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CONVERSATIONS: Utilities To Face Fewer Limits On Aquifer Withdrawals

The St. Johns River. Photo courtesy the University of North Florida
The St. Johns River. Photo courtesy the University of North Florida

TALIA BLAKE: Utilities will face fewer limits on withdrawals from the fragile Floridan aquifer under a new legal settlement. 

The aquifer is where Central Florida draws most of its drinking water. 

And as WMFE News environmental reporter Amy Green explains- that has environmental advocates worried. 

What’s going on here?

AMY GREEN: Some of Central Florida’s utilities like the one in Seminole County and OUC in Orlando sued this spring over what is called the Central Florida Water Initiative. 

And the Central Florida Water Initiative is a partnership of three water management districts whose boundaries converge here: the St. Johns River Water Management District, the South Florida Water Management District and the Southwest Florida Water Management District. 

And specifically the utilities sued over a legislative rule that would have implemented the Central Florida Water Initiative and made it official, after years of planning on how to manage the drinking water supply in a region where a booming population is pressuring water resources. 

In a 74-page complaint, the utilities expressed concerns about limits they would have faced on how much water they could withdraw from the Floridan aquifer and sell to you and me. Here's Seminole County Commission Chairman Lee Constantine.

LEE CONSTANTINE: "There was a hard and fast limit that didn't take into consideration the conservation efforts that had been put into place prior."

TALIA BLAKE: What was the reason for the limits? 

AMY GREEN: When we look at the language of the legislative rule that the utilities sued over, it focused on the cumulative harm of withdrawals from the Floridan aquifer. And the language stated that the harm is expected to grow.

 The Central Florida Water Initiative put out a report in December that said the region's groundwater is tapped out or close to being tapped out. And we clearly can see that in our treasured springs, which are experiencing reduced flows and water quality problems.

 The report recommended that alternative water sources be developed like surface water and reclaimed water. But it said the best approach is water conservation. It also said the biggest demand on the drinking water supply comes from the public – meaning you and me – and the utilities, followed by ag and commercial or industrial users.

But rather than focusing on cumulative harm, the utilities wanted any withdrawals and the potential environmental impact to be considered on a case-by-base basis. 

So anticipating a prolonged expensive legal battle, the groups settled on language that is less restrictive when it comes to how much water the utilities can withdraw from the Floridan aquifer.

TALIA BLAKE: Why does it matter?

Constantine, who has worked for many years on water issues at the local and state level as a former legislator, says the new language shouldn't have much effect on the Central Florida Water Initiative's emphasis on conservation.

 But Charles Lee of Audubon Florida says he's worried the utilities now will have little incentive to, as he says, preserve the Floridan aquifer and … 

CHARLES LEE: "through water conservation or the introduction of alternative water supply, take that load off the upper Floridan aquifer. And by virtue of the settlement, the requirement that that be done is essentially eviscerated."

TALIA BLAKE: Amy Green, what's next in this?

AMY GREEN: The Legislature still has to approve the language, but it's looking unlikely lawmakers will have time to take that up before the session winds down in the next week or so.

TALIA BLAKE: I've been speaking with WMFE News environmental reporter Amy Green. Thanks for joining us!

AMY GREEN: You're welcome.

Amy Green covered the environment for WMFE until 2023. Her work included the 2020 podcast DRAINED.