Two weeks ago as I was reading the Gainesville Sun a small note on the Classified page shouted out to me: “Public Notice – The Suwannee River Water Management District (District) intends to issue a Water Use Permit for a maximum of 150,000 gallons per day in Alachua County for row crops and cattle watering. Affected parties can obtain a copy of the Technical Staff Report by writing the District.”
Having recently compiled a list of well permits issued over the past four years, I was acutely aware of the District’s unrelentless approval of water use permits and the detrimental impact of those groundwater withdrawals on our area’s springs.
In 2014 the District completed a multi-year study of the Santa Fe and Ichetucknee rivers and concluded that both waterways were beyond the point of significant harm due to excessive groundwater pumping. In 2015 the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP), in association with the District, implemented a prevention and recovery strategy to comply with the Santa Fe and Ichetucknee minimum flow requirements.
FDEP also adopted a water quality action plan in 2012 for the same two rivers. That plan requires a 50% reduction in nitrogen fertilizer loading or 3.6 million pounds of nitrogen per year, for the 1,800 square mile Santa Fe Springshed, the area that recharges the aquifer and provides water to the more than fifty springs that flow into these rivers.
A logical approach to correcting the water quantity and quality crisis on the Santa Fe/Ichetucknee rivers is to set a safe limit or cap on groundwater use permits. Every well permit that allows more groundwater to be withdrawn from the aquifer also facilitates the application of more fertilizer to ag fields or lawns. The resulting depletion and pollution of our region’s groundwater is a double cut to the health of our drinking water and local springs.
In the Santa Fe Springshed 2,100 new well permits have been issued since 2015 when the District and FDEP acknowledged significant harm had already occurred to the area’s springs and rivers. Four years ago, the environmental agencies assured the public that we had entered a “prevention and recovery” period for these water bodies. But based on District estimates, the new well permits collectively authorize an additional 10 billion gallons of groundwater extraction over the next 20 years. Based on typical water and fertilizer use rates in the Santa Fe Springshed, those permitted uses will also contribute an estimated 65,000 pounds of additional nitrate nitrogen to the waters of the Santa Fe River.
Last month the Florida Springs Institute (FSI) sent a letter to the District with this information and requested rejection of the proposed permit. The Alachua County Board of County Commissioners were also contacted by FSI with the request that they take a strong stand to object to the state’s continuing disregard for the health and future of the Santa Fe River and her springs.
Three local advocates for the Santa Fe and Ichetucknee Rivers attended the District’s board meeting on May 14th and spoke against issuance of this new water use permit and all subsequent water use permits that will further harm the area’s water resources. Nevertheless, the District’s governing board issued the permit.
Unfortunately for county residents who enjoy these rivers and springs, Alachua County commissioners took no action to oppose this permit.
The science is clear – the aesthetic and economic health of our local rivers and springs is being stolen as groundwater withdrawals and fertilizer inputs increase, one gallon and one pound at a time.
A line must be drawn in the sand: no new wells should be permitted until a greater volume of existing groundwater use is reduced or revoked. The best way to curb excessive groundwater extraction is to meter all uses and to charge fees so this precious resource will not be wasted. Florida’s local government leaders need to join forces and take this message to state legislators.
The springs that provide more than 80% of the flow of the Santa Fe and Ichetucknee Rivers are suffering from “death by a thousand cuts”. It is past time to stop this senseless destruction of our region’s natural resources and heritage.
Robert Knight is the Director of the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute. Please visit us at the North Florida Springs Environmental Center in High Springs.