Group hopes to help keep tabs on aquifer's levels


Published: Sunday, December 15, 2013 at 6:31 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, December 15, 2013 at 6:31 p.m.

Correction: The Suwannee River Water Management District has had no budget cuts leading to reductions in the district’s groundwater monitoring program and has been expanding the program in recent years. An earlier version of this article gave a different account.

It's easy to overlook what's underground.

The images of aquifers and porous rocks containing water are not as glamorous as pictures of lakes and vibrant, blue springs. But that surface water comes from somewhere besides rain.

A nonprofit organization wants to increase the public's awareness of the importance of groundwater to life in Florida while helping researchers gather data on wells.

AquiferWatch Inc, founded in 2010 by Rick Copeland, is doing a pilot study to see if it will be feasible to have volunteers gather information about water levels in wells, a task usually performed by the state's various water management districts.

The study, begun in October 2012, has volunteers in Alachua, Bradford, Hamilton, Leon and Bay counties, where 25-30 volunteers are monitoring a number of wells. They are also working on getting volunteers in Walton, Levy and Okaloosa counties.

Volunteers use water level meters to gather data once a month. Homemade meters can be used on monitoring wells, which, according to Copeland "are basically pipes in the ground," while $450 commercial meters are needed for more complicated wells with pumps in them.

The organization has partnered with Florida LAKEWATCH, a program that is part of the University of Florida's School of Forest Resources and Conservation Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences.

Since 1986, LAKEWATCH has relied on trained volunteers throughout the state to gather water samples of lakes, rivers and some coastal areas. The samples are then sent to a lab in Gainesville where they are analyzed and the results added to a database that is available to scientists around the world.

Packets containing the compiled data are provided to the volunteers so they can see what's going on with the body of water they are monitoring.

Copeland has worked as a hydrologist for the state of Florida for 35 years, the past 25 for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. He started volunteering for LAKEWATCH in 2006.

He figured, if this kind of program can work for lakes, why not groundwater?

"A lot of people love their lakes and springs, but without groundwater there are no lakes" said Copeland.

One of the obstacles for the program is gaining the trust of professional scientists who might be wary of data gathered by ordinary citizens.

According to Mark Hoyer, director of LAKEWATCH, it may take some time to convince geologists that volunteers can be effective in collecting data, but he believes LAKEWATCH has set a good example.

"A lot of people didn't think that volunteers could accurately measure things,'' he said. “Well, we've had two different studies where we compared the (results of) volunteers going out with the professional and it's always one-to-one.

“The data collected by professionals and volunteers is comparable. There's no difference between them, suggesting that the volunteers are capable of collecting data,'' he said.

In addition to gaining the confidence of professionals, the organization also faces a common challenge: low funds.

AquiferWatch runs solely on donations, and organizers need more money to pay for coordinators to train volunteers, transportation costs and the meters that are used to measure the water level in wells.

George Edwards, regional coordinator for AquiferWatch, has taken over monitoring some of the wells in the western portion of Alachua County.

The Suwannee River Water Management District has been expanding its program in recent years.

"We would like to work over into St. Johns, we would like to work east but it's a matter of time availability and number of volunteers," he said. "We need to find more volunteers and we're short of funding like everybody else."

Copeland would like to see the program include measurements of pollution in groundwater, but he said that it's too early.

“We're working on expanding to water chemistry which includes specific conductance,'' he said. Specific conductance, he said, “is an indicator of salt content in the water.''

According to Copeland, research shows that for the past 20 years water levels in the aquifers are going down and the heavy rains over the summer are unlikely to do much to reverse the trend.

"Ninety percent plus of water we drink is from groundwater and it's decreasing," said Copeland. "We want people to be aware of what's going on."

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