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Private wells begin to draw attention

Central Florida water managers will use an 18-month study to look at private wells' impact.

Hundreds of private wells are being drilled at a frenetic pace across drought-stricken Central Florida, but state water managers aren't keeping track of how many or how much water they pump out.

A study aimed at nailing down the long-term impact of these wells _ a review critics say is long overdue _ is just beginning.

The St. Johns River Water Management District, which oversees all or parts of 19 counties in northeast and east-central Florida, generally doesn't regulate wells smaller than 6 inches in diameter or those that pump less than 1-million gallons daily. County officials are required only to ensure proper location and construction.

Small wells in just four counties _ Orange, Seminole, Volusia and Lake counties _ increased by 20 percent from 1999 to 2000, according to a hand count of reports done by government officials on request of the Orlando Sentinel. The total number of well permits grew from 3,232 to 3,895.

The amount of water pumped by private wells is small compared with larger users such as municipal suppliers, state officials say. But environmentalists and others say every drop of water of counts, especially during a drought.

"It doesn't matter that these are small users. We are all draining the aquifer," said Dwight Kiel, an associate professor at the University of Central Florida who teaches classes in environmental policy. "My first criticism would be leveled at the Legislature for not charging the water management districts with dealing with this issue. There is no system of accountability."

In mid-January, the region's record drought prompted the St. Johns water district to restrict lawn watering to two days a week from irrigation wells. But the restriction doesn't limit drilling of new wells. Officials say they have little power to regulate them because of landowners' property rights.

If a local government approves a house in an area without central water, "we really don't have the authority _ and the counties don't either _ to say you can't have a well," said Jim Frazee, an Orlando-based hydrologist for the water district.

Drinking wells, which account for about half the permits, are drilled anywhere from 100 to 200 feet or more to tap into the upper part of the Floridan Aquifer, the region's primary source of drinking water. Irrigation wells don't have to be as deep, anywhere from about 25 to 80 feet, also depending on the location, to siphon low-quality water.

County officials give the water district a report after wells are completed, and that paperwork is eventually filed in the district's headquarters in Palatka. But officials there don't keep a running tally or add up the completed wells at the end of the year.

The district also doesn't know exactly how much water is being pumped because these wells don't have meters.

The district plans to use the well reports as part of a $150,000 study to develop an overall picture of the wells' impact.

The study, which will take about 18 months, was prompted in part by hundreds of wells losing significant pressure last year in southern Duval and northwest St. Johns counties.