In recent weeks, as Gov. Rick Scott sank water-management district budgets, vetoed water projects and perhaps hastened departure of some of the state's most dedicated water managers, many thoughtful Floridians have lamented the contagion of politics into the pristine work of water.
Scott vetoed river-restoration and rainwater-catchment projects that could save the state millions of dollars long-term. He abolished citizen basin boards meant to help keep locals in control of their own water fortunes, as they should be. But the suggestion that water management was not partisan or political before now is as preposterous as the notion that Florida has taken proper care of its water bounty. Neither, unfortunately, is the case.
Florida is long overdue for a new water framework. But it does not involve bureaucratic boards or ad-valorem taxes. What we need, more than anything, is a new way to value water. We need a water ethic.
Our state is blessed with nearly 8,000 lakes and 700 freshwater springs — the largest concentration of springs on the planet. The rainfall, too, is a gift from heaven. Florida's average 54 inches a year is among the highest in the nation. And as much water as we can see in Florida, there's more we cannot: Upwards of a quadrillion gallons flow underground, in the deep cracks, channels and pores of the state's limestone foundation.
This plenty makes it hard to fathom how any one of Florida's regions could have depleted its share, but every region has: Tampa Bay area cities and counties were the first to tap out their corner of the Floridan Aquifer, leading to decadeslong water wars. In recent years, Southeast Florida's communities have learned they can no longer rely on their traditional supply, the Biscayne Aquifer. They're struggling to figure out new sources even as the Everglades' plumbing system drains an average 1.7 billion gallons of freshwater a day to the sea.
In Central Florida, withdrawals for mining and agriculture helped erase lakes, wetlands and springs most people don't even remember, along with some we sorely miss: Kissingen Springs, a once-popular tourist attraction that bubbled up 30 cubic feet of water a second, was the first major spring in Florida lost to intense withdrawals. It may not be the last.
In North Florida, residents fret that metropolitan areas will someday run a pipeline to pull water from the Suwannee River. But an invisible pipeline has been doing so for 50 years: Scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey report a 25 percent decline in flow in that time in the spring-fed Ichetucknee River, a tributary of the Suwannee, which they link to pumping in northeast Florida and south Georgia. The Suwannee region is losing the equivalent of 80 million gallons of freshwater a day to the east.
In the 19th century, Floridians were guided by how much water we could push off the land. In the 20th, we were guided by how much we could pump. In the 21st century, we must finally be guided by our consciences.
Land of water
In 1972, the Legislature passed the Water Resources Act, based on late University of Florida law dean Frank Maloney's Model Water Code, which foretold the current water crisis with remarkable prescience. The law declared Florida's waters "a public resource benefiting the entire state" and called for planning, permitting, and water-management districts drawn along surface-water rather than political boundaries.
Florida's water law and what became the five districts were farsighted accomplishments. Legal scholars call the state's water-management system among the most progressive in the nation for balancing the needs of water users with the public interest. Since 1972, Florida supplied water to 11 million new residents even as it carried out some of the most successful restoration projects in the nation, including those in the Upper St. Johns River and Tampa Bay, where 6,000 acres of sea grasses have made a comeback in an ecosystem shared with millions of Floridians and the Port of Tampa.
Yet after four decades' experience managing water, we haven't been able to shake the two big water mistakes of Florida's history: overtapping our natural supplies, and overrelying on the largest infrastructure fixes that future generations of Floridians may not appreciate.
Florida's permitted water use is demonstrably more than our natural systems can handle. During the freeze of January 2010, farmers in the Plant City area pumped a billion gallons a day from the Floridan Aquifer to protect berry and citrus crops. Eleven nights of nonstop pumping dropped parts of the aquifer here by 60 feet. One hundred and forty sinkholes opened up in surrounding communities. Seven hundred and fifty residential wells went dry. An underground chasm sunk part of Interstate 4, impeding traffic for days.
The volume of water pumped was allowable under the permits granted to farmers by water managers. But the permitted use cost Florida taxpayers millions in public repairs and helped lead to property insurance hikes, not to mention the direct harm to private homeowners and the area's real estate market.
When it comes to large infrastructure projects, Tampa Bay Water's 25-million-gallon-a-day desalination plant is another cautionary tale. Regional infrastructure projects can be part of the solution, but we must be mindful of their consequences: Among the plant's less-foreseen are its enormous energy demands and carbon emissions. According to an analysis by the University of Florida's Program for Resource Efficient Communities, between 2006 and 2009, as Tampa Bay Water gradually upped its reliance on the plant, the utility's annual electricity costs went up 2.4 times —- by an additional $10 million. In 2009, the plant accounted for half Tampa Bay Water's electric use and associated carbon emissions while producing only 10 percent of water supplies.
Save water, save money
Florida's conventional wisdom maintains that the answer to our water woes is to continue raising water prices and tapping state funding to fortify the peninsula with new water-supply projects. Pricing water right is part of the answer. But businesses — including the innovative new industries around which Florida is trying to reorient its economy — want to figure out how to use a lot less water, rather than have to pay for more.
Businesses are beginning to put water conservation on par with greenhouse-gas reductions as integral to sustainability plans. Filtration advances make recycled water an option for even those industries that require the purest water. U.S. food giant Kraft — which has cut global water use by 20 percent, or 3 billion gallons, in less than three years — switched to recycled water to cool coffee grinders at its Maxwell House plant in Jacksonville, keeping 20 million gallons a year in the St. Johns River.
Such innovations are possible — and many of them already happening — in every corner of Florida, from citrus fields that use 65 percent less water with microirrigation, to green buildings that collect rain from rooftops to flush toilets and irrigate landscaping.
But surprisingly, some of the most innovative water-conservation strategies remain difficult to permit in parts of the state, including green-building practices such as capturing rainwater for toilets and clothes washers, or low-impact designs such as swales instead of curbs, narrow streets and other elements that can shrink a community's water footprint.
These are small challenges we will easily overcome if we buy into the larger vision for Florida's future — the water ethic. This is a moral, rather than political, call: A Moral Water Code to bolster our Model Water Code. Florida's political water-planning assumption is that we must find more and more water to grow and prosper. A moral water-planning assumption would hold that the opposite is true: The most prosperous societies of the 21st century will be those that figure out how to use less water — relieving pressure on both ecosystems and economies.
Researchers are showing how everything we do as a society can be done with far less water. Agricultural researchers have figured out strawberry irrigation techniques that require as little as one-fourth the water customarily used for freeze protection. But these practices require new or modified irrigation systems — not easily affordable for many farm operations.
In the wake of last year's sinkhole emergency, the Southwest Florida Water Management District offered to share 75 percent of the cost for any upgrade that would cut a farm's pumping in half. Farmers lined up to install "tailwater recovery" ponds that collect excess irrigation and rainwater for reuse, soil-moisture probes and weather stations to prevent overwatering, and other technologies. The price tag for Floridians is a fraction of what it costs to develop new water sources, much less to repair sinkhole damage.
Since farmers account for the largest portion of Florida's water use, at 40 percent of the total, agriculture is the most logical — and symbolically important — catalyst for the water ethic. As some of Florida's largest private landowners, agricultural companies are already becoming part of the solution for the state's water storage and water clean-up challenges.
Public supply — the water we use in our homes and yards — comes a close second in Florida's total water use, 37 percent. That makes it another key target for saving water and money. Water-efficiency programs cost, too: between 45 cents and $1.60 for every thousand gallons they free up, according to national averages from the Chicago-based Alliance for Water Efficiency. But every other new source costs considerably more, with desalination the most expensive. The Tampa plant costs about $4.16 per thousand gallons, including subsidies and other costs, according to Tampa Bay Water.
At those prices, we would be wise to send a brigade of plumbers across the peninsula to switch out every toilet installed before 1996 — freeing up 11,000 gallons a year per commode — before we break ground on the next desal plant. The Miami-Dade County Water & Sewer Department has done just that. Utility officials there have found that toilet rebates for families, and full retrofits for elderly residents who can't afford them, are the cheapest way to obtain "new" water.
Lessons to learn
In another growing Sun Belt state, on another overtapped aquifer, the San Antonio Water System has transformed over the past quarter-century from a utility that believed conservation sank revenues to one that pays commercial customers big bucks to use less. The Texas utility, which goes by the name SAWS, has halved per-capita water use in 25 years, to an average 115 gallons. It also pumps less overall from the aquifer — with 67 percent more customers.
Like Miami-Dade, SAWS views conserved water as the best and cheapest "new" water. Conserved water costs SAWS $400 an acre-foot, compared with $2,822 an acre-foot for desalinated water, which San Antonio has not yet had to develop but may in the future. The utility "buys" the water by funding retrofits for commercial users. Every sort of business seems to be able to take advantage: A Frito Lay potato chip plant saved 43 million gallons a year — and $138,000 annually on its water bill.
The utility did all this in the decades that San Antonio's population doubled to 1.4 million. But SAWS' most remarkable role was leading the city to a water ethic that now permeates every level, from residents who irrigate with great care, to commercial building superintendents who pride themselves on saving water and money. San Antonio's faith communities have taken a special interest in water sustainability as a moral cause.
San Antonio's water ethic was born in crisis. Ruling in an Endangered Species Act case in 1993, the late U.S. District Judge Lucius D. Bunton III forced the city to lay off the Edwards Aquifer, calling for "a fundamental change in the value the region places on freshwater, a major effort to conserve."
Those words are familiar in Georgia, where in 2009, U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson, in the 20-year legal battle among Florida, Georgia and Alabama, ruled that Lake Lanier was never authorized to quench Atlanta's thirst. "Only by cooperating, planning, and conserving," Magnuson wrote, "can we avoid the situations that gave rise to this litigation."
The Lake Lanier crisis inspired Georgia in 2010 to pass the Water Stewardship Act, which is saving the state millions of gallons every day. Our water rivals in Atlanta already used less per person than Floridians, an average 120 gallons. The new law aims to build a "culture of conservation."
Florida's water managers deserve credit for the extent to which they've reduced groundwater pumping, and damage from excessive withdrawals, without a federal judge making them. Likewise, it shouldn't require a crisis for Florida to take the next step toward water sustainability — creating a statewide water ethic.
Many Florida communities are already there. Sarasota County once had its share of overwatered lawns, and its average water use was about 140 gallons a day. Two droughts ago, in 2002, the County Commission passed irrigation rules, including once-a-week watering and conservation-rate pricing — customers who use a little water pay a little, those who use a lot pay a lot. In the years since, the county has built an unmistakable ethic among citizens and businesses and slashed average water use in half, to less than 80 gallons.
Water waste as litter
Yet, the water ethic has never caught on statewide as have other conservation ethics such as the near-elimination of littering on Florida's beaches. That cultural shift required leadership from top levels of government, which set standards by making laws, and from private industry, which committed to changing longtime practices such as manufacturing cans with pop-tops. Littering studies show that most responsible for the turnaround since 1969 was that citizens came to believe littering was ethically wrong. But they weren't willing to change until government and corporations proved they would do their part.
Plant City resident Bruce Allen, one of the homeowners hurt by the 2010 sinkholes, articulated a common frustration when he asked water managers how it was that they could impose lawn-watering restrictions on citizens, then allow billion-gallon-a-day pumping for farmers. Floridians have long uttered variations on this theme, often: Why should I save water when you're going to hand it to the golf course next door? They have a point. But the water ethic will transcend such conflict if it's embraced by political officials as well as utilities, and as industry begins to show the dramatic water savings possible in all sectors of Florida's economy. Over time, the water ethic will ripple out into communities, from college campuses to civic groups to churches to citizens.
Finding common ground often proves difficult for Floridians, with our people and places as different as Miami-Dade's Little Havana is from Gadsden County's town of Havana. But water is the bond among us. Water is our common passion whether we live along the coast or in the lake-dotted interior. It's our common economic interest whether we do business in Fort Lauderdale or Fort Walton Beach.
It's what brought us here, and what keeps us here, no matter our politics. Water is the defining element — the essential elixir — of the good life here in Florida. That makes it easier to find common ground. Especially when it's the high ground.
Cynthia Barnett is senior writer at Florida Trend magazine. She is author of the books Mirage: Florida and the Vanishing Water of the Eastern U.S. and (due out in the fall) Blue Revolution: Unmaking America's Water Crisis.