Friday, October 26, 2007

Thaxton on Water

October 25, 2007

One can't help but notice that: Atlanta is running out of water, Florida is in an ongoing drought, Mosaic phosphate mining, if allowed to proceed, would use up copious amounts of water and possibly compromise our fresh water supply while only providing back 10% of its product to a dying agricultural industry in Florida.

We ignore the implications of a limited water supply at our peril.

With this in mind, I bring you some notes I took at a fascinating talk given by Jon Thaxton on water, October 13, at the First Methodist Church as part of their environmental series, downtown Sarasota.


"Sarasota's economy and environment must both be healthy to survive."

Jon Thaxton (County Commissioner) has been ringing the alarm bill since 1990. (I recall Horace Sutcliffe, the state hydrologist, saying that all the water to southwest Florida was compromised because of the sump action of the orange, Disney and phosphate industries bringing salt water intrusion into our freshwater aquifer. That was in 1975.) The Florida Aquifer is the largest fresh water cavern in the world!

We have estimated a per capita need for water. Sarasota County uses less per capita than most any other county in the state, 80-86 gallons per person per day, while the state average per person is about 126 gallons. Water charges in the county are on a graduated schedule so the first 4,000 gallons are at the cheapest rates with prices going up as one uses more. Some questions we must ask ourselves:

* How much water will be needed for the people who are expected to move here?
* Estimate drought tolerance for our water system - factoring in rain and population fluctuations throughout the year.
* Then look for new water sources; figure out how much to charge.
* Approve and manage future growth appropriately.
* Up until now, Sarasota figures out its water needs and costs after growth arrives.

Currently, Sarasota County has a diverse set of water supplies. We can't rely on surface ground water. We can't rely solely on the aquifer as it needs rest to be recharged. We feasibly have enough water to take us to 2018-2022. It takes about 8 years to bring new sources on line (permits, put in lines, etc.) after it has been identified.

Sarasota's newest source is to tap the fresh water going into Dona & Roberts Bays. This requires a balancing act to take fresh water from Cow Pen Slough while restoring the estuary where much energy has been expended to bring it back from the brink by restoring wetlands.

Historically Manatee County built a long term water source while Sarasota allowed wells and septic tanks. But now, Sarasota, Manatee & Charlotte counties are all looking for new water sources. An interim water supply is being tapped - the Peace River - taking 36 million gallons of water a day. Sarasota receives one of the largest takes from the river. The Peace River is close to running out of water by having water demand that exceeds supply.

The budget needs to build schools, parks, roads, water, judicial systems are 50% of the need. We plan for an absolute minimum. Under normal conditions, we can meet 95% of our water needs. But we are in a drought. Cyclically these can last 2 to 5 years. According to the Peace River Water Authority all reserves will have been consumed by January. Last year at that time we had millions of gallons in reserve, next year we will likely have none.

Sarasota has two different kinds of water storage: surface water & underground. No, we won't run out of water, but we will run out of cheap water and we will harm the environment by taking the portion it needs to survive for ourselves. As for the aquifer, when we take out more than too much - then we invite salt water intrusion and degradation of our future water supply.

SWFMD (Southwest Water Management District) has said Sarasota County must team up with local counties who have very different growth management philosophies. We will have no say in their water usage. This proposition is not being run by the voters. Is this a deal we want?

The days of cheap water in Southwest Florida are gone. All water sources in the future will be more expensive. This should be no surprise as we have known that this was coming.

Consider that we used up five years of stored water in the first nine months of this year. That supply for us is gone. If the rains stay away and the drought continues into next year, we will have no storage reserves going into next year's wet season. What's in our future? A moratorium on all watering of landscaping. Thousands of dollars invested in plantings will be lost. Only a very small percentage (maybe 5%) of our potable water is used for drinking and cooking. Up to 40-60% could be used for landscaping, golf courses, swimming pools. It's going to take some political will to change our habits and policies.

What can be done? Desalinization? Not yet. It's expensive can use up 2 gallons of water for every drinkable gallon produced. We destroy wetlands and waterways by dumping the byproduct: brine.

All the old artesian wells that I knew of as a child are gone. Every 1st Magnitude Florida spring is now polluted due to nutrients.

Cisterns are an option. Used in households here only a few decades ago - the water could be used for bathing and watering yards, flushing toilets. At one time in Key West, it was their only water supply. Re-use water could be used on golf courses, etc. Have buildings save rainwater from the roofs in lakes (in town, in water vaults built into the building).

Not only Florida needs a water policy - the whole country does. It's a national priority. Don't fool yourself that because Florida is tropical, that the 50-60 inches of rainfall a year is abundant. It turns out to be just the right amount to keep our particular environment charged - our plants and animals require this amount to survive.

Thaxton went on to say that "historically we have done a pathetic job with water planning." And, we can't treat this resource the next 50 years the way we have treated it for the past 50 years.

Do you hear the alarm?

[Submitted by Jude Levy]

1 comment:

Bill Webb said...

Regarding Florida being tropical:

First of all, it isn't, by several hundred miles. The tropics begin at the Tropic of Cancer, at about 23 degrees north latitude, in the area of the Southern Bahamas. South Florida is considered subtropical, and North Florida (from roughly Tampa north) is part of the Northern Temperate Zone.

In the current climatological cycle, areas at Florida's latitude tend to be desert. If you draw a line around the globe at 27-28 degrees north latitude, you'll find that it passes through every major desert in the Northern Hemisphere. The reason Florida has 50-60" of rain a year (or, actually, in half a year, the other half being dry) is because we have the warm water of the Gulf on one side and the Florida Current and Gulf Stream on the other. Other peninsulas at this latitude (Baja California, for example) are desert.

We cannot depend on the rainfall patterns to remain constant. Climate Change is a fact, even if you have your head in the sand and claim that humans aren't the cause. It would take a change of only a couple of degrees C. in average global water temperatures to seriously alter the rainfall patterns. Look what happens when the El Nino/La Nina shift occurs.

We have to plan for the worst, then be thankful if we don't get it...just like hurricanes which, in this case, would be a blessing.

Remember the old meterologist's adage: climate is what you expect; weather is what you get.