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'The Cost Of Water Is Going To Go Up': Central Fla. Finding Alternatives To Groundwater

Credit Jessica Palombo / WFSU News
Pipes pump in water from the St. Johns River at the Yankee Lake water treatment plant

Central Florida planners are grappling with a challenge: There’s not enough water for the people expected to live in the area 20 years from now. That realization has prompted unprecedented collaboration between local governments, private utilities and state agencies as they search for more water.

In an October legislative committee meeting, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam gave lawmakers an alarming-sounding statistic about water in Central Florida: “In the next 20 years they’ve got to find another 200 million gallons per day to support a high quality of life.”

The actual projected shortage is closer to 255 million gallons per day. That’s enough drinking and bathing water for about 50 small cities. As the Orlando-area population is projected to rise by more than 50 percent, there’s just not enough water in the state’s primary source: the underground Floridan aquifer.

St. Johns River Water Management District engineer Tom Bartol says, “We need to look at other options than just fresh groundwater.”

Bartol is part of a group called the Central Florida Water Initiative.

“What it is, is it is a collaborative effort for the first time that we have got all of these agencies, organizations, and water suppliers and utilities working together on these issues,” he says.

The Initiative is taking public comment on a first draft of a water supply plan. When it’s adopted next year, the plan won’t be a binding document, but Bartol says it’s a tool utilities can use to plan regionally rather than just hyper-locally.  

That’s already happening in the city of Altamonte Springs. Public Works Director Ed Torres unfurls a map of Apopka, a city whose population is expected to at least double—maybe triple—within 20 years.

“We are building a five-mile-long pipe to the city of Apopka so that we can deliver to them any excess reclaimed water that we have available,” he says.

Altamonte Springs has long been at the forefront of alternative water sources. It was among the first to adopt the now widespread process of reclaiming, or purifying, water used in homes up to irrigation standards. In addition to the new pipeline, Torres and his team are planning one of the state’s first plants for reclaiming storm water. He says both projects will keep polluted water out of rivers and will generate 4.5 million gallons of water every day.

“So that goes a long way—I mean 4.5 ‘mgd’ is what a small city could use, potable water for a small city,” he says, “as opposed to wasting that water.”

And with new development planned across the region, Torres says there’s no choice but to find substitutes for groundwater.  

“The alternatives are losing our wetlands and our springs and everything that we learned to love in this state or having a moratorium for construction,” he says. “Both are unacceptable.”

The draft water supply plan says the priority must be minimizing water use. Water managers say plumbing technology like low-flow shower heads and directives not to water lawns on certain days have done a lot to offset population growth since the 80s.

But Seminole County Environmental Services Director Andy Neff says conservation only goes so far.

“The cost of water is going to go up—you know, as water becomes more constrained and more valuable to us,” he says.

He says Florida is blessed with high-quality underground water. But using alternatives like reclaimed water, river water and ocean water is costly. And he says customers will notice bigger bills.

Here in Sanford, Neff is driving through the gate at the Yankee Lake waste water treatment plant.

“It’s the first facility in the region that is ready to go to provide a regional source of water,” he says.

The Yankee Lake plant pumps up to 50 million gallons of water every day from the St. Johns River and purifies it for irrigation. The chemical buildings here have lots of empty space between them, Neff says, so there’s room to build more of them when necessary.

“You can tell by the expansion capability that this particular facility can offer a lot to the region for the future as a water supply point,” he says.

Yankee Lake’s construction took more than a decade from planning to first pump. Two years and $2 million of its $55 million price tag were spent on defending its pumping permits against challenges from North Florida groups worried the pumping would affect the river downstream.

The outcome: “This certainly was a reasonable and beneficial use and would not affect other legal users and certainly was in the public interest,” Neff says.

But those same groups might be up for another fight, as the draft water supply plan suggests more sites where water can be pumped from the St. Johns and other rivers.

Neff says the next phase for the Water Initiative is to start planning for specific projects—and looking for the state and federal funding to build them.