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Florida's water future: Where is it going? Where will it come from?

Florida’s problem isn’t a lack of water, but where it is, how it’s used, where it gets dumped when we’re through with it, and how much it will cost by 2035 to satisfy farms, 5 million new Floridians — and the needs of the environment.

Florida tapped 6.4 billion gallons of water per day three years ago. By 2035, Florida will need another 1.1 billion gallons a day, a 17% increase.

The good news: The state’s water management districts — the water-use regulatory bodies that cover the state — have identified enough water conservation opportunities and water supply projects to keep the water flowing in Florida through at least 2035.

The bad news: Building everything the districts have in their plans will cost billions, and then there’s the ongoing spending on energy, operations and maintenance to run them. In the 2017-18 fiscal year, the water management districts spent nearly $350 million on water supply and water quality projects and another $300 million on flood protection and natural systems.

Water will become more expensive. Nearly 90% of the water for “public supply” — residential, commercial and industrial customers served by utilities — comes from groundwater. But, the state says in a water and land use report, “freshwater withdrawals have increased to the point where they are impacting water resources and related natural systems in some regions.” Other sources — reclaimed water or brackish groundwater — will have to be considered, but water from those sources is typically more expensive to treat and deliver compared to groundwater and surface water. Desalination? The most efficient desal plants, developed by an Israeli firm, cost about $500 million to build and aren’t cheap to operate.

In the course of supplying water to consumers, “we need to not forget the environment needs water, too,” says Jennifer Jurado, Broward’s chief resilience officer. Stetson University associate professor Jason Evans says the state can keep “pumping and pumping” — but only if we “don’t care about springs, rivers and lakes. When it comes to water quality in particular we’ve moved way, way backward,” Evans says. “It has actually reached a crisis point in lots of areas in Florida.”

The state says the environment’s water needs are safeguarded in a number of ways: Permits to draw water must show there will be no harm to wetlands, lakes, springs and other water resources; regional water supply plans must protect natural resources; water is “reserved” for natural waterbodies; and minimum water flows and levels are set to prevent “significant” harm to water resources and the ecology of areas. “Florida protects its natural systems through a network of overlapping programs,” says Dee Ann Miller, spokesperson for the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Not well enough, say environmental advocates. The problems of water bodies like Lake Okeechobee and the state’s 1,090 recognized springs — the world’s biggest concentration of springs — are well documented. “We’re way past the point of pumping too much for the health of the springs,” says Robert Knight, director of the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute in High Springs.

Knight says both farmers and residents use too much water. The permitted amount of water that cities can draw is twice what it needs to be because people use so much to irrigate their yards. “That’s a very silly way to use our most valuable water supply,” he says.

Already, water-related costs have become more of a factor for developers. Environmental attorney Luna Phillips says that 10 to 15 years ago, securing water supply for a project amounted to little more than checking a box on a form. No longer. “More and more the water supply of a project is more front and center,” she says. “It is sometimes an eye-opening issue for developers when they realize that this is going to take more time, more thought and a lot more money than they anticipated to be sure their developments get enough water.”

Reconciling Supply and Demand

89% Share of water consumed by residential, commercial and industrial

“We need to not forget the environment needs water, too.”

— Jennifer Jurado, chief resilience officer, Broward County


“Groundwater withdrawals are impacting water resources and related natural systems in some regions. Other sources — reclaimed water or brackish groundwater — will have to be considered, but water from those sources is typically more expensive to treat and deliver.”

— State Office of Economic and Demographic Research

The Demand Side

Growth and Trend

Total Demand
2015: 6.4 billion gallons per day | 2035: 7.5 billion gallons per day (projected)

  2015 (% of total demand) 2035 (projected)
Public supply (provided by utilities) 39.1% 41.1%
Agriculture self-supplied (farmers’ wells) 39.8 36.0
Others (homeowner wells, recreational landscape, commercial self-supplied, power generation) 21.1 23.9


» The state’s water management districts expect demand for water to increase 17%, reaching 7.51 billion gallons daily by 2035. Four areas account for most of the growth: The Miami-Palm Beach corridor; the Tampa Bay area; the Orlando area; and Jacksonville.

» The two biggest drivers for increasing demand are population growth and agriculture.

» The two biggest wild cards in estimating increased demand are drought and increased use of water conservation strategies.

Source: State Office of Economic and Demographic Research


Floridians Are Using Less Water
Florida’s gross per capita water use — all the water consumed in the state, by all users, including businesses, divided by the number of residents — has fallen by 24% since 1985 to 134 gallons per capita per day. Nationally, water use has fallen to the lowest levels in 45 years. The state Department of Environmental Protection attributes Florida’s falling per capita consumption to overall conservation, including changes in building codes, year-round landscape watering restrictions, Florida-friendly landscaping and reclaimed water use.


Enough with the Grass
There are two ways to look at landscape irrigation in Florida.

The first is to tally up all the places that are permitted to draw water to irrigate golf courses, parks, homeowner association common areas and wells used for irrigating. Such “recreational/landscape” users consumed more than half a billion gallons of water a day in Florida in 2015 — about 8% of Florida’s water use. They are projected to want another 145 million gallons a day by 2035, an increase of 27%.

But that tally typically doesn’t include watering lawns. Much of that use gets drowned in the total for the “public supply” — the water that local utilities draw and treat for our drinking water, cooking, showers, toilet flushing and, yes, yard watering. The state doesn’t set out how much of Florida’s public supply goes to wetting yards, but some researchers say half the public supply ends up in the grass. That is 1.25 billion gallons per day, projected to grow to 1.55 billion gallons per day by 2035. In short, if Florida got out of the business of using drinking water for yards and water in general for parks and golf courses, the state wouldn’t have to add any water projects to meet demand through 2035.

“Every drop we’re putting onto lawns that is not reclaimed water is water that’s coming from an aquifer, from a surface-water source,” says Jason Evans, Stetson University associate professor of environmental science and studies and faculty director of its Institute for Water and Environmental Resilience. “It’s basically coming from an ecosystem. We’re not getting food out of it. It’s not anything that gives back to society except I guess aesthetic.”

Advocates want more homeowners and developers to choose vegetation suited to Florida’s climate that won’t require as much watering and to lay out new developments to minimize water use and to use reclaimed water.

The Supply Side

The state projects demand for water by agriculture will grow 6% by 2035 to 2.7 billion gallons per day. In 2015, agriculture in Florida drew more water than utilities providing drinking water. By 2035, agriculture will still be a big user but will fall to No. 2 behind public water utilities. There are indications that as Florida growers change their land use — whether row crops over pasture or grass-fed beef over traditionally raised cattle — they have more intensive water needs.

But agriculture’s getting more efficient in its water use through the implementation of best management practices and through technology such as moisture sensors, says Del Bottcher, president of agriculture, environmental and water resources engineering firm Soil and Water Engineering Technology in Gainesville. He says farmers have an incentive not to over-irrigate because too much water washes nutrients out. But farmers worry about being squeezed out of access to water if they should need it as urban areas expand.

Bottcher says the tracking of agricultural irrigation by farmers’ government-permitted use can lead to overestimating farmers’ consumption.

Bottcher says that on average, farmers use less than they are permitted to use and that use varies “tremendously” depending on rainfall. He says Florida’s problem is that water is needed on the urbanized coasts but typically is pumped from wells in the interior. Rainfall hits paved surfaces in urban areas and then winds up going to the sea as stormwater. “If we captured our urban stormwater, we would have plenty of water,” Bottcher says.

Meeting Demand
» The state’s water management districts say demand cannot be met with existing capacity but can be met through a combination of traditional and alternative water sources, conservation and implementation of projects identified in regional water supply plans.

» The state spent $57 million on water supply projects and an additional $806 million on water quality and other water resource-related programs in 2016-17. Since then, spending for water resources has increased steadily, and the state can’t maintain those levels of spending without additional revenue sources. The state Office of Economic and Demographic Research says those sources could include statutorily uncommitted documentary stamp taxes, additional general revenue funds or bonds.

The Tampa Bay Seawater Desalination plant provides up to 25 million gallons of drinking water a day.

Possible Alternate Sources
» Desalination

» Brackish surface and groundwater

» Surface water captured and/or stored during wet weather flows

» Reclaimed water

» Stormwater

The Supply Side

Most of the fresh groundwater used in Florida comes from the Floridan aquifer system. In 2010, of a total groundwater use of 4.1 billion gallons per day (bgd), nearly two-thirds was obtained from the Floridan aquifer. The remaining groundwater was from the Biscayne, surficial and intermediate aquifer systems. Finally, the sand-and-gravel aquifer has served as a water source in the Florida panhandle.

Continued water withdrawals from the aquifer systems pose long-term threats to water supply — and also to the health of Florida’s springs. Robert Knight, director of the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute in High Springs, wrote in a recent op-ed article that abundant rainfall beginning in June 2017 reversed the effects of a several-year drought in North Florida, producing rising levels in the Floridan aquifer and area lakes and increased flows into the springs. “However, despite these two years of above-normal rainfall, long-term aquifer levels are still trending downward and have been declining for the past 50 years. Long-term average flows in North Florida’s springs continue to be well below historic rates,” he wrote.

Conservation Lands
One part of ensuring adequate water supply involves the state’s acquisition of conservation lands, which limit development and provide areas for recharging aquifers. Currently, 10.66 million acres — 30% of the state’s land area — are in conservation.

Every Florida county has publicly owned lands dedicated to conservation. More than 50% of the land in eight counties is in conservation; the smallest public share occurs in Union County, just 0.1%.

Less than 3% of the conservation acreage in Florida is privately owned; the state owns about 53% of the publicly owned land, with 42% owned by the federal government and about 5% owned by local governments.

Currently, a dedicated revenue source for managing the state’s lands does not exist, and the additional lands for conservation will require funds for both acquisition and management. In 2016-17, the state spent $68.1 million to acquire land and $192.6 million to manage its conservation holdings. The projected cost for future acquisitions by the state and water management districts exceeds $10.6 billion. The additional cost for managing these lands is projected to be $172.4 million annually for both the state and water management districts.

Wild Card — The Everglades and Sea Level Rise
Eighteen years into Everglades restoration, as rising seas overtake the ecosystem and the glacial pace of replumbing points toward needing a half-century or longer to finish, state and federal authorities need to make a midcourse assessment. That’s the view of an independent scientific panel required by Congress every two years to review Everglades restoration progress.

The panel found “impressive” efforts but said more thought must be given on how climate change and sea-level rise will impact projects. The Everglades midcentury will differ from that envisioned in the 2000 plan. “There is now ample evidence that the South Florida climate is changing,” the report says. “There is general consensus that temperatures will increase over time, although considerable uncertainty about future rainfall patterns remains. There is also compelling recent evidence that sea-level rise is accelerating. These changes will have profound impacts on the South Florida ecosystem and the related challenges of providing flood protection and meeting future water and recreational demands.” The report says restoration is “likely” to increase the system’s resilience to climate change but that needs to be studied.

A bright note: Phosphorus runoff — a bane of the Everglades — reached its lowest level ever in 2017. Water quality is improving south of Lake Okeechobee.

The Supply Side

Reclaimed Water
The largest amount of additional water in Florida by 2035 will come from recycled water projects, the state says. Projects to treat wastewater for reuse — in irrigating lawns, cemeteries, golf courses and in agriculture and industry or for flowing back into the aquifer — can supply nearly 40% of the growth in demand for water in Florida through 2035, the state says.

Of the wastewater generated in Florida, 48% gets reclaimed. The majority of it goes to irrigate golf courses, lawns and other “public uses” as opposed to agriculture and industry. Some 477 treatment facilities in Florida produced enough reclaimed water in 2017 to irrigate 419,016 residences, 574 golf courses, 1,016 parks and 397 schools, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Reclaimed water also irrigated 12,897 acres of edible crops on 67 farms. The amount of water Florida reuses has increased 66% since 1998.

Statewide Water Reuse Rankings (Per capita)
County Rank
Orange 3
Pinellas 16
Palm Beach 23
Hillsborough 40
Duval 54
Broward 62
Miami-Dade 63
Source: 2016 Reuse Inventory, Department of Environmental Protection


Overall, the state likes to tout that Florida is a national leader in using reclaimed water. But some of the counties in Florida that use the least reclaimed water are also the most populated. Broward, for example, is one of Florida’s leading counties in addressing sustainability issues such as rising seas, but it’s one of the least productive at reusing water.

Jennifer Jurado, Broward’s chief resilience officer, says county comparisons can mislead. Some counties might use reclaimed water to feed the aquifer in a way that Broward wouldn’t because of water quality issues. Also, lightly populated counties that produce small volumes of water for reclamation but have large agricultural areas may be able to reuse all reclaimed water.

A major issue in reclaim is when development occurred. While some Broward municipalities, especially in the more recently developed west, are active with reclamation projects, it would be too expensive in other parts of the county to tear up roads to lay pipes to water yards that are just an eighth or quarter of an acre. Some 62% of Broward’s area is land in conservation, one of the highest percentages in Florida, with nearly 2 million people packed into the other 38%.

“It’s a tight place in which we’re working,” Jurado says. “The numbers just don’t work for the size of investment. Admittedly, we want to do more, we need to more and will continue to do more.”

Even where reclaimed water is available — governments require nearby users to tap into it — issues can arise as to quality and quantity, says Luna Phillips, an environmental and land-use attorney with law firm Gunster in Fort Lauderdale. In dry times, for example, users need more water and may compete for available reclaimed water supplies. “It creates a lot of uncertainty for the user. It’s not clear sometimes how much water will be available and how much it will meet the needs of that user,” Phillips says.

Rates: A Sampler
The University of North Carolina’s Environmental Finance Center collects data on water rates throughout the country.

Looking at a sample of water rates in Florida’s larger metro areas, Miami-Dade County charges its residents less than most for the initial 4,000 gallons. Water rates in the Orlando area are also among the lowest among the metros, and the Orlando Utilities Commission sends its users a weak “conservation signal” — the price it charges per 1,000 gallons for usage that exceeds 10,000 gallons. Among the state’s major metros, West Palm Beach charges the highest for the initial 4,000 gallons.

For data on all Florida communities, Google “Florida Water And Wastewater Rates Dashboard.”

  Water bill at 4,000 gallons Charge per 1,000 gallons after 10,000 gallons Median affordability (annual bills as % of median household income)
West Palm Beach $35.55 $4.27 .91%
Pensacola 21.70 2.44 .57
St. Petersburg 20.35 5.15 .51
Palm Beach County 19.77 7.91 .43
Fort Lauderdale 18.71 6.10 .43
Jacksonville 16.32 2.60 .41
Tampa 11.29 5.44 .30
Orlando (OUC) 11.11 1.66 .30
Miami-Dade County 9.19 5.16 .25

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