Minimum-flow rules for upper Santa Fe River in sight

Published: Monday, October 1, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, October 1, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

Water managers say minimum flows being set for the upper Santa Fe River will prevent water withdrawals that cause significant harm.

Critic say it may already be too late.

The Suwannee River Water Management District's governing board will vote Oct. 9 on moving forward the minimum-flow rules. The rules define significant harm as water withdrawals that cause a greater than 15 percent loss of fish habitat.

Some conservation advocates say the narrow focus on fish habitat misses impacts on water quality and recreation. They say the rules also fail to consider whether withdrawals have already damaged the river.

"They allow additional harm on top of what occurred in the past," said Bob Knight, an environmental scientist and president of Wetland Solutions in Gainesville.

The rules gained significance with news of a plan to pipe water from the St. Johns and Ocklawaha rivers to growing Central Florida communities. Officials in the neighboring St. Johns district have estimated the amount of available water and say they'll use minimum flows to make a final determination.

The Suwannee district is ahead of the game by being further along in its minimum flow process, said David Flagg, a member of the district's governing board. The state Legislature could act to allow water transfers here, he said, so the minimum flows can protect water bodies.

"It's the best method currently available to make policy decisions based on science," he said.

Minimum flows and levels - MFLs for short - aim at preventing the kind of problems that affected the Tampa Bay area in the 1990s. Excessive groundwater pumping in that area caused wells and water bodies to run dry.

About 215 million gallons a day of groundwater was withdrawn in the Suwannee district in 2000, the most recent figure available. Industry and agriculture make up 87 percent of those withdrawals.

The MFLs will be plugged into a computer model that guides the amount of groundwater permits issued in the surrounding basin. But they don't mean water pumping will be restricted when the river hits those low points.

Such fluctuations are part of the natural cycles, so the district won't stop water withdrawals every time that happens, said Kirk Webster, the district's deputy executive director for water resources.

"There will be times when the river will be dry," he said. "That doesn't mean the MFL has been violated."

Knight said the plan is based on the assumption that water withdrawals haven't already harmed the river. Withdrawals have been allowed for decades without knowing how they affect waterways, he said.

"The question is how much has it been impacted," he said.

He also took issue with the plan's focus on fish habitat. The river is polluted with nutrients and mercury, he said, problems that would be exacerbated by having less water to dilute contaminants.

Webster said fish habitat was chosen because it broadly represents impacts on the river. He said the 15 percent figure is based on a consensus of scientists that has been used in other water districts.

"We try to choose criteria that would provide the greatest range of protection," he said.

Dan Rountree, co-founder of Current Problems/Adopt A River, questioned the choice of locations for the MFLs. One is based on readings at a gauge near Graham in Bradford County, the other is based on a gauge near Worthington Springs.

Rountree instead suggested a siphon where water drains from the river into the aquifer, which would show whether groundwater is being recharged.

"They don't have monitoring where it needs to be monitored," he said.

Alachua County officials expressed concern about the process at the county commission meeting this week. Commissioner Mike Byerly asked the county's environmental protection department for a report on the issue before the district board votes.

Byerly said the county will be most affected by MFLs on the lower Santa Fe River, which will be considered next year. The rules will cover some of the region's most significant springs, including Ginnie and Ichetucknee springs.

"The most important part is yet to come," Byerly said.

Nathan Crabbe can be reached at 352-338-3176 or crabben@gville

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