Cedar Key is ground zero in Florida`s latest water war. On one side are those who wish to promote additional groundwater consumption for urban and agricultural development. On the other side are a growing number of Floridians who believe that they have an obligation to protect their groundwater supply.
On one side of the battle line are our state agencies and the business and political interests they represent. This relatively small number of individuals currently holds the power to use taxpayer dollars to encourage the creation of new farms and cities that need more groundwater. Their doctrine is clear - Florida cannot survive without growth to stimulate the creation of jobs. Economic growth leads to more roads, schools, houses, restaurants, convenience stores, and income for the many people it takes to create that infrastructure. It means more landfills, incinerators, and sewage treatment plants. Growth also means that we need to have more water for our homes and lawns, to irrigate farm fields, to cool our power plants, and to support industrial and mining operations.
On the other side of the battle line are those who think that environmental resources including groundwater are finite, fragile, and necessary for a healthy economy. These folks believe that environmental degradation for short-term financial gain is unethical because future generations will be left with a world that is worse than the one they inherited. They have decided that unsustainable use of renewable groundwater resources is a one-way street to destruction and does not justify the temporary prosperity it buys along the way. They claim that we are already using too much groundwater and not leaving enough to nourish our springs, rivers, and lakes. They claim that we can meet future water needs through conservation and development of alternative water supplies.
As part of their efforts to convince the public to support unlimited economic growth our state government is telling us that we can have our cake and eat it too. They say we can have unlimited economic expansion because we have a limitless groundwater aquifer. They claim that rainfall is the only significant factor affecting groundwater levels and spring flows, and they can continue to issue groundwater withdrawal permits in spite of severe droughts, falling aquifer levels, and dying springs.
Increasing evidence tells us that this rosy picture does not match the facts. Consider the following:
* Average flows in the springs along the Suwannee, Santa Fe, Ichetucknee, and Withlacoochee Rivers have declined to levels that are lower than ever observed in the past. White Sulfur Springs stopped flowing more than 30 years ago following the issuance of a groundwater withdrawal permit that allows extraction of more than 40 million gallons per day for a nearby phosphate mine. Prior to the installation of those wells, White Sulfur Springs had an average flow of about 35 million gallons per day and was a major health resort in north Florida.
* Private and public wells throughout much of north and central Florida are contaminated by excessive concentrations of nitrate nitrogen, a major component of fertilizers and wastewaters. As a result of excessive nitrate concentrations in the groundwater, springs along the Suwannee River and the river itself have nitrate concentrations as much as 100 times higher than pre-development conditions and have had their native vegetation replaced by algae.
In spite of these warning signs, groundwater use permits for intensive agriculture and urban/commercial development are still being issued throughout the Suwannee River Water Management District. The private citizens on the District`s governing board who make these permit decisions are appointed by the governor and often have no special skills related to water resources management. They must rely on their staff to provide sound science and recommendations concerning the groundwater withdrawal permits they ultimately approve.
There appears to be little urgency at the District to respond to the existing crisis of record low spring and river flows and groundwater levels. There are currently over 3,300 active groundwater use permits in the District, authorizing pumping of more than 400 million gallons per day from the Floridan Aquifer. These permits are only issued to the largest users and do not include the tens of thousands of private wells in the District. District staff has convinced their governing board that this rate of groundwater pumping is not harmful to groundwater levels or to spring flows.
Against this background, the City of Cedar Key has experienced an age-old problem in coastal Florida - salt water intrusion in its drinking water wells located nearly two miles from the Gulf of Mexico. St. Petersburg`s well field went salty beginning in the 1920s. South Florida started experiencing salt water intrusion by the 1930s. Pinellas County had to move all of their wells to the east out of the county in the 1980s. The list of coastal cities with well fields ruined by sea water intrusion is very long. Thousands of private domestic and agricultural wells located in coastal areas have also gone salty. It is accepted knowledge that salt water intrusion in the freshwater aquifer occurs due to excessive pumping from wells.
Other coastal areas such as Tampa Bay and Pinellas County began fighting a water war more than 20 years ago. While these legal battles created great income for lawyers and experts, the only solution found was to move well fields inland or reduce reliance on groundwater by developing expensive alternative water supplies fed by rainfall or seawater desalination. These legal and capital expenses could have been avoided by responsible water management and water conservation. Unfortunately, politics and greed in southwest Florida prevented a reasoned and conservative approach to allocating groundwater resources.
Cedar Key is the first incorporated city in the Suwannee River District to suffer the calamity of salt water intrusion. Just a few decades ago during the Tampa Bay Water War, the Suwannee River area was labeled the "Saudi Arabia" of groundwater and there was a serious proposal to pump that water down to Tampa to help alleviate over-exploitation of the Floridan Aquifer. How ironic but foreseeable that the same woes that started the Tampa Bay Water War are now evident throughout the Suwannee River Basin.
A growing number of the District`s governing board members are starting to ask questions. Are they really getting the whole truth and nothing but the truth from their paid staff? Should they be looking at outside sources of scientific evidence to explain what they are seeing with their own eyes? Are they really protecting existing users and the public interest by continuing to issue more groundwater consumption permits? Residents and land owners in Cedar Key may wish to engage these board members who are starting to question business as usual. As the country singer said "fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me". What side of the North Florida Water War are you going to be on?
Robert L. Knight, Ph.D. lives in Alachua County and is Director of the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute, a non-profit dedicated to the restoration and protection of Florida`s springs.