Hutchinson wants a better water ethic locally


Published: Saturday, December 1, 2012 at 6:01 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, December 1, 2012 at 6:01 p.m.

Robert "Hutch" Hutchinson is just beginning his term on the Alachua County Commission, but he already knows his efforts will focus on a key environmental issue: water.

Hutchinson pledged both during his campaign and at his swearing-in ceremony to devote his efforts to strengthening the county's water ethic.

"We are probably among the leaders in the state just because we're such an environmentally aware community," he said. "But we should be walking the walk as well as talking the talk as a community."

For him, an improved ethic must focus on both water quantity and water quality.

Constructive measures to improve water quantity levels include encouraging the use of low-flow toilets and showerheads and showing the public how to reduce their water use for landscaping by incorporating Florida-friendly plants into their yards that require little irrigation.

Improving water quality, particularly among the area's springs, is another concern.

Hutchinson has watched the waters of Poe Springs shift from clear to green over his lifetime as higher levels of nitrates and phosphorous find their way into the water, and he considers the rapid deterioration of the region's springs "appalling."

"For us, the springs are like the Grand Canyon or the Rocky Mountains," he said. "It's our great natural feature that's unique to this area."

To some extent, water policy issues are out of the county government's control. The state government manages Florida's uniform building codes, including water usage provisions, and water management districts distribute consumptive use permits that determine how much water can be withdrawn, said Chris Bird, director of the Alachua County Environmental Protection Department.

Local governments, however, approve subdivisions and make other land-use decisions. A big challenge is making counties' land-use approval process and water management districts' consumptive-use permitting process function more in sync, Bird said.

Alachua County can lead by example. The county has aimed to surpass minimum building code standards for water consumption and plumbing efficiency in new fire stations in recent years, he said. It has also tried to provide incentives for low-impact development tactics. For example, the county might offer a developer an incentive to implement an irrigation system that helps stormwater runoff seep back into the Floridan aquifer in a new subdivision.

Commissioner Lee Pinkoson prefers the use of incentives rather than mandates.

"We've got water now, but we want to make sure our kids and our grandchildren have water as well," Pinkoson said. "But I want to do it in a manner where it is done through incentives as opposed to ramming it down people's throats."

Community outreach is also important in improving the county's water ethic, Bird said. The county EPD has a water conservation coordinator, Stacie Greco, who works on public outreach efforts to teach residents how to save water.

Robert Knight, director of the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute, said improving the area's water ethic requires understanding the consequences if the community continues to use water as it has.

"It's almost impossible to have too much public education about these issues," he said.

The county is at least on par with the best counties in the state in terms of water policy, but it can have a broader and more effective voice in the state struggle over water issues by working with groups like Florida Leaders Organized for Water (FLOW), Knight said.

Hutchinson believes the county can play an important role in advocating for state-level changes to water policy. Alachua County government doesn't have control over consumptive-use permits or uniform building codes, but what it does have is an influential voice.

"… What we can do is take a leadership role in lobbying at the state level for those changes to be put in place," Hutchinson said.

Contact Morgan Watkins at 338-3104 or morgan.watkins@gvillesun.com.

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