Monday, October 1, 2007

Conservation First

The following is a guest column by Cynthia Barnett that was in the High Springs Herald. She is a writer for Florida Trend magazine and the author of a new book, Mirage: Florida and the Vanishing Water of the Eastern U.S. We highly recommend this book for anyone who is concerned about Florida's environment and St. Johns River.

Cynthia Barnett Guest Column: Florida should learn to conserve water first

During the notorious Tampa Bay water wars that raged from the early 1970s through the mid-1990s, residents of rural Pasco and Hillsborough counties who lived near the well-fields of urban communities to the south and west watched lake beds turn to weeds, sinkholes open up and backyard wells run dry.

Water managers assured them, over and over again, that it was all just part of the natural hydrological cycle. The groundwater pumping had nothing to do with it.

Now, everyone knows better.

In addition to lowering our freshwater aquifers, groundwater pumping is responsible for 80 percent of all land subsidence in the United States, according to a U.S. Geological Survey report.

These days, water managers across Florida say that groundwater has been so over-tapped, many parts of the state don’t have enough to sustain population growth past the year 2013.

(Notice you rarely hear water officials say. “We’ve over-permitted the groundwater,” although that’s a more-accurate description of what’s happened.)

Now, as The High Springs Herald’s Rachael Anne Ryals reported earlier this month, water managers are turning to Florida’s rivers and lakes to supplant the tapped-out groundwater. Citizen outcry, from the northeast coast in Jacksonville to the central-west coast in Citrus County, is considerable.

But it should come as no surprise. If you want to know why Floridians are worried about the way the government will manage the state’s surface-water supply, just look at the way it has managed our groundwater supply. Or the way it has managed our wetlands.

In Jacksonville’s Florida Times-Union, water managers called concerns about over-tapping the St. Johns River alarmist. Florida’s rivers, they said, cannot be compared to the Colorado and others in arid west that are so over-allocated there isn’t enough water for all permitted users, much less fish and wildlife, during times of drought.

But taking lessons from western water history, as well as our own, is exactly what we should be doing. As Winston Churchill said, “The farther back you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.”

America’s top water scientists in the 19th Century thought that Florida and the entire eastern half of the United States were so wet, they would never even need irrigation. Those in the 20th Century thought the Floridan Aquifer would give us an endless supply of groundwater.

What assumptions are we making today that will seem equally far-fetched 50 or 100 years from now? One assumption is that increased growth and economic prosperity must mean increased water use.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

Water use in the United States stopped rising in the 1980s, yet population and gross domestic product have grown steadily ever since. While some Florida communities have managed to slash water use with serious conservation programs, overall, our per-capita consumption is edging up.

Water managers’ supply predictions are based on Florida using more and more, when we should be using far less. For example, in every other part of the country where agricultural water use is being converted to urban use, overall consumption is going down.

Why isn’t that the case in Florida?

North Florida can learn many lessons from the Tampa Bay water wars – about the benefit of regional cooperation, about the fruitlessness of lawsuits.

Two other important lessons from those wars: 1) major infrastructure projects always have unintended consequences and 2) serious conservation works.

Tampa Bay’s wars ended when the local governments decided to start working together on water supply rather than competing. One project they embarked upon, the Tampa Bay Seawater Desalination Plant, is five years late, $40 million over budget and still not working as it should.

But to me, the most interesting part of the desalination story is this: In the years that the plant has sat idle, the region managed to reduce overall groundwater pumping from 192 million to 121 million gallons a day despite population growth – and without one drop of the desalinated water officials once insisted they needed to meet that goal.

Similar stories can be found around the nation. Water use in the greater Boston area hit a 50-year low in 2004, following an aggressive conservation program begun in the late 1980s that has indefinitely postponed construction of a diversion from the Connecticut River and saved residents more than $500 million in capital expenditures alone.

Florida hasn’t done enough to gain conservation efficiency to justify the economic and ecological cost of ginormous infrastructure projects such as those proposed from the St. Johns and Ocklawaha rivers. Those potential transfers would cost taxpayers many hundreds of millions.

And yet, only one county among those receiving the transfers – Volusia – has mandatory water conservation measures in place.

Why not require efficiency first?

No comments: