Strain on Aquifer Highlights ‘Shrinking Supply of Cheap Water’
by Carrie Elizabeth Bradon | The Florida Free Press
ORLANDO — With Florida’s increasing population comes a heightened demand for its water supply, putting stress on local governments and organizations to properly manage the state’s aquifer in order to ensure longevity.
According to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), the Floridan Aquifer System (FAS) covers roughly 100,000 square miles, including all of Florida, portions of Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and South Carolina. Among the most productive aquifers in the world, the FAS provides drinking water to nearly 10 million people in addition to sustaining industrial and agricultural practices.
Spikes in demand and an ever-growing population have resulted in a steady increase of withdrawals from the FAS since the 1950s.
“Florida is blessed to have the Floridan Aquifer as a principal supply, but it is a finite water source with competing demands that increase with the population and tourist visitations,” Clay Henderson, former executive director of Stetson Institute for Water and Environmental Resilience, told The Florida Free Press.
Henderson said that increased pumping of groundwater has put the aquifer under stress for a number of years, evidenced by the degree of saltwater intrusion into the aquifer.
“Ten years ago, the St. Johns River WMD said it was concerned we were over-allocating the Floridan aquifer and said withdrawals would be capped at 2013 levels,” Henderson said. “That didn’t happen.”
According to USGS, “groundwater pumping can reduce freshwater flow toward coastal discharge areas and cause saltwater to be drawn toward the freshwater zones of the aquifer.” In severe instances, saltwater intrusion may disrupt supply wells, depleting freshwater sources.
Increasing needs and the subsequent risk of saltwater intrusion have demanded conservation-minded action from local governments in an effort to better manage the available resources. Henderson said the amount of effort varies within the state.
“Some local governments actively promote conservation while others do not,” he explained. “Probably the best example of local government coordination is the Central Florida Water Initiative, which coordinates water supply issues in a six county area. Tampa Bay Water is another local government coordination group.”
Due to Florida’s vast size and unique terrain, certain portions of the state lack easy access to freshwater, requiring special treatment to convert saltwater into drinking water.
“While we average about 55 inches of rainfall per year, we do seem to lurch between drought and flood conditions,” Henderson said. “The Tampa Bay area has been deemed a critical water supply area for some time and relies significantly on desalinization.”
While desalination plants are capable of producing the necessary drinking water, there is a sizeable cost.
“Alternative water projects and desalinization are expensive to construct and maintain, though many places around the world rely on alternative water supply,” Henderson said. “Ultimately, Florida does not have a long-term water supply issue … it has a shrinking supply of cheap water.”
The Tampa Bay Seawater Desalination Plant, which has been in operation since 2007, uses reverse osmosis to separate freshwater from seawater. The plant’s operations result in 25 million gallons of drinking water per day, which supplies approximately 10 percent of the area’s needs.
The Florida Keys, a popular tourist destination, also depend on desalination processes for their freshwater, Henderson said, which is accomplished by the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority.
This story is part of an ongoing series investigating water quality issues in the state of Florida.