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Water plan stalls after activists' opposition

More review needed before decision made, official says

Posted: August 1, 2014 - 6:52pm

A delay of a controversial plan to identify water supplies for communities along the St. Johns River is encouraging people who worried the region’s waterways could be tapped like reservoirs.

“We’re very happy that the district is choosing to take more time to consider,” said Karen Ahlers, executive director of the advocacy group Florida Defenders of the Environment, a group that focuses on issues affecting the Ocklawaha River in Putnam and Marion counties.

A plan the St. Johns River Water Management District had been scheduled to vote Aug. 12 included four projects that, between them, could draw up to 86 million gallons of water daily from the Ocklawaha, the largest tributary feeding the St. Johns.

Drinking water for most Florida communities comes from aquifers, which are cheaper, but the river withdrawals were included in the plan as “alternative” sources.

The district scrapped its vote this week, saying its staff needed more time to mull concerns from hundreds of people who had written or talked to agency staff about the plan, which is supposed to ensure water will be consistently available through 2035.

“There’s a lot to think about. … We’re kind of making sure we’ve got everything covered,” said Hal Wilkening, the agency’s director of strategic deliverables, who is overseeing the plan. No new date has been set to finalize the plan.

River withdrawals have been a long-running controversy in Northeast Florida, with environmentalists and some communities several years ago fighting unsuccessfully to block removal of water in Seminole County, arguing that it could affect river levels in the First Coast and cause harm to plants or animals. A plan to take water from the St. Marys River between Nassau County and Georgia was part of an early version of the supply plan, but Wilkening said his agency’s staff are now sure that’s not necessary and have dropped that.

In addition to people worried about withdrawals, district employees have heard complaints from utilities that they’re overstating what public demand will be as the region grows.

Changes in conservation have made predicting water use more complicated, said Paul Steinbrecher, JEA’s director of environmental permitting and assessment, who said that undid a straight-line relationship between residents and demand that had been accepted for decades.

Steinbrecher said JEA and seven other served a little less than 1.1 million customers in 2007, and saw that number climb to near 1.3 million last year. While the number of customers grew, daily water use by those utilities actually fell, he said, from 190 million gallons to 149 million gallons.

Steinbrecher said that seeming imbalance showcased why it was important for utilities and the district – which regulates water withdrawals – to use the most up-to-date information they had. He said the district had agreed to review its water-demand forecasts.

St. Johns Riverkeeper Lisa Rinaman has followed a similar tack in arguing against the withdrawals, saying that efforts to conserve water can help both the environment and the bottom line.

“Water conservation and smart growth management practices will realistically save millions of gallons of water, billions of dollars and potentially save the St. Johns River, Ocklawaha River and other Florida waterways from additional harm,” Rinaman and Ahlers argued in a joint letter they sent to Wilkening in June.

Rinaman said conservation and reuse – recycling cleaned wastewater for purposes like lawn sprinklers – can provide as much water as the management district expects to need without drawing down any creeks or rivers.

She described that as “living within our water means,” and said it was the best way to be sure water would be available for future generations.

Steve Patterson: (904) 359-4263

 
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