 7.2 billion
gallons per day in 1995 to 9.3 billion in 2020 as more people move to
the Sunshine State, already home to nearly 16 million residents.
Plans include turning seawater into drinking water, building
reservoirs, or drilling deep wells to store water for dry times and
expanding the use of treated sewage on lawns.
``There's sufficient water if we approach the problem wisely,''
said Tom Swihart, water policy administrator for the state Department
of Environmental Protection.
Florida draws most of its supply from the Floridan aquifer, a
porous limestone formation underneath the ground that traps water.
But population growth, drained wetlands, farming, and the recent
drought all have taxed the supply, except in north Florida.
Last year was the driest on record and the 1998-2001 drought was
the worst in 45 years. Rainfall deficits of 25 inches in the Tampa
Bay area to 40 inches around Orlando forced central and South Florida
into emergency watering restrictions.
Wetlands, rivers and lakes dried up, salt water crept closer to
coastal wells, and parched crops were destroyed.
Finally, last summer the rains returned at amounts up to 150
percent above normal. But several more above-average rainy seasons
are needed to return the aquifer to normal levels in southwest and
central Florida, said David Zierdan, assistant state climatologist.
Nonetheless, water restrictions were lifted or eased except in the
Tampa Bay area, where once-a-week lawn watering remains because
wellfield overpumping has left wetlands and lakes dry.
The region's wholesale water supplier is building Florida's first
desalinization plant to reduce wellfield pumping and meet growth
The $110 million Tampa Bay plant recently received its final state
permit despite being opposed by a citizen's group. It is scheduled to
begin producing 25 million gallons of drinking water a day from salt
water in late 2002.
Tampa Bay Water also is building a reservoir to store 15 billion
gallons of water from rivers and canals for use as early as the 2005
dry season, plans a second desalinization plant, and in 2005 will
serve the St. Petersburg area with treated brackish water drawn from
The desal plant and other projects will boost the wholesale cost
of producing water to $2.50 per thousand gallons by 2008, up from the
current $1.50 per thousand gallons, the utility said.
A desal plant could also serve central Florida one day. The St.
Johns River Water Management District begins a saltwater feasibility
study in January.
The district also is testing the use of St. Johns River water and
may use more treated wastewater on lawns or transfer the reused
wastewater onto wetlands to recharge the aquifer.
The district and area governments and utilities expects to spend
$400 million to $800 million over the next two decades to develop
some of these alternatives sources.
The projects could increase the price of water from 25 cents per
thousand gallons to $1.25 per thousand gallons, according to the
district. Customers in the Orlando area, for example, currently pay
72 cents per thousand gallons for the first 3,000 gallons.
South Florida is depending on the massive Everglades restoration
project to meet its future demands by storing water in reservoirs and
deep wells. But it's not just major metropolitan areas that are hard
Collier County broke ground in October on a second reverse osmosis
plant south of Naples to turn brackish groundwater into 8 million
gallons of drinking water a day starting in 2003.
The $38 million plant will help the county provide water for a
population that's projected to double over the next 20 years.
Officials also are pushing for more conservation to reduce
dependency on technologies that make water more expensive.
The state is currently asking for public comment on a conservation
draft report containing 60 proposals, including more use of reclaimed
water and conservation rates that charge more as a customer uses more
water. A final report is due in March.
``The answer is don't draw out more than you've got,'' said the
state's geographer Ed Fernald. ``You've got to encourage people to
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