Water Challenges in a Thirsty State

Is it inevitable that Mount Dora, and all of Central Florida, will one day face challenges related to the acquisition and distribution of our most precious resource? Water discussions are on tap in the City of Mount Dora’s 2015–2016 budget.

August 28, 2015

Whenever water is the topic in Florida, controversy soon follows. Any discussion of what Mount Dora’s water is for, how much it will cost, and who picks up the tab is sure to be heated. And the larger politics of water in this state is not one that can please anyone.

Any talk of raising utility rates will surely bring back memories of 2003, when the city sought a whopping 47 percent increase in rates to cover the cost of a $12.5 million bond to build a new sewage plant and system. In 2014, the city completed work on a second water plant costing some $4.1 million to help provide drinking water to subdivisions on the city’s east side; this was paid for in part by water impact fees and a loan.

And though the city’s current water and wastewater utility rate is 8 percent below the Central Florida average, any increase is sure to launch vocal opposition. Expect loud discussion about the relative virtues of all the projects on the drawing board. How important are they, relative to keeping green oaks downtown or giving a public building a much-needed renovation.

Some residents wonder if the Thrill Hill reuse project is necessary, considering the steep price tag. Demand for reuse water is especially high in new development, where homeowners’ associations demand that lawns be pristine green. “Why are we spending all that money so that someone gets a such a green lawn?” asked one. “On the one hand, potable water is becoming more expensive, while on the other, we aren’t restrictive enough on water use on green lawns. There should be a better system of reward for small lawns, without sod.”

According to John Peters, pubic works and utilities director, the city’s overall reclaimed water storage capacity is way below need without Thrill Hill. And so far, people willing to pay for their green lawns are perfectly entitled to.

Additionally, the lion’s share of the money involved in these projects is not earmarked for maintenance of existing pipe or expansion of capability, but rather for massive utilities relocation in response to state Department of Transportation road-widening projects. It’s not a can that be kicked down the road once the state is ready to get started. (And contrary to what some believe, the state owns the land involved, so it’s the city’s burden to relocate its utilities.)

If the city can’t avoid the cost of these projects, there may be a way to limit its thirst for them. A water-conservation program and irrigation compliance ordinance was implemented in Mount Dora in 2009. Lawn watering is now restricted to between 4 p.m. and 9 a.m. and on certain days of the week. Repeat offenders can be fined up to $1,500.

With Central Florida water demand by 2030 estimated to top 1.1 billion gallons a day — far in excess of replenishable supply — conservation-friendly land development codes are under consideration for new development that would greatly reduce the amount of water needed for irrigation.

However, it’s hard to see how much the state EPA will push this, having largely eliminated all regulatory work except where mandated by federal standards like the Clean Water Act. Rick Scott has famously declared that no state agency may even use the phrase “global warming.” The St. Johns Water Management District was recently gutted following the resignation (“in lieu of termination”) of four executives earlier this year. The move allows the Scott administration more control over decisions, focusing on short-range political benefits rather than policy based on environmental science.

As further proof of a conservation-averse agenda, the Scott administration is now taking $440,000 from an already-decimated EPA budget to help pay $1.2 million dollars in court costs for their unsuccessful defense of an open-government law case. And to help generate money for the state, state DEP head Jon Steverson (appointed by Scott to run the agency last March), has suggested that the portions of parks be rented out to allow logging and hunting interests in.

Meanwihle, South Florida developers continue to rabidly build up beachfront properties, banking on a secure investment for enough years to turn a profit before being forced out by rising seawater.

Even the estimate of how much is being drawn out of the aquifer is probably skewed. Former mayor Bob Thielhelm worked on Thrill Hill and other water projects before Cathy Hoechst succeeded him in 2013. “In Lake County, if you take the sheer number of domestic self-supply wells — it’s public record — and total up the cross-sectional area, it exceeds the cross section of public wells,” he says. “You could have 150 wells 3–4″ in diameter that can be drilled without regulation, and the amount of water they draw could easily exceed the total regulated amount.”

“It’s a programming nightmare,” Thielhelm says. “Florida doesn’t have the funding capability. There isn’t an interest in water management in the Scott administration.”

Long term scary picture? Salt water intrusion is already affecting wells near the coast, where the wells don’t go so deep. But it could be moving inland as freshwater supplies diminish in the aquifer. ‘Without better conservation measures,” Thielhelm says, “it may not be all that long before farmers find they can’t irrigate crops with salt water, or you turn on your tap and taste seawater.”

Not everyone agrees with so dismal a picture. Sarah Whittaker is president of SMW GeoSciences Inc. and a consultant who has worked with the city in the past. “There’s a big fresh-water bubble in that aquifer down there,” she says. “You have to go a lot further down to get salt water — maybe 3,000 feet. I don’t see saltwater intrusion ever being a problem for Mount Dora.”

Whittaker does think that the state is vastly underestimating the amount of water that will be needed in this area. “It takes about three to five homes to provide enough wastewater to irrigate one home with reclaimed water. When you look at the immense development in store for Lake County, there simply won’t be enough facilities and capacity to supply all of the reuse water needs.”

Mount Dora has made some smart moves in protecting its available water. Back in 2008, the city successfully stopped Niagra Bottling Co., a California-based bottling company, from building a plant within city limits that would have drawn 177 million gallons of water annually from the Florida Aquifer. Niagra’s Groveland plant got the OK in 2014 from the St. Johns Water Management District to increase their consumption to 910,000 gallons a day. At the time, there was vocal opposition to the increase from local homeowners who were already under the lash of mandatory lawn-watering restrictions. They voiced concerns of shrinking springs and lakes, sinkholes and diminished quantities of drinking water.

The 80-foot-wide sinkhole that opened recently in Groveland could suggest their fears may not be ungrounded.

Not that much further out — by 2030, say — global warming’s impact on Florida will become much harsher than really hot days mowing the lawn. As sea levels rise, the danger of saltwater intrusion will grow. Desalinization plants are tremendously expensive, which will greatly drive up the cost of drinking water.

Also, forecasts are for more intense weather, alternating between heavier, more concentrated rains along with longer droughts. And it’s going to get hotter — according to the National Resources Defense Council, a heat index increase of 8 to 15 degrees Farenheit by the end of the century. Heat and drought will impact the three mainstays of Florida agriculture — tomatoes, sugarcane, and citrus.

In a boom-and-bust state like Florida, drought planning doesn’t get active until the threat is at our doorstop. Portions of South Florida are presently deep in the throes of drought; groundwater wells in Miami-Dade are at their lowest July levels in 35 years. It wasn’t that long ago the Central Florida was in the grip of drought, with lake levels receding and the landscape growing bone-dry. (Anyone remember the wildfire season of 1998, when half a million acres went up on smoke?)

Now in its fourth year of drought, California is presently learning the hard way about water conservation, but it’s working: state officials announced that in July, California cities had cut their water use by a combined 31 percent. Beyond living with mandatory water-use restrictions, a culture shift is learning to live with less water. Instead of disparaging the brown, under-watered lawn, the new badge of honor is “Golden state, golden lawn.”

Whatever challenges lie ahead, city officials must act responsibly and inform citizens of the difficulties. In turn, it is the responsibility of citizens to understand these complexities and respond intelligently when the time comes. Just because water comes easily out of a tap doesn’t mean that it does so just because we turned a lever.

“Without water, there is no development, no growth, no environmental protection, no economic rebound for the State of Florida,” wrote the Florida Water Alliance in a recent report. Solutions to meet growing demand are costly, and there’s no avoiding them that won’t make the problem worse down the road.

Some of Florida’s aversion to its more difficult water truths may root in the postcard imagery of sun-splashed beaches populated by carefree white people courted by happy blue seas. At best, it’s a manufactured image, the fossil fuel of a tourist industry that comes to play and doesn’t care what’s left behind. Mount Dora’s early history as a winter resort is deeply invested in such images.

But the reserves of these legacy vacation fantasies are finite. That sunlight now burns; without protection it causes skin cancer; and summers are coming with heat indexes that red-shift toward hostile. The sea looks the same, but underneath the ecosystem is dying. Those beaches will be underwater in fifty years, and all those high-rise development now being built will stand like empty sentries, their lowest stories beneath the tide. Clinging to the old tourist postcards may get us a few more years down the road on the same budget, but water is sure to become a much more conflicted part of life in Florida.

We can hope that with wise conservation and smart application of technology, Mount Dora’s water supply can continue to be provided to residents at reasonable cost. The city seems to be acting responsibly to current challenges, but it’s vital that it also keep an eye trained on what’s coming over the horizon. And then it must responsibly inform its citizens what is changing, and what everyone needs to do to help.

How well citizen accept these changes is another thing. As long as cool, clean water keeps flowing out of the tap, all that we don’t see is easily forgotten. Until.

For further analysis of the city’s water issues, see “Major Water Utility Project Weigh Down Mount Dora Budget.”

— David Cohea (djcohea@gmail.com)

Originally published at www.mountdoracitizen.com on August 28, 2015.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.