Commission wrestles with pumping permit issues


Published: Tuesday, July 16, 2013 at 5:14 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, July 16, 2013 at 5:14 p.m.

The Alachua County Commission hasn’t determined how best to approach the issue of consumptive-use permitting, but commissioners agree that water conservation is a vital concern.

The board mulled over water-related issues during its Tuesday policy discussion meeting, during which county staff presented its recommendations for ways the commission can weigh in on consumptive-use permits issued by water boards that could have a troubling impact on local water resources.

The discussion was sparked by a letter from the county’s Environmental Protection Advisory Committee suggesting the board recommend that the St. Johns River Water Management District deny a consumptive-use permit application for the Adena Springs Ranch in Marion County.

In May, the board discussed this proposal and asked staff to return with policy recommendations on how to address consumptive-use permits in general, according to Tuesday’s agenda.

Chris Bird, director of the county’s Environmental Protection Department, told commissioners Tuesday the county has more freedom in taking action on water conservation efforts than on the permitting side of things. He stressed that the county faces a water shortage problem that has grown during his time with the county and which goes beyond a single permit.

State law authorizes water management districts to act and pre-empts local governments when it comes to regulating and permitting consumptive water uses.

Local governments can file a legal challenge to a proposed permit but that would require considerable financial and staff resources.

Assistant County Attorney David Schwartz said it is hard to estimate how much such a legal challenge would cost but he said it would be a long, expensive endeavor that would involve at least six figures’ worth of spending.

Staff recommended sending a letter to both the St. Johns and Suwannee River water management districts requesting they establish a limited moratorium on permit applications.

Staff suggested the moratorium be placed on new applications or increases for existing applications for more than 1 million gallons per day within the Santa Fe River, Rainbow Springs and Silver Springs springsheds until minimum flows and levels have been adopted for those regions.

Minimum flows and levels, or MFLs, identify the levels above which permitting can be done without causing significant harm to the water resources or ecology of a particular body of water.

Commissioner Susan Baird said she felt a moratorium wasn’t the right tactic to take right now. She said it could involve counties that aren’t within the county’s jurisdiction but are within the water management districts’ boundaries, pointing out that other commissioners don’t always favor getting involved in other local governments’ jurisdictions depending on the issue.

County staff also recommended having its EPD employees review either new permit applications or increases for existing applications above a certain level within those springsheds.

The county’s evaluation of these applications would center on their water conservation plan and related issues, according to the staff presentation. EPD could then make recommendations to the commission regarding specific applications.

Commissioners raised concerns about duplicating the water management districts’ evaluation efforts, but Bird pointed out that the county’s review would be targeted toward a few key issues and would be a way of participating in the public review process rather than a duplication of the districts’ work.

Commissioners didn’t take action on either of the staff’s recommendations but did plan to continue their discussion of water conservation issues at an upcoming meeting. They agreed water resources are a top priority for the county and one they should continue to examine closely.

Commissioner Charles “Chuck” Chestnut IV highlighted the importance of taking water-saving plans seriously, such as promoting the use of reclaimed water for irrigation.

“We might think it’s a joke. We laugh at it now,” he said of water issues. But what we do today, he emphasized, is very important for the future.

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

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