Fighting Gets Fierce
As Water Wars
Spill Into The Courts
Florida has plenty of water it just needs to be
piped around the state to satisfy everyone who wants it.
The water-rich areas claim they're being sucked dry.
plenty of water on his 6,000-
acre ranch in Pasco County.
His cattle drank and his fields
were irrigated from water holes that
dotted the land.
Then, in the late 1970s, the West
Coast Regional Water Authority put
in two well fields near his ranch and
started pumping water south to
parched Pinellas County. Soon after,
Polk's water holes began drying up.
Officials at the water authority and
the Southwest Florida Water Man-
agement District say below-average
rainfall in the region may have
caused the demise of Polk's water
supply. But the rancher doesn't be-
"They're sitting up here sucking
this county dry from these well
fields," he says. "They suck you dry
and ship your water 75 miles down
the road." So far, Polk has spent
nearly $150,000 on hydrological
tests trying to prove his point.
Across the state in Brevard Coun-
ty, Bob Nassarelli is on the opposite
side of a water conflict. He is head of
the South Brevard Water Authority,
which desperately needs water for
the 120,000 people it serves. The
authority's primary source, Lake
Washington, a 4,362-acre pool along
the St. Johns River, is unreliable. This
spring, during the dry season, the
lake level sank to five feet. Often,
too, the lake is contaminated by or-
ganic pollutants flushed from the St.
Nassarelli's best alternative is at
Holopaw, 20 miles inland from Lake
Washington. Plenty of clean water
flows beneath the surface there. If
the water authority could sink a few
wells at Holopaw, South Brevard's
water problems would be over.
Only, it's not that simple. Holo-
paw is in Osceola County. And, like
Freeman Polk, governmental leaders
in Osceola fear their county will be
drained dry. So Osceola and Brevard
are fighting in court over who may
drink from the Holopaw wells.
tardy and minor appearance
in Florida's governor's race,
fresh water is becoming one
of the most volatile political issues in
this state. As our population grows,
pressure is building for more and
more fresh water. Urban water con-
sumption shot up more than 50%
during the 1970s, and there is no
indication that the upward trend has
, -f.n, f .. ;....
slowed during the 1980s. Mean-
while, the thirst of agriculture -
Florida's number one water user -
has climbed almost as quickly. Farms
are beginning to employ some con-
servation measures, but agriculture
still consumes nearly two gallons for
every gallon of water that goes to
Florida's urbanized coastal areas
are beginning to challenge the state's
less populated, more rural areas, for
first place in line for drinking rights.
Pasco and Osceola counties may be
the only places openly doing battle
with their urban neighbors along the
coast for control of water. But in
coming years, regional water wars
will break out throughout Florida. As
Pinellas and Brevard counties have
already, other fast-growing coastal
communities will soon be looking
beyond their borders for water.
In the end, what is at stake is not
who gets water and who goes with-
out the issue will be what water
will cost. Most everyone agrees Flori-
da has plenty of water around. As
Tampa developer James Apthorp
says, "We have an adequate supply.
It's just a question of how the gov-
ernment chooses to manage it."
If the state fails to promote water
F,' Cri, Tvrn/ r ohPr 1Q, 1111
conservation, fails to protect our re-
maining water sources, and allows
inland regions and users such as
agriculture to monopolize supplies,
the urban populations will have to
turn increasingly to expensive op-
tions, such as desalinization, to ob-
tain fresh water.
Some of those expensive options
will have to be employed anyway,
driving up the price of water. But,
says William Sadowski, the chair-
man of the South Florida Water
Management District, "The question
becomes whether we can provide
adequate supplies at a reasonable
This much is certain: urbanized
areas ultimately will gain control of
water policies in this state. Water is a
political issue and the cities are
where the votes are in Florida. The
cities already are winning the crucial
fights. But all sorts of critical details
of water conservation, protection, al-
location and costs still must be ad-
dressed. Difficult decisions and
forced compromises lie ahead. These
issues will not be resolved without
storms of political histrionics.
Through all this, organized busi-
ness stands somewhere on the shore,
as a concerned citizen siding primari-
ly with the urbanized areas, but not
as one of the pivotal interested fac-
tions. The growing businesses of
Florida, such as the high-tech, trade
and service industries, are not large
consumers of water. Meanwhile, de-
mand among Florida's most water-
intensive industries electric power
generation, phosphate production
and paper industries is leveling
off because of increasing conserva-
tion efforts. In fact, water-saving
measures coupled with business de-
clines have reduced phosphate's wa-
ter consumption 40% in recent years.
Industry has been in the forefront of
water conservation efforts.
On those muggy afternoons in
late summer and early fall,
when the thunderheads are
billowing overhead and un-
leashing torrents of rain across the
Florida peninsula, it might be diffi-
cult to understand what the water
fuss is about. After all, this is one of
the wettest states in the country.
Annual rainfall in Florida averages
54.2 inches. Compare that to Neva-
State Rep. Chuck Smith says a-eceding water level nas ien parts or nrlareagn ana ary.
Hell introduce a bill to prohibit growth in places which can't provide their own water.
da, where a year's rainfall would
stand only ankle deep.
Yet, meteorological, geological and
demographic conditions make Flori-
da's fresh water a commodity that
must be carefully conserved.
Those yearly rainfall totals mask
the sporadic nature of our climate.
More than half of Florida's precipita-
tion comes from June to October. In
the spring months, Florida is nearly
as dry as Nevada. Subsequently, this
state always will face the prospect of
short-term water shortages.
It so happens, too, that most of our
population is settling where fresh
water is least plentiful in the
coastal counties. Florida's aquifers,
the source of 80%o of our drinking
water, are shallowest there.
Furthermore. these aquifers are
highly vulnerable to salt water intru-
sion and chemical pollution. William
Sadowski provides a graphic de-
scription: "When you spit on the
ground in Dade County, your spit
ends up in the Biscayne Aquifer,
because we're right on top of it." The
pollution threat is widespread. In the
Panhandle, chemical contamination
this year forced Pensacola to aban-
don six municipal wells.
Consider Florida's fresh water sit-
uation as a very tough inventory
management problem. There is
year-round demand for a commodity
that is easily spoiled and is only
produced seasonally by an unrelia-
ble supplier. To make matters more
difficult, the customers now are
squabbling over who gets priority in
allocations, shipments and pricing.
In Broward County, for instance,
coastal and inland cities are fighting
over who should pay for a much-
needed county system that would
provide water to eastern communi-
ties from wells in the west. Some
coastal cities Dania and Hallan-
dale, among them may lose their
- I I .--
well fields because of salt water in-
trusion. West Broward is contribut-
ing to that threat by increasing water
withdrawals from the aquifer.
With the cost of the intracounty
water system estimated at $56 mil-
lion, the eastern cities say they can't
afford the bill on their own. But the
mayors of west Broward object to
chipping in, saying water is only a
coastal problem. "We're going to
mess around with it and nothing's
going to get done," predicts Pem-
broke Pines Mayor Charles Flana-
Actually, something will get done.
Those coastal cities may have to re-
sort to a costly alternative plan to
meet their water needs. Hallandale
officials are trying to interest other
coastal cities in joint construction of a
desalinization plant. How much this
would cost isn't known yet. But un-
doubtedly, residents of coastal
Broward County will end up paying
far more than their western neigh-
bors for water.
For most of this century, too much
are divided clearly
in Tampa Bay between
haves and have-nots.
water was the pressing issue in Flori-
da. Water management meant drain-
age programs and flood control. Ag-
ricultural interests dominated the
governmental authorities that set
priorities for handling those con-
But over the past two decades the
priorities have changed. The popu-
lace, awakened by a string of
short-term droughts and water
shortages, became more concerned
with water conservation and protec-
tion of the ecosystem that provides
our water. In the early 1970s, the
Legislature created five regional wa-
ter management boards, whose re-
sponsibilities include overseeing wa-
ter usage. In 1978, Florida elected
Governor Bob Graham, who quickly
embraced the new public concerns
about water supply. Graham has
chosen more urbanites and environ-
mentalists to sit on those regional
boards and direct water policy.
Consider the South Florida Water
Management District, which covers
the agricultural areas around Lake
Okeechobee as well as the urban belt
from West Palm Beach to Miami.
Today, none of the district's nine
board members is a farmer. "For
conversation's sake, it would be
good to have someone who knew
what kinds of trees make shingles
out here," quips George Wedge-
worth, president of the Sugar Cane
Growers Cooperative in Belle
Graham acknowledges his water
management appointments were
made with a specific purpose. "The
goal was to change the orientation of
water management districts, which
were essentially (land) reclamation
districts, to true (water) conservation
entities," says the governor.
In the process, however, farmers
have been put on the defensive. Ur-
ban residents have begun question-
Our Water Options
Won't Come Cheap
F lorida has several technological options for ob-
taining fresh water or stretching further available
Perhaps the most widely publicized of these is
reverse osmosis, the process of removing minerals from
salty water. Once exorbitantly expensive, desalinization
plants have come down in cost by roughly half over the
past decade thanks to the development of new filters.
Several cities, including Venice and Sarasota, now have
reverse osmosis plants; others, such as Boynton Beach,
are exploring that option.
However, R/O as the engineers call it is no
panacea for Florida. There are several inherent problems.
Cost remains a concern. Reverse osmosis is energy
intensive. At the moment, with energy costs relatively
low, operating costs are low. But soaring energy prices
could make R/O uneconomical.
In addition, most desalinization plants use brackish
water, not sea water. The less salt, the lower the filtering
cost. Yet, heavy withdrawals of brackish water from
coastal pools lead to the same problem as heavy with-
drawals from fresh water aquifers: salt water intrusion.
The more salt in the source, the higher the operating
One of the most promising innovations in water
management is aquifer storage. During rainy seasons,
excess water is collected and injected underground.
Then, in dry seasons, it is recovered for use.
In the Port Charlotte area, General Development Utili-
ties, an arm of General Development Corp., is develop-
ing an aquifer storage system that draws water from the
Peace River. The utility found aquifer storage costs
one-third as much as building a surface reservoir. Fur-
thermore, General Development has been able to recover
all of the water it injected underground. Surface reser-
voirs lose 35% or more to evaporation.
Reuse of treated waste water offers almost limitless
potential. St. Petersburg is a pioneer with a separate
system of "grdy" water for irrigation.
However, treated waste water, as it is being used
today, is expensive. Cities have to build separate water
systems. St. Petersburg landed a federal grant to fund
much of its capital costs. But federal funds for such
projects are drying up.
With little additional treatment, waste water could be
made fit for consumption and put back into the
primary water supply. The only question is whether
people would be willing to drink it. Engineers refer to
that as an "aesthetic" problem. They're watching to see
what happens in Denver, where treated waste water now
is being pumped back into the drinking supply.
The most cost-effective option for Florida also happens
to be one of the simplest: water conservation devices in
every home. Orlando installed flow restrictors in faucets
and water reduction devices in toilet tanks throughout
the city. The result: water consumption dropped 18%.M
""' FI.ORIDA TREND/ October 1986 103
"^ ing agriculture's massive water con-
James Apthorp, the head of Tampa
Palms, a 4,600-unit residential de-
velopment project in northern Hills-
borough County, points out that wa-
ter consumption in that county actu-
ally would decline if the agriculture
there were replaced by housing de-
velopment. Most urban residents
within the Southwest Florida Water
Management District, which in-
cludes Hillsborough and runs rough-
ly from Levy County to Charlotte
County, now are under year-round
lawn sprinkling restrictions. Under-
standably, more than a few bristle at
the lack of similar restrictions on
An effort is under way in the dis-
trict to monitor more closely water
consumption by farmers. "All we're
asking is for them to examine what
they're using and see if they could
use it better and save a little bit,"
says Gary Kuhl, the district's execu-
But farmers are balking. They fear
f' that urban residents will have their
way and that monitoring will lead to
mandatory water restrictions. Says
Louis de la Parte, an attorney for the
West Coast Regional Water Authori-
ty, "They're just not about to put
their ability to grow crops in jeopar-
The same issue eventually will
Bob Nassaelli, head of the South Brevard Water Authority, wants to sink wells that will
draw water from Osceola County. The courts will decide if he can.
arise, too, in the South Florida Water
Management District. The citrus in-
dustry's move to the south and the
planting of thousands of acres of new
groves in such areas as Lee and Hen-
dry counties is substantially boosting
agricultural water demand there.
But at the moment, another agri-
cultural water issue is the focus of
attention in South Florida: the pollu-
tion of Lake Okeechobee, the re-
gion's primary water source.
The Greenhouse Effect:
A Theoretical Threat
F lorida has enough fresh water. All the experts
agree on that. So, except for temporary periods
when rainfall lags well below average, water
shortages should not be a serious problem here.
Yet, there is a joker in the deck that could devastate
Florida. It is "the greenhouse effect," a scenario that is
gaining believers among scientists worldwide.
Under the greenhouse theory, the accumulation of
carbon dioxide and other gases in the atmosphere will
trap more heat and cause a global warming trend. Higher
temperatures will melt the polar ice caps, which in turn
will cause sea levels to rise worldwide. Some scientists
say we will see one- or two-foot rises; a few estimate sea
level will be as much as 12 feet higher 100 years from
now. And some predict we'll begin to see this rise as early
as the next decade.
What this could mean for the sand spit called Florida
is, of course, unmitigated disaster. Vast stretches of our
current coastline could slip beneath the waves. The
remaining part of the peninsula would be battered by
increasingly frequent hurricanes.
And for those left on dry land, it could mean the loss of
much of the fresh water supply. "If it happens, you will
have salt water intrusion everywhere into the aquifer,"
predicts Bent A. Christensen, an engineering professor at
the University of Florida.
David Pine, of the Gainesville office of the engineering
firm CH2M Hill and one of the leading water resource
engineers in the state, agrees. He fears not enough study
is being given to the possible threat to Florida. "This is
more than a wildcard," Pine says. "The scientific com-
munity is taking this seriously. But I haven't seen people
at the planning level giving any thought to it yet."
Maybe someone does need to be looking for ways to
protect Florida's water supply in such an eventuality. But
before you panic and head for high ground, remember
the greenhouse effect is only a theory. We repeat: this is
only a theory.
104 FLORIDA TREND/ October 1986
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