When people think of Florida, one of the first things they think of is water.
We’re surrounded by the stuff, and many of our attractions feature some sort of water-based activity… think sandy beaches, crystal clear springs and tubing or canoeing down our pristine rivers. And who can forget our notorious “wet season?” You know, those summer days where the sky just seems to open up and the water runs as freely down our streets as it does down the Silver River.
Maybe it’s because the wet stuff is so prevalent here or maybe we are just too busy with our daily lives, but how often do we really stop to think about our water? Maybe we should. Where does it come from? What is an aquifer or a spring? We get an annual water report, but what does it mean? And is it even possible to imagine that a state known for its abundance of water could actually be in danger of drying up? What is the state of our water?
So let’s start at the beginning. We frequently hear the terms aquifer system and spring fed, but what do they really mean in terms of our daily water usage?
The answer involves quite a complex underground system that has been in place since long before humans inhabited the earth. But in the most basic terms, an aquifer is an underground layer of permeable rock, primarily limestone in our case, from which groundwater can be pumped up via the use of a well. The water, both salt and fresh, sits in different-sized pores within the rock with the freshwater sitting above the saltwater. The aquifer system we utilize extends throughout the entire state of Florida as well as portions of Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina and is known as the Floridan Aquifer System. It averages 1,000 feet thick, and freshwater as old as 26,000 years can be found up to 2,000 feet below the surface.
The water stored in the aquifer is recharged by rainfall, and according to the St. Johns River Water Management District, Florida receives over 50 inches of rain annually. Unfortunately, only about 13 inches of it makes it back to the aquifer. The rest either evaporates or runs off the land into other bodies of water like lakes, rivers and ponds.
In certain areas of the Floridan Aquifer, water can escape and rush to the earth’s surface in a forceful stream. These are our springs. Robert L. Knight, Ph.D., director of the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute, describes this complex system as a “‘bucket’ with a ‘hose’ (rainwater) filling it with several ‘straws’ (wells) in the top removing the water and ‘holes’ (springs) drilled into the sides.” He explains that wells are drilled into the surface of the aquifer, and water pumped through the wells eventually makes its way through a series of pipes to our homes. The majority of the groundwater we use does not require much treatment.
From The Aquifer To Your Glass
You turn on your spigot and the crystal clear water flows freely into your tub, sink or glass. But before it makes it to your home, it goes through a multi-step process to assure that the water you’re using is as clean and pure as it looks.
Jeff Halcomb has been the director of the Water and Sewer Department for the City of Ocala since 2008. He explains that our drinking water in Marion County is all groundwater from the Floridan Aquifer. The City of Ocala has five primary wells that go down approximately 250 feet into the upper aquifer, with only two or three used in any one day. When the water, known as “raw water,” is pumped, it goes to the lime softening plant. Jeff explains that lime kills any bacteria found in the raw water. It also coats the pipes the water runs through, which helps deter corrosion that can happen over time, and helps soften the water.
“The raw water has about a 320 to 340 parts per million (ppm) ion concentration. Lime reduces that to about 120ppm,” explains Jeff.
“You’ll know your water is ‘hard’ if your soap just doesn’t seem to get soapy,” he says, noting that those on private wells without water softening systems experience “hard water.”
Once the water is softened, it goes through a filtering system to remove any floating particles, then makes its way to storage tanks where it is treated with chlorine, which acts as a disinfectant. The final step, which is one that some people may find controversial, is a fluoride treatment.
“You can read online forever about the pros and cons of fluoride treatments,” says Jeff. “But fluoride is found to be one of the top 10 accomplishments of mankind according to the CDC,” he says. He notes that in some parts of the world, the water is full of fluoride, which isn’t healthy, but in Florida, that isn’t an issue. Fluoride is used in items such as toothpastes and mouthwashes to help prevent tooth decay. The fluoridation of water is the controlled addition of fluoride to public water and can also reduce tooth decay.
“We work hard to make the water as safe for our citizens as we can,” he says. “The City of Ocala keeps its water at a fluoride level of 0.7 milligrams per liter, which is the ‘optimum level’ according to the CDC.”
So now that you know how the water gets into your house, what happens to it once it’s used? Once your washing machine cycle is finished, your tub drained and your toilet flushed, all of that water doesn’t just magically disappear, though our modern inventions make us feel as though it does. Wastewater is sent to one of three water reclamation facilities where it’s treated and reused to irrigate golf courses, parks and other public venues.
“We are trying to find ways to use as little water from the Floridan Aquifer as we can,” explains Jeff. “We are constantly fine tuning our plants to be more eco-friendly and efficient.”
Running On Empty?
So, in the most basic of terms, that’s how it works. But, are we really in danger of running out of water? What about pollution? Is our water clean? The answers are far more complex than a simple “yes” or “no,” but water isn’t something we can take for granted any longer.
Andy Kesselring, president of the recently formed Silver Springs Alliance Group (SSAG), an organization that works toward preserving Florida’s natural springs, says that there are a number of contributing factors to Florida’s growing water woes.
“The problem up to now is that government and legislature have just looked for ways to move water around the state but have not really addressed the underlying issues,” he says.
Florida’s water problem is multi-faceted, and yes, there are several springs that are in danger of drying up. Over the past few decades, our state has experienced a population boom resulting in an increasing number of wells being drilled to meet our residents’ needs. Andy explains that many people who have experienced “dried-up wells” have had to drill further to find fresh water and that the City of Ocala is assessing the need of drilling further to meet its needs as well. Dr. Knight points out that while the freshwater portion of the Floridan Aquifer is hundreds of feet thick, it only takes a few feet of difference near a spring to greatly affect its flow.
“Cessation of spring flow inevitably occurs with excessive groundwater pumping,” he says. The City of Ocala currently pumps just over 13 million gallons of water per day to meet its citizens’ needs. Dr. Knight says that we now have over 26,000 consumptive use permits along with hundreds of thousands of private wells in North Florida collectively pumping an estimated 2.6 billion gallons per day of groundwater.
“That’s 2.6 billion gallons per day that no longer flows from springs,” he says. “No wonder they are drying up.” And while wells can be dug deeper into the aquifer to find more freshwater, that’s not the case with spring-fed lakes and ponds.
“We’re seeing many of the ponds and lakes at their lowest levels and some drying up altogether,” says Andy. He adds that as we pull more water out of the aquifer, there is less available to flow into the springs. The result is that the lakes and ponds that are fed by the springs’ waters also experience a drop in water levels. And once a spring or spring-fed body of water dries up, there is no deeper drilling that can save it.
What Is A Nitrate?
When talking about the state of our water, we can’t forget about pollution. More people, more businesses, more factories, more waste—and most of that waste winds up in our water. Nitrates are a byproduct of our septic systems, fertilizers, wastewater plants and agricultural facilities. Nitrates in water change the water’s chemistry and result in a growth of algae that greatly inhibits the life of the natural flora and wildlife residing there.
Fertilizers from landscaped yards are a major culprit. Yards landscaped with an abundance of non-native plants require even more fertilizer. Those fertilizers leach nitrates back into our aquifer system, which is where we get the water we drink.
Similarly, fertilizers and pesticides used on farm lands to produce “better” produce and keep bugs and pests at bay all contributeto the accumulation of nitrate bypoduct. And you can’t forget those beautiful golf courses with their pristine greens. It takes a lot of manicuring—and fertilizer—to keep that grass up to par.
“The nitrate problem really started in the 1950s, and we are still working to fix those mistakes that were made decades ago,” says Jeff. He, along with Dr. Knight, points out that nitrate levels in our water system are at an all-time high. The reason for that, according to Dr. Knight, is that the state agency responsible for regulating water quality, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP), has not been active enough in protecting our water sources. Recently, the FDEP proposed placing limits on the levels of nitrates allowed in the water, but Dr. Knight believes it won’t be enough to change what’s already happening. He, along with many other environmental advocates, believes that without a conscious effort from everyone to cut back on fertilizers, pesticides and other pollutants flushed down our toilets and rinsed down our drains, we are going to have increasingly less clean water available to us.
What Does It All Mean?
For many who grew up splashing in the local watering hole or taking a ride on our famous glass-bottom boats, Florida’s water and lack thereof is a topic that is of the utmost concern. But for many of Florida’s transplants or “snowbirds,” who may not have the same attachment to these precious resources, the impact of our water woes may not be completely understood or appreciated.
Aside from the obvious issues revolving around a dried-up well and what that potentially means for a home’s value, the economic impact of the springs on our town is often overlooked. In Marion County, Silver Springs brings an estimated $60 million annually to the area and is described by Andy as being “the largest economic producing spring in Florida.”
“Handled correctly and protected well, Silver Springs could be one of the largest eco-tourism draws in the state. This in turn would create an even larger economic boost to Ocala,” he says. And just as how the entire water system is complexly interconnected, so are the effects on the community. Imagine if wells began drying up on Marion County’s horse farms. If the equine industry, which draws thousands of visitors each year during the winter months, begins to wane, fewer individuals come to the area, fewer hotel rooms are booked, fewer restaurants are dined at, fewer locally owned businesses are visited—the trickle-down effect could be felt at all levels.
And let’s not forget the history of our once pristine Silver Springs, where many famous films were captured. While people do still frequent Silver Springs, the flow and clarity of the water is not nearly as unspoiled as it once was.
Who’s To Blame?
Some blame the city and its residents for pumping too much water, while others blame farmers who draw water from private wells. Should we stop using fertilizers? Should we stop developing land? Where do we point the finger?
Perhaps the finger pointing is what’s keeping us from coming up with an adequate solution.
“We are smart. We can figure this out,” says Jeff. “The answer is for everyone to do their part.”
He points out that it’s the little changes every day that will add up in the end. He recommends things like planting landscapes that don’t require fertilizers or much watering, reducing the amount of water you use daily and thinking before you act when it comes to waste products.
“People dump old prescription pills, chemicals and cleaning products down their drains. Where do you think that all goes?” he asks. “Every time you dump something down your drain, it has the potential to end up in the drinking supply.”
Professionals and avid water conservationists agree that we all need to make changes. The answer won’t be occasionally reducing sprinkler use or cutting your shower time here and there. The answer will just be awareness. Everyone needs water. Everyone needs to drink, to shower, to wash clothes and dishes. But people also have to think before they turn on the spigot, before they plant that extra bed of flowers and before they dump those leftover pills down the drain. Is it worth possibly affecting our water system in a negative way? The result won’t be felt overnight or even in our lifetime, but if we want our children’s children to enjoy our state, we all better start thinking about the state of our water.
Want To Learn More?
If you are interested in learning more about the state of our water, visit some of these sites.
ocalafl.org / floridaswater.com / floridaspringsinstitute.org / water.epa.gov / silverspringsalliance.org