Proliferation of pumping permits produces preposterous pipeline proposal

June 17, 2021 7:00 am

The Santa Fe River is endangered by overpumping of water from the Floridan Aquifer. Credit: Florida Department of Environmental Regulation

I hope you are sitting down. I have some startling news. I have learned that Florida people do not have a great reputation for using the sense that God gave us.

Shocking, isn’t it? Do you need some smelling salts?

Apparently, our Florida men and Florida women are known nationwide for doing crazy stuff like tossing an alligator through a drive-through window, or snorting cremation ashes thinking they’re drugs, or getting into a road rage incident that ends with us running over ourselves. Who knew?

However, it is not true that our official state motto is “Hold my beer,” “Where are my pants?” or “What is WRONG with people?” (although it probably should be that last one).

I mention this because I heard about a crazy thing that a Florida government agency is considering. What makes it even wackier is that it’s supposed to fix a problem the agency itself created.

The late Marjory Stoneman Douglas. Credit: Abigail B Wright of Miranda Productions, Inc.; Wikimedia Commons.

This concerns an area of North Florida that’s chock full of major and minor springs, many of them owned by the taxpayers as part of the state park system. The springs burst forth from the freshwater aquifer deep beneath our feet, spurting upward to become what Marjory Stoneman Douglas called “bowls of liquid light.” Frequently those springs fuel the currents coursing through the region’s rivers.

As first reported by Politico last week, the Suwannee River Water Management District is considering “spending hundreds of millions of dollars to pipe Suwannee River water to nearby Ichetucknee Springs State Park to restore the aquifer that feeds the springs.”

Building the Suwannee-to-Ichetucknee pipeline — a big one, 6 feet in diameter — is one option the district’s staff presented to the agency’s governing board “for restoring flows in the Santa Fe River near Fort White,” the story noted.

Yes, you read that right: The agency is considering piping water taken from one spring-fed river to bolster the flow of another spring-fed river less than 20 miles away.

This is a little like withdrawing $100 from the ATM and then walking into the bank to deposit it back in your account. You’re not likely to show a big profit from that transaction.

The Santa Fe River. Credit: DEP

In the Politico story, Robert Knight, executive director of the Florida Springs Institute and a scientist with nearly 40 years of experience studying the state’s springs, used a highly technical term to describe this government proposal: “Totally crazy.”

When I talked to him about it this week, Knight reiterated that carefully considered statement and added, “They are so far outside the range of reality, it’s just disgusting.”

Why, you may ask, would a government agency run by a board of gubernatorial appointees want to spend an estimated $200 million to $500 million dollars of the taxpayers’ money building a system to ship large quantities of water from one river to another?

Because the Santa Fe has lost so much of its natural flow that it’s below the standard the Suwannee River water agency set seven years ago for what’s healthy. If a river could be thirsty, this one would qualify.

“But wait,” you say, “Suwannee River Water Management District — that name rings a bell as loud as Big Ben! Wasn’t that agency in the news just recently?”

“Why yes,” I reply, and then I compliment you on your excellent memory. It sometimes seems that Florida is run by a gang of destructive amnesiacs who keep repeating the same mistakes over and over, so remembering something like that is impressive. Good job, you!

What you’re recalling is a controversial vote the water management board took a mere four months ago. Despite vocal opposition, the board gave unanimous approval to a new permit for a company called Seven Springs Water.

The permit allows Seven Springs to pump 984,000 gallons a day out of the aquifer and sell it to Nestlé to bottle. Except for ponying up for the cost of the permit, neither Seven Springs nor Nestlé will pay the state a dime for sucking up all that water and selling it.

The 984,000 gallons-a-day permit the agency’s board approved provides a big increase from the 265,000 gallons a day that Seven Springs had been pumping for years.

Some of the people who opposed that permit warned the water agency’s board members about how pumping too much water from the aquifer was already hurting the flow of rivers nearby and this would make the problem worse. But the board gave it the green light anyway.

Now that same agency is trying to figure out how to cope with the lower flow of the rivers. Hmmmm, it’s almost like there’s some sort of a connection there. I wonder what it could be.

To pursue this question, I talked to Amy Brown, the water supply chief at the Suwannee River Water Management District. I asked her why the flow in the Santa Fe had dropped to such an alarming point. She said it was “due to the pumping in that basin.”

I asked how the pumping had caused this problem.

“The withdrawals are greater than what it can sustain,” she said.

But wait, I said, isn’t your agency — which employs a bunch of hydrology experts — in charge of issuing the permits for all those water withdrawals? How, then, did we get into such a crisis?

“That’s not something I am comfortable speaking to,” she told me.

The last time I heard a government official employ a phrase like that, it meant, “My bosses screwed up, but I can’t say that out loud.” I leave it to you, dear reader, to draw your own conclusions.

No to the Dr. No option

As you might guess, there are practical problems with the pipeline proposal (try saying that three times real fast).

One is that the agency would only take water from the Suwannee during times when it’s at flood stage. That means the agency’s super-expensive aquifer-boosting pipeline would be used only occasionally, which hardly seems like a wise use of money.

Another is that the river water — which has been turned a light brown by decaying vegetation, unlike the gin-clear aquifer — is likely to require treatment before it goes into the aquifer. Brown acknowledged the agency would probably need to remove nitrate pollution, bacteria, and other things you wouldn’t want to show up in your drinking water supply. So there’s another expense on top of the pipeline itself.

Brown told me that this pipeline proposal is just one of the ideas they’re looking into this summer, explaining, “At this point, it’s just a concept.”

Another concept they pitched to their board involves paying tree farms a yet-unknown amount of money to grow fewer trees, so more rain would seep into the aquifer and not be sucked up by tree roots. That sounds totally practical, doesn’t it?

What about, I said, simply rejecting permit requests? Alas, the “Dr. No” option appears to be off the table.

Regulatory changes, she told me, “are still being worked out.” They might include issuing permits for shorter periods than 20 years or requiring anyone who wants to pump, say, 100,000 gallons a day out of the aquifer to find a way to offset that water loss.

I didn’t hear the words “reject permits” in there anywhere. Instead, Brown said, one of their goals is to continue “meeting demand” while reviving the river. To me that sounds like “We’re going to continue walking down the middle of the railroad track while trying not to get run over by the train that’s barreling straight at us.”

Ain’t doing a thing for the springs

Our aquifer’s contents do not stretch to infinity. They have limits, and if we haven’t already crossed them, then we’re closing in.

In 2009, the Florida Geological Survey published a report that analyzed data collected from the springs from 1991 to 2003. The report documented the clear decline of these once-glorious water sources — the drop in flows from overpumping of the aquifer, along with a rise in pollution that fueled algae blooms.

But there was one thing in that report that was a real surprise.

“The most unexpected conclusion,” Jonathan Arthur, the state’s chief geologist, told me in 2014, “was the saline indicators increasing in the springs.”

The Santa Fe River. Credit: DEP

Florida’s freshwater aquifer is not the only liquid sloshing around underground. It floats on what remains of an ancient saltwater sea. For centuries, that sea was held in check by the massive lens of fresh water above it.

But the more million-gallon-a-day permits the water agencies issue, the less pressure remains to hold that saltwater in place. It starts moving upward, replacing the fresh water. The report pointed out that saltwater rising like that “can adversely affect the long-term sustainability of Florida’s water resource.” That’s an understatement of epic proportions.

Arthur told me back then that he hoped to get funding for a follow-up report using more current data. It would likely show the salt intrusion, lost flows, and increased pollution all getting worse.

That funding never showed up, so there’s never been a second report, Knight told me. Meanwhile the state continues approving water-use permits with all the restraint of a dentist handing out Halloween candy to trick-or-treating future patients.

Not only is Florida issuing permits to pump out so much fresh water that it’s letting the salty stuff in, but it’s basing the permitting decisions on bad science. The calculations of what the aquifer can handle are grounded (pardon the pun) in a computer model showing how fast water moves around.

But the model assumes that everything beneath our feet is sand and gravel. That assumption is wrong.

Florida geology around the springs consists of a limestone formation known as karst, which contains so many big holes it resembles a giant slab of Swiss cheese. (It doesn’t taste as good, though.)

Water moves faster through karst than it does through sand and gravel, which means every permit that’s based on the flawed computer model contains incorrect calculations about the impact of the pumping.

Hydrologists pointed out this flaw to the water agencies as far back as 2007, “but they’re still using the exact same type of model,” Knight said. If the people in charge used a more accurate model, they might have to stop handing out so many water permits. You wouldn’t want that, would you?

The good news is the state is spending millions of your dollars to try to repair its declining springs. The bad news, according to Ryan Smart of the Florida Springs Council, is that the state is spending a lot of that money on things that — to paraphrase Duke Ellington — don’t do a thing for the springs, so they don’t mean a thing.

When I asked Smart, the council’s executive director, for examples of this, he rattled off several. My favorite one calls for spending $1.8 million to build a new water storage tank for the city of Newberry “to increase capacity.”

How do you increase capacity? By pumping even more water out of the ground.

At the rate we’re going, Smart said, “it’s going to take 263 years to meet the state’s water quality goals.” I fear we don’t have that long.

To sum up: Our government has allowed too much water to be pumped from the ground, basing bad permitting decisions on faulty computer models. As a result, our rivers and springs are drying up and our aquifer is turning salty. To combat this, we’re spending taxpayer money on things that don’t fix the problem and proposing patently ridiculous “solutions” that move water around for no reason.

Gee, I wonder how Florida ever got that national reputation for idiotic, self-destructive behavior. Now, if someone will hold my beer, I’ll go find my pants.

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Craig Pittman
Craig Pittman

Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of six books, including the New York Times bestseller Oh, Florida! How America's Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country, which won a gold medal from the Florida Book Awards. His latest, published in 2021, is The State You're In: Florida Men, Florida Women, and Other Wildlife. In 2020 the Florida Heritage Book Festival named him a Florida Literary Legend. Craig is co-host of the "Welcome to Florida" podcast. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.