Imagine yourself in a life raft floating on the ocean. You have 10 pounds of drinking water and 10 pounds of gold, but the raft is sinking from the extra weight. Which would you throw overboard? (See the simple true/false test below if you need help.)
Which of the following is true?
- Potable water sustains life;
- You can’t eat or drink gold;
- Gold can buy water but only if there is water available;
- Drinking water is worth more than gold.
Groundwater in Florida’s aquifers is deposited through a natural process called recharge. When it rains, a relatively small portion of that rain seeps down through the soil and recharges the water in the aquifers. This recharge is analogous to a retiree’s Social Security check being deposited in a bank account.
Like a bank account, there are expenses that deplete the balance stored in underground reservoirs. The two principal losses of groundwater from Florida’s aquifers are spring flows and pumping through wells. Without flows, springs, rivers and natural environments die. Without groundwater to pump, the human economy suffers.
These withdrawals are like automatic deductions from your bank account. They keep you and your family alive and happy.
When rainfall increases, more aquifer recharge occurs and the “aquifer bank” balance increases. When droughts ensue, less recharge occurs, and groundwater expenses exceed income.
Spring flows decline as aquifer levels fall. Unfortunately for the springs and rivers, during a drought, landowners and farmers turn on their irrigation wells and groundwater pumping soars.
Water is analogous to money. You have to use it to survive. And if you spend more than you have, there are bad consequences. For our groundwater aquifers, the dangers of wasteful human groundwater use includes springs drying up, salt water intrusion, and economic collapse.
Groundwater is free for the taking in Florida. Our regional water management districts are responsible for ensuring there is adequate groundwater available for human needs and to protect natural systems (e.g., springs and rivers).
However, no special permit is required for any and every Florida resident to put in one or more private wells that can pump thousands of gallons per day.
If every Florida resident took advantage of that legal loophole, Florida’s 22 million residents would pump our aquifers dry, stopping the entire flow of Florida’s artesian springs, damaging many of our rivers, and crippling Florida’s economy.
There are nearly 30,000 larger groundwater pumping permits in Florida’s Springs Region north of I-4. Averaging about 150,000 gallons per day, existing commercial permits total more than 4.6 billion gallons per day of groundwater extractions.
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As a result of these withdrawals, aquifer levels have dropped by more than 60 feet in some areas and average spring flows have declined by one third.
It costs water bottlers less than $1 per 1,000 gallons to pump groundwater. Yet bottled water costs up to $5 per gallon. There is big money being made by selling Florida’s free groundwaters.
The disparity is that average urban residents use on average less than 100 gallons of groundwater per day and must pay their local utility company for it, while private corporations get hundreds of thousands of gallons of groundwater each day for free and turn huge profits.
The ongoing disaster of shrinking groundwater supplies and declining spring flows can be avoided if politicians and water managers use common sense. All groundwater extractions should be monitored and an appropriate fee per gallon should be paid to the public for protection of Florida’s priceless groundwater resources.
Yes, the public’s groundwater is worth more than gold. As Mark Twain famously said, “Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting!”
Robert Knight is founder and director of the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute in High Springs. The non-profit Florida Springs Institute provides unbiased springs science, aquifer management recommendations and community education. All of the institute’s spring restoration plans, educational aides, and Knight’s four springs-related books can be obtained at www.floridaspringsinstitute.org. This column is is part of the Invading Sea collaborative of Florida editorial boards, including the Tampa Bay Times, focused on the threats posed by the warming climate.