October 25, 2014

Editor's Page

Ebb and flow: Managing Florida's water supply

Mark R. Howard | 6/27/2014

Michael Minton, an attorney with the Dean Mead firm in Orlando, is a fifth-generation Floridian who grew up on Florida’s east coast in Fort Pierce. Minton’s late father, Dick Minton, was one of the “swampbusters,” pioneer citrus growers who worked beginning in the late 1940s to make the land in Florida’s Indian River region tillable.

As elsewhere in Florida at that time, making the land productive meant draining it — by speeding the natural flow of surface water from the interior to the coast via canals. Minton says his father, who was inducted into the Florida Agricultural Hall of Fame in 2003, was an innovator who recognized that the drainage effort worked all too well. Dick Minton, an early adopter of high-efficiency irrigation systems, became a leader in soil and water conservation efforts and instilled in his son both a love for the land and a drive to restore more of the natural flow of the St. Lucie region’s water, which at one time extended north up into the headlands of the St. Johns River.

Surface water resources and conservation both have to be part of meeting Florida’s water needs. Regions will have to cooperate in creating new supplies.

His father, Minton says, saw ahead to a time when all the surface water that was being channeled away would become a commodity rather than a nuisance. “That water will be valuable one day,” his father told him.

We’ve reached that day. As the recession has receded, growth has resumed in Florida. And communities, landowners and businesses are bumping up against the limits of how much water can be pumped out of the state’s aquifers without environmental and economic catastrophe. Nowhere is the problem more acute than in central Florida, where the three water management districts that govern water use in the area estimate that without conservation and additional sources of supply, the area faces a 250 million gallon a day shortfall within a decade.

What such a shortfall can translate to in practical terms is economic and political disruption as businesses, governments and individuals sue each other dizzy over their respective “rights” to water from the aquifers. Communities around Tampa Bay waged water wars over pumping groundwater for more than 30 years before creating an independent, regional authority called Tampa Bay Water that now supplies water to Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties. The agency blew millions on a desal plant that barely functions, but the region’s water supply system today is more diverse, efficient and environmentally sound. Groundwater pumping has been reduced by 50% since 1998.

Meanwhile, Charlotte, DeSoto, Manatee and Sarasota counties collaborated to create a similar independent water-supply district, the Peace River Manasota Regional Water Supply Authority. That authority has built a combination of underground and above-ground reservoirs where it has more than 9 billion gallons of surface water stored.

As the need for water intensifies, the state will see a growing number of proposals for water-supply initiatives involving storing and cleaning surface water. All will come with price tags. What direction should the state take to create and manage new supplies? Some favor a cohesive, statewide approach, perhaps under a “water czar.” Others think Florida should adopt policies that emphasize locally based public-private partnerships cobbled together among water management districts, local governments and landowners. Among Minton’s clients is a big landowner and citrus grower, Evans Properties, that has been working on a deal with two water management districts. A subsidiary of Evans called Grove Land Utilities would build — with funding from the state, the two water management districts and its own money — a 5,000-acre reservoir and 2,000-acre stormwater treatment area in Okeechobee and Indian River counties that would capture more than 50 billion gallons of the stormwater that now streams into the St. Lucie Estuary and Indian River Lagoon through the water management district’s canals.

The proposal — a feasibility study is due this month — seems well-conceived, offering the potential for the state to do something relatively quickly to reverse the degradation of the estuary and lagoon. The reservoir would also offer a way to create a new source of up to 100 million to 125 million gallons a day of drinking water for the central Florida region. Ultimately, Minton says, it could help restore some of the historic flow of water from the area up into the headwaters of the St. Johns. Wiser heads than mine will have to evaluate the soundness of the proposal and how to structure such a deal financially, but Grove Land’s proposal is the kind of initiative that Florida will see more of as the demand for water meets the reality of water supply — and as big landowners evaluate a business mix that includes farming water along with growing oranges and other crops.

However Florida may decide to manage its surface water resources, the broader dynamics of water in Florida — illuminated incisively by writer Cynthia Barnett in a 2005 cover story in Florida Trend — remain the same: There’s a mismatch between where most people live in Florida and where the water is. The state needs new sources of water supply to meet growth. Regions will have to cooperate to create new supplies. Water belongs to the state, not local communities. Water will, over time, cost more. Increased conservation and privatization both will be part of the answer to ensuring water supply, whether Floridians like it or not.

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