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  1. Opinion

Column: For Florida to keep up with the growing population we will need an additional 1.3 billion gallons of fresh water each day

Imagine no running water in your home — or any home in your community. For residents of Florida, surrounded by water, such an idea is unthinkable. We are fortunate to have abundant, usable water for drinking, bathing, and recreation. Sadly, other communities are not so lucky. World Water Day was held this month and is meant to highlight the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goal of "water for all by 2030" — safe, reliable, and accessible water to meet basic human needs.

As a scientist and educator with the University of Florida/IFAS Gulf Coast Research and Education Center, I know the danger of water scarcity and the threat of water pollution. That is as relevant to communities in Florida as it is to parts of the Middle East and Africa. The work I do through UF/IFAS Extension focuses on water conservation and urban water quality.

By 2030, it is projected that Florida's population will grow to 23,609,000 — a 26 percent increase over 2010. To keep up with the growing population we will need an additional 1.3 billion gallons of fresh water each day over 2010 water use. Much of this water will be used by an increasingly urban population, as much of our state's population growth is predicted to take place in urban centers. Protecting water quality in growing urban and suburban areas requires special effort. Data from Florida Friendly Landscaping shows that at least 50 percent of water used by households statewide is for outdoor irrigation of urban and suburban lawns. One thing we can all do is cut back on how much water we use in the yard on lawns and landscaping. This can be accomplished in several ways: using "smart" irrigation systems that water only when soil moisture or weather conditions indicate it is necessary, adopting Florida-Friendly Landscaping practices (placing the right plants in the right places to ensure efficient use of water), auditing and inspecting home irrigation systems to make sure they are working efficiently, and placing mulch around trees and shrubs to hold in soil moisture.

Through UF/IFAS Extension, I also work to promote sustainable actions among green industry professionals and builders/developers by sharing science-based tools with them. For example, the typically compacted and poor soils of new home sites often leave new homeowners with a lawn doomed to require excess watering, but my colleagues and I at UF/IFAS have compelling new research projects that demonstrate how incorporating compost into the soils of newly constructed homes can improve water use efficiency in lawns, thus reducing the amount of irrigation needed.

Along with promoting conservation and efficient use of water resources, I also conduct research and outreach that highlights alternative water supplies. One of these alternative water supplies is reclaimed water, which is former wastewater that has undergone treatment and been disinfected for use in irrigation, some industrial processes, and other non-potable water needs. Reclaimed water has been used safely in Florida for more than 40 years. As we move forward in the face of rapid population growth, we need to expand our beneficial use of reclaimed water. Florida leads the nation in reclaimed water reuse, but we can do more. Research at UF/IFAS is focusing on ways to do so and even on ways to turn reclaimed water into potable water.

Reducing pollution from a variety of urban sources is another goal. Fertilizers and pesticides, oils and toxic chemicals, and sediment from construction and agriculture sites fall into this category. I have research projects throughout the Tampa Bay area that focus on identifying sources of water pollution and developing management strategies. For example, in one research project, we are studying residential stormwater ponds and actions that homeowners can take to prevent harmful and unsightly algal blooms in their ponds.

My colleagues at UF/IFAS research and education centers around the state and those in the Soil and Water Sciences Department in Gainesville also contribute to this effort in other ways. Together, we hope to bring more of our research into homes and businesses to promote water quality and conservation. Through our international partnerships, we want to reduce the threat of water scarcity and help meet the "water for all by 2030" goal that the United Nations has set. Learn more about UF/IFAS programs related to water.

Mary Lusk is an assistant professor in the UF/IFAS Soil and Water Sciences Department who specializes in urban biogeochemistry.