Pray for rain, hope for change


Published: Sunday, June 30, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, June 28, 2013 at 2:40 p.m.

As thunder rumbled outside the Fort White Community Center, Ann Shortelle paused her presentation about water permits.

"Don't you love it? I love it. ... More water, please," said Shortelle, executive director of the Suwannee River Water Management District.

It seems like praying for rain has long substituted for any real district policy on keeping the aquifer from being drained. The district has kept issuing permits for large groundwater withdrawals, even as the evidence shows springs are drying up as a result.

Several members of the group Our Santa Fe River Inc. repeated variations of that criticism Wednesday at Shortelle's presentation. She pledged that pumping in the region is going to decrease, but it might not happen immediately because of the economic hardship involved.

"What will typically happen instead of just ‘That's it, no more, just shut the barn gate,' if you will, is to begin to ratchet things back," she said.

The chief mechanism is setting something called minimum flows and levels, or MFLs. Basically, MFLs determine how much water can be withdrawn before significant harm occurs. The water management districts are supposed to use the results to make decisions on permitting groundwater pumping for farms, utilities and other big users.

That's the idea, anyway. Districts are just getting around to setting MFLs more than three decades after they were mandated by the Legislature, so there's reason to be skeptical.

As Robert Knight of the Florida Springs Institute explains in another column today, the region's springs have slowed to a trickle and turned green in the meantime.

Shortelle has been district director for a year and is saying the right things about protecting springs, especially a new push to extend MFLs beyond district lines.

The boundaries of the state's five water management districts are based on surface water divides. Yet the aquifer doesn't follow those borders.

The Legislature passed a measure this session to require districts to follow the MFLs of each other, if they're also adopted by the state Department of Environmental Protection. The Suwannee district is requesting the DEP adopt its MFLs for the Lower Santa Fe and Ichetucknee rivers, now being finalized.

That would mean the neighboring St. Johns Water Management District would have to base permitting decisions on whether they affect those rivers and the springs feeding them. It's a needed move given that the St. Johns district approved a permit in 2011 that allows Jacksonville's utility, JEA, to eventually pump more than 150 million gallons a day of groundwater.

The St. Johns district has claimed that drought, not the green lawns of Jacksonville residents, is responsible for declining water levels in the region. Shortelle suggested that a decades-long trend of lower rainfall corresponds with the aquifer's decline, but pumping also plays a big part.

She insisted that the MFLs for the Lower Santa Fe and Ichetucknee rivers will turn the tide, even if past efforts have fallen short.

"This one is going to be different," she said.

So instead of just praying for rain, let's hope there's enough change to save the springs before it's too late.

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