A thirsty world

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A thirsty world Providing water and protecting supplies will be one of the global challenges of the 21st century Source: The Florida Times-Union Publication date: 2000-07-18

In a swamp so dry that cypress trees are tipping over because their roots aren't anchored by enough water, Rosanne Prager checked the water level in a shallow well. "It's 3 feet lower than a couple months ago," said Prager, of the engineering firm CH2M Hill.

It's a drought and the dry season. But the St. Johns River Water Management District suspects a third reason the swamp, west of St. Augustine, is drying up.

It's surrounded not only by young pines planted by a timber company, but by several St. Johns County wells that pump water from shallow wells to serve residents' needs.

The problem is a tiny sign of a big dilemma: how to give Earth's burgeoning population all the water it needs, without ruining the water supply or environment.

The obstacles, to varying extents, are the same on every continent:

-- Populations are growing, often in arid areas, straining above- and below-ground water sources and threatening water quality and the environment.

-- Water treatment plants need to be added and aging ones improved at a cost of billions of dollars.

-- There remains a lack of concern in many regions about conserving water or protecting it from pollution.

-- A piecemeal system of making decisions about water use has neighboring utilities and governments, who tap into the same supplies, either ignoring or fighting each other.

Organizations like The World Bank, a government-funded organization that helps pay for development, are trying to get nations to work out their future water needs together, since many share the same water sources.

"The demand for water is going up extremely rapidly and we're having greater competition from all sectors for water," said Stephen Lintner, principal environmental specialist with The World Bank Environmental Department's Land, Water and Natural Resources Division.

Providing and protecting water will be one of the global environmental challenges of the 21st century, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said in an April speech.

Worldwide, more than 1 billion people lack access to safe drinking water. More than 2 billion live in countries experiencing some kind of water stress. And at least 5 million people worldwide -- more than the population of Maryland -- die every year from water-related illness.

Albright said the United States will have talks on how to foster regional cooperation and is contributing $2 million to a new United Nations fund to improve regional water management.

"Studies show that the squeeze on water resources will tighten as populations grow, demand increases, pollution continues, and global climate change accelerates," she said.

". . . Unless properly managed, water scarcity can be a major source of strife, as well as a roadblock to economic and social progress."

Much of Florida and Georgia rely on an underground water supply -- mostly from the Floridan aquifer.

This is the most productive source of fresh water in the United States, and some say, the world, allowing huge amounts to be pumped from local wells. The aquifer runs from South Carolina to the Caribbean, with varying degrees of freshness. Below Orlando, its water is too salty to use.

Southern Duval and northwest St. Johns counties are living with the result of poor planning years ago to meet water demands.

Inadequate pipes to handle Mandarin's increasing demand has periodically left JEA customers without water. And a new JEA well in Mandarin has caused several hundred private wells in Duval and St. Johns counties to stop producing water. The JEA is required to fit impacted private wells with new equipment so they can pull water from a greater depth, where the pressure is higher.

Forty percent of the 19 counties in the St. Johns River Water Management District, which spans the eastern half of the state from Nassau to Indian River counties, will have problems meeting the demand for water in the next 20 years if they don't change how they get water, a recent district report concluded.

Eighty-five percent of the increase will be in supplying residents with water. There will be a small decrease in agricultural water use and a small increase in business use.

Public demand for water will double in the Orlando and Jacksonville areas and along the coast.

"If we don't change what we're doing, we're going to have problems," said Barbara Vergara, a water management district geologist who worked on the future water use plan.

Water experts worry that too much pumping from the underground supply of fresh water will dry up wetlands and lakes, or let salt water infiltrate from the sea or a deeper underground layer of salt water.

Fresh water would be corrupted, requiring more extensive and expensive treatment.

Jacksonville politicians and utility leaders are ahead of the Orlando and Tampa areas in starting to voluntarily talk with each other about future use, Vergara said.

The water management district, which attempts to protect the environment by requiring permits for water use, is urging JEA to spread out its wells so it doesn't cause a big pressure drop in one area. The utility plans to draw water from west of the St. Johns River, where there are less concerns about salt water, and pipe it east of the river, JEA Vice President Tim Perkins said.

St. Johns County officials plan to build new wells that will pull from a deeper, but saltier underground supply than it now uses. That will protect the environment, such as the swamp west of St. Augustine, but will require an investment in filtering equipment to treat the brackish water.

Volusia and Seminole counties will need to turn to surface water - - in this case the St. Johns River. The river could provide an average 250 million gallons a day without being hurt environmentally, the water management district calculated.

Orlando's situation is more desperate. It can't pump much more water from underground before the environment starts to suffer, according to the water management district. Two of the roughly 60 public utilities in Orlando recently volunteered to work together on developing future water sources -- a new kind of cooperation water experts say must start to happen to meet the future demands and costs of supplying water.

"Water is power. Water is money," Vergara said. "You control your own destiny by controlling water. It's very politically sensitive."

The Legislature got so sick of political water fights in the Tampa area that it forced the politicians and utilities to form a regional water supply authority, which eventually took over its member utilities' facilities.

Florida water management officials have been trying to coordinate water supplies with Georgia officials who worry about where the growing areas of Savannah, Brunswick and the islands will get all the future water they need. Savannah now has one of the Southeast's most progressive water conservation programs -- developed after neighboring Myrtle Beach accused Savannah of pulling so much water from one area of the aquifer that salt water was moving into Myrtle Beach's water supply.

Instead of getting into a fight or ignoring the problem, Savannah started using river water for industrial uses.

"It's a model for dealing with problems that span state boundaries. And they did it without a lot of emotion," Vergara said.

Meanwhile, the water management district and St. Johns County will see if they can reverse the wells' effect on the swamp west of St. Augustine.

In November, the county and the water management district, with help from CH2M Hill, will use an abandoned well to start piping water back into the wetlands.

It's one of four projects in Florida to see if humans are capable of reproducing the natural wet and dry seasons of wetlands.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), July 20, 2000

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