Summit: Restoring St. Johns a priority

Published: Wednesday, January 15, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 15, 2003 at 1:52 a.m.
JACKSONVILLE - Unveiling plans for an ambitious water restoration project, state and regional water use planners concluded their two-day St. John's River Summit in Jacksonville Tuesday, outlining goals and strategies to return the heavily polluted river to its once pristine state.
Their conclusions, however optimistic, were less than rosy.
"Denial, I would suggest, is where we are," said Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary David Struhs, speaking to thousands of residents and water quality experts at the Prime Osborn Convention Center.
"We are in denial when it comes to recognizing that in an average of almost 160 gallons per day, Floridians use more water per capita than any other state east of the Mississippi. We're too often in denial when it comes to admitting that nearly half of the water we use in our neighborhoods is to irrigate lawns and ornamental plants," Struhs said.
"With all that denial, then, why should we be optimistic with the 310-mile long river of lakes that we know as the St. Johns?"
For one, Struhs said, time and money may be on the St. Johns side.
After a similar summit five years ago, nearly $200 million in federal funding was allocated to address six priority goals in the lower basin of the river, including the reduction of point and non-point pollution, increased water quality compliance and enforcement and restoration of degraded aquatic habitat.
Current project proposals include efforts to employ desalination technology to augment water supplies, enhanced focus on reclaimed water for the district's non-drinking water needs and wetland mitigation.
While much work remains in the river's lower reaches, which includes Duval, Putnam, St. Johns and Clay counties, progress has been made, officials said.
But the greatest threat to the region - especially for the eastern and southern reaches - and the focus of much of Tuesday's summit finale, extends far from the banks of the St. Johns and into the 19 counties that make up its watershed.
In North Florida, the primary source of drinking water bubbles from below, supplied by one of the most productive sources of groundwater in the world: the 100,000-square-mile Floridan Aquifer.
But over-pumping and drought have severely depleted the aquifer's store of fresh, clean drinking water in recent years. In much of Alachua County, for example, despite a return to pre-drought rainfall levels in 2002, the Floridan Aquifer remains nearly 5 feet below its historic high water mark.
If current rates of consumption continue to climb across the state as it has in the St. Johns district, water use experts estimate that Floridians will need 9 billion gallons of water a day by 2020 - an increase of nearly 30 percent from today.
To meet the surge in demand, and to ease the impacts of increased groundwater pumping, state and regional water planners say the St. Johns River itself may be the best source of potable water for the region's residents.
"In our lifetime, we are going to have to tap the St. Johns River as our water supply," Struhs said.
A recent district case study found that it was "cost-effective" and "feasible" to treat river water and store it for use during periods of peak demand, typically April through June, said Hal Wilkening, St. Johns River Water Management District's director of resource management.
But despite the scientific possibility, and Struhs' prediction, the goal is an ambitious one.
The St. Johns River is one of the state's most visibly polluted waterways.
Mats of greenish algae and construction wastes choke aquatic life. Chemicals and sewage from industrial sites kill others.
And protecting the water quality of the St. Johns, ridding it of its tainted past, doesn't stop with the river itself. In fact, the fate of northeast Florida's freshwater drinking supply may soon be in the hands of the district's far western counties, including parts of Alachua County.
"Water conservation and reuse are fundamental to everybody, everywhere," Wilkening said, referring specifically to Alachua County and other far reaches of the watershed. "We are going to be looking for them, and everybody" to be addressing water quality and water use issues locally to ensure the health of the watershed as a whole.
For Struhs and others in Jacksonville on Tuesday, the St. Johns watershed management clock is ticking.
"You don't have much time." Struhs told summit participants over turkey sandwiches and fudge brownies. "Use that time wisely."
Greg Bruno can be reached at 374-5026 or brunog@

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