The Florida Office of Economic & Demographic Research says the statewide daily demand for water, 6.4 billion gallons as of 2015, is projected to increase by 17% in the next 20 years to more than 7.5 billion gallons as the population climbs to 25.2 million.
Given its birth and death rates and constant influx of newcomers, Florida’s population is increasing by more than 900 people daily.
That expanding population requires water — water to drink, cook, bathe, grow food, even operate power plants.
The Florida Office of Economic & Demographic Research says the statewide daily demand for water, 6.4 billion gallons as of 2015, is projected to increase by 17% in the next 20 years to more than 7.5 billion gallons as the population climbs to 25.2 million. That demand could be higher and the availability of that water lessened if climate change increases the frequency of droughts.
Not one of Florida’s five water management districts, which oversee permits for water supplies, “can meet its future demand solely with existing source capacity,” the agency stated in a recent report.
For the environmental group ManaSota-88, a key concern regarding future drinking water supplies involves “carrying capacity.”
“Carrying capacity refers to the number of individuals who can be supported without degrading the natural, cultural and social environment,” Glenn Compton, chairman of the organization, explained. “One of the earliest signs of an area exceeding its carrying capacity is the increasing difficulty an area has in providing good quality, reasonably priced drinking water to its residents.”
With 27,561 miles of streams and rivers, more than 7,700 lakes larger than 10 acres, 11.3 million acres of freshwater and tidal wetlands, more than 1,000 springs and hundreds of miles of frontage on the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico, the Sunshine State — 40 percent of which is covered by water — appears to have infinite sources of H2O.
Yet tapping new sources can be problematic and increasingly expensive. To meet the statewide demand through 2035, the EDR office estimates the costs could be between $1.6 billion and $2.2 billion.
In addition, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates it could cost $21.9 billion for capital improvements for Florida’s existing utility systems to continue to provide safe drinking water through 2034.
Manatee County, for example, recently committed to $50.7 million in filtration system upgrades for its Lake Manatee water treatment plant to adequately serve its existing customers.
Expanding supplies will require a combination of approaches, Dee Ann Miller, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, explained — specifically, “the use of existing water supplies, water conservation and the development of additional alternative water supplies as well as projects that recharge our aquifers.”
Several entities must cooperate. Local utilities must propose projects to either increase supply or reduce the use of potable water for irrigation. The water management districts must issue permits for those projects, including limits on withdrawals from sources such as rivers and aquifers. The state must come up with financial assistance so the districts and utilities can get the projects accomplished.
Competing for resources
Tensions may rise among jurisdictions that must increase their water supplies while sharing resources.
The Peace River Manasota Regional Water Supply Authority, for example, can withdraw a maximum of 120 million gallons a day from that river during the rainy season and store much of it for use in the dry season. Although it does not need the additional supply now, it wants to add a third, square-mile reservoir to its facility in south DeSoto County and increase its withdrawals from the river to up to 258 million gallons daily.
Yet several local governments and utilities in upstream Polk County objected to the Southwest Florida Water Management District’s decision to grant the updated permit and filed litigation to block it.
The parties declared a truce. They are to jointly identify how the river can be used for future water supplies. The Peace River authority can continue with its expansion but, if deemed necessary later, will reduce its permitted withdrawal by 48 million gallons a day.
To address Polk’s concerns, the water management district arranged for Hillsborough to inject treated reclaimed water into the aquifer along the coast as a barrier to saltwater intrusion. The additional pressure will allow Polk utilities to withdraw groundwater inland.
“It’s better to collaborate than to litigate,” Sarasota County Commissioner and Peace River Authority board member Alan Maio said when announcing the parties’ intent to drop the dispute estimated to collectively cost all of them possibly millions of dollars in legal fees. “While we can’t do anything about the water challenges faced by Polk County, we support the (water management) district’s efforts to help them.”
Compton of ManaSota-88 thinks legal fights among utilities over water resources are inevitable.
“During times of local water shortages, it can be anticipated counties with water will be required to furnish water to other counties,” Compton said. “Anyone who thinks this will not ultimately happen is at best, naïve.”
How much is too much?
As local jurisdictions squabble over resources, the management districts must determine how much water can be safely withdrawn and by whom.
“Water use applicants must provide reasonable assurance that their withdrawal will not cause harm to the water resources of the area,” Miller of the DEP said. “The criteria include ensuring the withdrawal will not cause harmful saline water intrusion or adverse impacts to wetlands, springs, rivers, lakes and other water bodies. Additionally, districts develop minimum flows and minimum water levels to set the limit at which further withdrawals would be significantly harmful to the water resources or ecology of the area. Environmental factors for developing MFLs (minimum flow levels) include, but are not limited to, fish passage, fish and wildlife habitat, water quality and sedimentation.”
The Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute in High Springs contends that withdrawals from aquifers are already excessive.
It assesses the health of springs based on flow, salinity and nitrate concentrations and scores them as A (very good), B (good), C (fair), D (poor) or F (failed).
In an analysis of 32 major springs, the institute gave F grades to 19 springs for flow reductions greater than 20% and to 11 springs for nitrogen pollution. “None of Florida’s most visited and economically valuable springs” received an A grade for all indicators, the nonprofit organization reported.
“Major degradation of freshwater wetlands and degraded estuaries has already occurred as a result of Florida’s water management districts issuing too many consumptive use permits,” Compton said. “Exceedingly lax wetlands management programs on the federal, state and local levels will continue to allow for the loss of functional and valuable wetlands.”
Conserving and recycling
If Florida is to have adequate drinking water, increased conservation efforts will prove crucial.
“Since 1985, residential per capita water use in Florida has fallen 31% to 84 gallons per day,” Miller of the DEP said. “Gross per capita water use is down 24% since 1985 to 134 gallons per capita per day. DEP attributes Florida’s falling per capita consumption to overall conservation, including changes in building codes — for example, increased plumbing and appliance efficiencies — year-round landscape watering restrictions, Florida-friendly landscaping and reclaimed water use. In some areas of the state, per capita figures have fallen significantly below those statewide averages. In 2017, public water supply use in the Southwest Florida Water Management District, for example, had an average gross per capita of 101 gallons and residential per capita of 70 gallons.”
Susanna Martinez Tarokh, spokeswoman for the Southwest Florida district, said that agency “promotes a conservation message that people should only use what they need and should really need what they use.”
Throughout the state, utilities are trying to increase the amount of potable water available for customers by shifting irrigation uses to recycled water.
“In the future, water management districts have identified reclaimed water projects as the number one source of water to meet future demands,” Miller of the DEP said. “According to the department’s Regional Water Supply Planning Report, the development of reclaimed water projects has the potential to meet 39% of the growth in demand for water in Florida through 2035. Of the wastewater generated in Florida in 2017, 44 to 48% was reused. The majority was used to irrigate golf courses and lawns and for other public uses. Reclaimed water was also used in agriculture and industry. Four hundred and 77 treatment facilities in Florida produced enough reclaimed water in 2017 to irrigate 419,016 residences, 574 golf courses, 1,016 parks and 397 schools. Reclaimed water was also used to irrigate 12,897 acres of edible crops on 67 farms.”
The DEP imposes restrictions on edible crop irrigation with reclaimed water. If directly sprayed, crops intended for human consumption must be peeled, skinned, cooked or thermally processed.
Overall, Miller said, "the amount of water Florida reuses has increased 66% since 1998."
Lakewood Ranch, a master-planned community straddling the Sarasota-Manatee county line, is an example of how the public and private sectors can assist each other in increasing the use of recycled wastewater for irrigation.
Shortly after it started converting its agricultural land into neighborhoods 25 years ago, developer Schroeder-Manatee Ranch created a subsidiary called Braden River Utilities. SMR took advantage of about 1,600 acres of former shell pits that had become lakes so it could limit groundwater withdrawals and instead use stormwater for irrigation.
The private utility later started paying bulk rates to use about 13 to 15 million gallons daily of reclaimed water from the cities of Bradenton and Sarasota and Manatee County.
“That is water that’s not being dumped in the bay,” SMR chief executive Rex Jensen said, referring to Sarasota Bay.
Jensen said the recycled water, though not treated to drinking water standards, is suitable for irrigating lawns and golf courses. SMR, which is phasing out its agricultural operations, has not used it for edible crops but has employed it for sod farms. Any nitrogen content reduces the need for fertilizer and, by not being disposed of in natural waterways, cannot contribute to algae blooms, he added.
The agreements enable the cities and county to earn revenue from their treated wastewater, for which Braden River Utilities charges its customers in the 31,000-acre community that now has about 15,000 households and could eventually have more than 32,000.
“Overall, it’s a win-win in a big way” for Lakewood Ranch and the local governments, Jensen said.
Jensen said he is interested in talking with Sarasota County, which was recently sued by environmental groups for discharging hundreds of millions of gallons of treated wastewater into tributaries of Sarasota Bay, about striking an agreement with Braden River Utilities.
Environmentalists, however, want to ensure that any expanded use of recycled wastewater does not pose threats to public health.
“Treated wastewater should never be used as a source of drinking water, irrigation for food crops, in drinking water supply reservoirs or watersheds,” Compton said. “... Reclaimed water can contain pathogens that adversely affect human health if introduced into drinking water supplies. Reclaimed water is not free of contaminants. It is not adequately treated for protozoa and possible viruses. Reclaimed water can have a wide variety of contaminants including industrial sources, medical sources, significant amounts of pharmaceuticals such as lipid-lowering drugs, antibiotics, antiseptics, estrogens and beta-blocker heart drugs.”
Tapping more sources
Although increased conservation and recycling can make more potable water available for an expanding population, utilities still need to find new sources.
As part of its expansion plan, the Peace River Authority suggests that it should be allowed to take greater advantage of stormwater.
After Hurricane Irma in September 2017, Authority Executive Director Patrick Lehman noted that the utility could have captured an estimated 19 billion gallons that flowed past its intake pipes — but it lacked the storage capacity.
Miller of the DEP said stormwater or “wet weather flows of surface waters” can be a potential source of future supplies as well as salt water, brackish surface and groundwater, new storage capacity for surface water or groundwater and reclaimed water.
Whatever methods are used to create new supplies, the initial infrastructure costs will be high.
According to the EDR report, for each million gallons of supply with a reservoir, the cost can be $16.35 million. Desalination is the most expensive option, costing $16.58 million for each million gallons it makes available.
Whatever is done to expand supplies will come with a price, both financially and environmentally, Compton said. “One thing for certain is it will be more expensive in the future to live in Florida.”
This story originally published to heraldtribune.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the GateHouse Media network via the Florida Wire. The Florida Wire, which runs across digital, print and video platforms, curates and distributes Florida-focused stories. For more Florida stories, visit here, and to support local media throughout the state of Florida, consider subscribing to your local paper.