In December 2010 the Governing Board of the Suwannee River Water Management District (WMD) published their Water Supply Assessment. This document concluded that: ”… groundwater levels in the Upper Floridan aquifer have declined significantly during the past 75 years as a result of regional groundwater withdrawals…” and that “…unacceptable impacts to flows in the Lower Santa Fe River and springs were predicted for the 2010–2030 planning period…”. In April 2014, in response to this unfolding tragedy, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) and Suwannee River WMD jointly published the Santa Fe River Basin Recovery Strategy.
Their recovery strategy concludes that groundwater from the Floridan Aquifer is the primary source of water for human activities throughout north Florida. The estimated average pumping rate affecting this region was 551 million gallons per day (MGD) in 2015. This pumping rate has been increasing throughout the previous century, resulting in significant regional groundwater declines and negatively impacting spring flows, their important contributions to stream and river baseflows, and support of wildlife and recreational habitats. WMD studies concluded that long-term flow reductions evident in the Lower Santa Fe River and springs and its major tributary the Ichetucknee River exceed thresholds of significant harm to the ecological and human resource values allowed by Florida law. Since increasing groundwater withdrawals are causing harm to the region’s springs and rivers, the state’s recovery plan provides strategies to reverse these negative trends.
In 2017 the Suwannee River WMD in concert with neighboring St. Johns WMD issued the North Florida Regional Water Supply Plan. This plan estimated that total water demand will rise to 667 MGD in 2035, resulting in a 117 MGD shortfall in water supply over the 20-year planning window. The Water Supply Plan indicates that multiple measures could slow the rate of increasing groundwater uses, including agricultural and non-agricultural water conservation programs, and development of new water supply sources such as reclaimed water, surface water, and alternative groundwater sources. Given north Florida’s reliance on groundwater sources, and the WMD’s mandate to provide enough water to meet the estimated future demand, increasing impacts to the region’s springs appear to be inevitable.
Unfortunately for the environment, implementation of the state’s Santa Fe Basin recovery strategy and water supply plan does not include the single most important and effective measure to restore spring flows – namely decreased groundwater pumping. Mandatory reductions and a cap on future groundwater withdrawals must be an integral part of any plan to restore adequate flows to Florida’s springs and spring-fed rivers. These common sense steps are absent in the state’s water use planning efforts.
A review of new well permits issued by the Suwannee River WMD since the 2015 springs recovery strategy was finalized, found that over 5,000 new permits were issued for domestic self-supply wells and 296 permits were issued for large irrigation wells with casing diameters from 6 to 16 inches. A conservative estimate of the groundwater extraction potential of those new wells exceeds 30 MGD of additional impacts to aquifer levels and spring flows, during a time when the Suwannee River WMD has concluded that recovery measures are critical.
The Suwannee River WMD’s flow study for the Santa Fe River and springs above the Ft. White bridge concluded that significant harm would result at an average flow reduction of 8%. Based on an updated analysis by the Florida Springs Institute, the average flow reduction at that station independent of rainfall through the present decade is 28%. The WMD concluded that a flow reduction of 3% in the Ichetucknee would result in significant harm. The actual measured flow reduction through 2017 is 21%. The cumulative flow reduction in these two spring-fed rivers averages 328 MGD, more than 250 MGD beyond the WMD’s definition of significant harm.
Springs feeding the Ichetucknee and Santa Fe rivers have already lost at least one fifth of their long-term average flows. Those flow reductions are much greater than state law allows. The environmental health of the Santa Fe River Basin is significantly impaired, not only by flow reductions but also from ongoing groundwater pollution. Despite this evidence of increasing harm, the leaders of the WMDs and FDEP continue to issue more groundwater pumping permits that inevitably reduce spring and river flows further and enable additional nutrient and pesticide inputs. The state agencies’ apparent disregard of their responsibility to protect the public’s interests is evidenced by their support of a recovery strategy and water supply plan that will continue to make a bad situation worse for the foreseeable future.
Dr. Bob Knight is Director of the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute with offices in High Springs.