Orlando-area wants neighbors' water

Orange County asks to pump an extra 89-million gallons a day from the ground. Its neighbors plead no.

Published April 9, 2006

The echoes of Tampa Bay's water wars are being heard around Orlando.

Central Florida is booming, with new development rolling across the countryside around Orlando. To accommodate the growth, Orange County has asked permission to pump an extra 89-million gallons of water a day from underground over the next 20 years.

But neighboring Lake, Seminole, Osceola and Polk counties say that would devastate the environment and have vowed to fight the request.

"It's going to affect the groundwater table, it's going to affect all the wetland areas, it's going to affect the springs," predicted Chin Khor, director of public services for the city of Eustis. "When the springs dry up, people are going to start shouting and jumping and crying."

Besides, Orange's neighbors say they need the water to keep up with their own growth. Eustis, for instance, now can pump 3.3-million gallons a day but wants to nearly triple that.

"Everybody is trying to get the last little bit of groundwater that's available," said Jake Varn, a Tallahassee lawyer working with some of the counties on their water supply plans.

The conflict is reminiscent of Tampa Bay's water wars of the 1980s and 1990s, when cities and counties battled in court over the area's underground water supply. The lawsuits cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.

But this time the rules of engagement are different, state officials and water experts say, because the era of cheap water is over in Florida.

Consider what happened four months ago in Miami-Dade County. Miami-Dade asked state water officials to review plans for about a dozen proposed new developments. Miami-Dade is already pumping 346-million gallons a day and wanted an extra 100-million gallons a day over the next 20 years.

Instead of replying by letter, the heads of the South Florida Water Management District and the state Department of Environmental Protection spent two days in closed-door meetings with county officials delivering a strong warning:

Don't count on getting more underground water for your growth, because there's not enough without damaging the Everglades.

Instead, they said, Miami-Dade should consider more costly alternative sources. That could include desalination, skimming water from rivers and creeks and increased use of treated wastewater.

The warning spurred the head of the utilities department to resign. His replacement is working hard on a new plan.

"We definitely got their attention," said Carol Wehle, executive director of the water district.

The message resonated statewide.

"It's a sign that all future major public water systems have to have alternative water supply sources," said Ed de la Parte, a lawyer who was a major player in Tampa Bay's water wars, and now represents Polk and Seminole counties in the fight against Orange County.

The state, de la Parte said, "is going to insist on it."

Water fueling growth

Until recently, Florida relied on underground water to fuel growth because it was cheap. There seemed to be no limit to the supply.

"Historically water supply planning in Florida was a one-day affair," said Varn, who in the 1980s was the state's top environmental regulator. "If you ran out of water, you figured you needed another well, so you hired a well driller and the problem was solved."

Over the past 20 years, America's per capita consumption of water has dropped - but not Florida's, said Cynthia Barnett, a reporter for Florida Trend magazine (an affiliate of the St. Petersburg Times ) and author of the forthcoming book, Mirage: Florida and the Disappearing Water of the East.

"Florida's consumption has been going up and up and up," Barnett said.

In Florida, federal studies show per-person water use has climbed from less than 140 gallons a day in 1955 to 174 gallons a day now, she said. And Orange County's per-capita usage, she said, is even higher: 224 gallons a day.

That's because Orange sits on ancient sand dunes that drain quickly, de la Parte said.

"As long as people want nice yards, they're going to irrigate the bejesus out of them," he said.

But now sinking additional wells won't produce enough cheap water without causing damage.

"We're coming to the end of our ability to sustain these groundwater withdrawals," said Kirby Green, executive director of the St. Johns River Water Management District.

Last year staffers of the St. Johns district, which regulates the northern part of Orange County, estimated that 644-million gallons a day is still available underground - but that's 200-million gallons less than growth demands.

Signs of overpumping already are there, said Wehle, whose district regulates the southern part of Orange County.

"The wetlands are starting to become stressed," she said. "We're getting close to allocating all we can before causing harm."

The same thing happened around Tampa Bay: Overpumping drained lakes, dried up swamps and ruined private wells. The Southwest Florida Water Management District finally helped end the water wars by requiring alternative sources and pledging millions of dollars to help pay for them.

So Tampa Bay now has a 15-billion gallon reservoir, a plant that can treat up to 66-million gallons a day of water skimmed off area rivers and the largest desalination plant in the Western Hemisphere - although the plant is nearly three years behind schedule and undergoing an expensive repair.

But what made South Florida water managers crack down on Miami-Dade's pumping is a growth management law Gov. Jeb Bush pushed through the Legislature last year. The law requires counties to show they have the water to supply the demands of new development.

That gave Wehle the ability to tell Miami-Dade to change its ways, she said. For instance, while Collier County reuses every drop of its treated sewage for irrigation and other uses, Miami-Dade reuses 5 percent, mostly to wash a sewage plant.

"It was obvious Miami-Dade ... does not have a long-term plan for future water supplies," she said.

But opponents of Orange County's pumping plan say they're victims of unequal treatment by the St. Johns district.

"The big problem we have is that St. Johns has been giving a hard time to the small Mickey Mouse municipalities" about pumping too much groundwater and not using alternative sources," Khor said, while its staff recommended giving Orange all the groundwater it wanted.

So now everyone has hired lawyers.

"The water war, it seems, is here. Man the ramparts," the Ocala Star-Banner announced.

District vs. district

It's a war three years in the making.

Orange originally applied for more water from both the St. Johns and South Florida water districts in 2003. It sought a 65 percent increase over what its current permits allow.

Originally the request was to be handled as a single permit overseen by both districts, but about a year ago Orange County officials decided to pursue the St. Johns permit first. Orange officials did not return calls seeking comment.

The decision to pursue separate permits could become a serious problem for Orange. Among the agencies questioning the St. Johns permit is the South Florida water district. It's the first time one water district has jumped into a dispute involving a neighboring district, experts say.

Wehle said her agency is raising questions because "there could be impacts from wells permitted in the St. Johns district to wetlands that are in the South Florida water district."

That's what got Seminole County's attention too, said de la Parte, its lawyer. The St. Johns staff found Orange County's increased pumping could draw down the aquifer in Seminole by up to a foot, he said.

St. Johns officials say they want Orange to come up with an alternative water supply source by 2013. Orange is working with other Central Florida governments to skim surface water off Taylor Creek, a tributary to the St. Johns River.

But that won't replace what's being pumped from the ground, de la Parte said. It will just supplement it to fuel further growth in Orange County.

Originally the St. Johns water board was supposed to vote on approving Orange County's new permit last month, but the strong protests from the neighboring counties and the questions from South Florida have delayed the decision indefinitely.

No one is sure what will happen next.

"There will be a lot of conversation about how to resolve the environmental concerns of all the parties about this permit," Wehle said. "I'm hoping all the parties can come to the table - without a lawsuit."

Staff researchers Caryn Baird and Cathy Wos contributed to this report, which contains information from the Orlando Sentinel and Miami Herald.