City seeks 20-year permit to withdraw 30 million gallons a day from aquifer


Published: Wednesday, October 23, 2013 at 6:23 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, October 23, 2013 at 6:23 p.m.

After a year of planning and preparation, Gainesville Regional Utilities has applied for a new permit to pump groundwater to supply its water utility customers.

With its current five-year permit slated to expire next August, GRU applied to the St. Johns River Water Management District on Oct. 11 for a 20-year permit to pump an average of 30 million gallons per day. That is the same amount the utility is allowed to withdraw under its current permit, but an increase from the 23 to 24 mgd the utility currently pumps.

The city says it plans to hold the line on its permitted withdrawal despite the fact that it projects the population it serves will rise from 190,000 to about 235,000 over the next 20 years.

In its application, GRU says it seeks to achieve this through conservation measures and a continued reduction in daily per-capita water usage. The GRU service area has seen its residential per-capita usage decline from 101 gallons per day in 2001 to 90 in 2009 to a projected 76 on the permit now being sought.

Still, in the event population growth exceeds the current projections, GRU is seeking a condition in its new permit that would allow it to withdraw up to 34 mgd as long as alternative water supply projects are put in place to offset the increase.

Those projects might include an increase in the amount of treated wastewater put back into the aquifer through either recharge wells or wetlands at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park or moving a permitted water user from groundwater to reclaimed water, said Tony Cunningham, a senior environmental engineer with GRU.

Cunningham said that, based on the utility's population and demand projections, staff does not anticipate needing more than 30 mgd for the life of the permit.

Gainesville is divided between the St. Johns River and Suwannee River water management districts. That raises some complications, Alachua County Environmental Protection Department Director Chris Bird said.

Under an agreement with the Suwannee district, the St. Johns district staff and eventually its Governing Board have authority over the permitting process, although Suwannee district staff has input in the review.

While the St. Johns district has the decision making power, groundwater from the area of the city's Murphree well field off Northeast 53rd Avenue flows toward the Santa Fe River and the springs that feed it, which are under the jurisdiction of the Suwannee district.

"One longstanding concern that has become a renewed concern in recent years (is) we know groundwater in Alachua County does not respect water management district boundaries," Bird said. "It raises issues with one district trying to determine what is going on in the other district."

Already, the Suwannee district has determined that the flow of the Lower Santa Fe has declined to the point where recovery strategies are needed to restore the river to health. In it application packet, GRU states that its groundwater withdrawals occur several miles east of the river and "only have the potential to indirectly affect the river system."

GRU said a comparison of groundwater levels near its well field and several miles away show the two locations "track closely regardless of changes in GRU's pumping on the order of a few million gallons per day." GRU cited that as part of its justification that its pumping would not have an adverse effect on the Santa Fe.

Still, the utility said it was "voluntarily be willing to equitably participate" in strategies to restore the river.

Asked about steps the utility could take to protect the Santa Fe, Cunningham said GRU feels it has done so by not seeking substantial increases in its permitted groundwater withdrawals. The utility had approval to pump 29 mgd back in 2001. If the current application for 30 mgd is approved, GRU's permitted groundwater withdrawals would have essentially remained flat over the more than three-decade span from 2001 to 2033, he said.

Cunningham also pointed to the utility's low per-capita usage and its aggressive program of using treated wastewater to recharge the aquifer.

Before submitting its application, GRU staff met nine times with Suwannee and St. Johns district staff over the last year.

Now that the application is in, staff may request additional information. Public comment will also be received before the application eventually reaches the water district's Governing Board.

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