Plum Creek's plan to slash water use: Would it fly?

David Denslow, who taught economics at the University of Florida, is among attendees at the Envision Alachua community workshop regarding the long-term plans for Plum Creek on Thursday, February 7, 2013, at the Martin Luther King Jr. Multipurpose Center in Gainesville, Fla.

Elizabeth Hamilton/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Sunday, August 10, 2014 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, August 11, 2014 at 9:00 a.m.

Correction: Plum Creek Timber Co. development plans in east Alachua County include 10,500 homes. An earlier version of this article included an incorrect, larger number.

Plum Creek Timber Co.'s development proposal for 60,000 acres in eastern Alachua County projects long-term groundwater pumping levels that, depending on conservation measures, could vary from 2.35 million gallons per day on the low end up to 6.28 million gallons a day.

Those numbers, which are based on build-out 50 years down the road, largely vary because of differing projections on how much water 8 million square feet of planned industrial space will use and, to a lesser extent, on water usage for 10,500 planned residences.

The timber and land-holding giant's application is now under county review as regional concerns persist over the impact of groundwater pumping on the aquifer and the area's springs, rivers and lakes.

In July, those concerns were at the forefront of a St. Johns River Water Management District staff recommendation to deny an application from Sleepy Creek Lands, formerly Adena Springs Ranch, to pump 1.12 million gallons a day for its cattle operation in northeast Marion County. District staff cited the cumulative ecological harm to Silver Springs and the Silver River.

Plum Creek representatives say their plan includes bold water conservation measures that would be unprecedented for a development of this size in Florida. Their plan, they say, acknowledges that the state's future requires a new water ethic focused on using less.

The company's water supply plan and its proposed policy language for Alachua County's Comprehensive Plan would prohibit the use of both potable water and reclaimed water for irrigating residential yards. Under Plum Creek's plan, homeowners also would be prohibited from drilling individual wells for irrigation.

Yards would have to be planted with native, "Florida Friendly" plants instead of thirsty turf lawns. Homeowners and neighborhoods would have to use cisterns or larger rainwater harvesting and storage facilities to water yards.

"It would be the largest single approval that would not allow irrigation of residential lawns," said Tim Jackson, Plum Creek's director of real estate.

In the Panhandle, the St. Joe Company's massive development plan for its property in Bay and Walton counties pledges not to use potable water for residential lawns but would still allow for reclaimed water.

Asked about the legal enforceability of Plum Creek's water conservation proposals, Jackson said they would be included in land use and zoning approvals and then placed in deed restrictions.

Alachua County Environmental Protection Department Director Chris Bird said staff's ongoing review is looking at whether county government has the legal authority to do what Plum Creek proposes and prohibit lawn irrigation or private wells in its Comprehensive Plan.

Bird said the county needs to determine if that would clash with private property rights and state law when the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the water management districts largely pre-empt local governments on water use and conservation issues.

Bob Palmer, a board member of the Ichetucknee Alliance and Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute and former member of the county's Environmental Protection Advisory Committee, said the 16-page water supply plan that Plum Creek provided to the county lays out lofty goals without much detail on how they would be achieved.

"However you cut these numbers, it's a pretty big drain on the aquifer," Palmer said.

On the other hand, Pierce Jones, the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) extension program leader for energy programs, said implementation of the Plum Creek plan likely would achieve the company's stated goal of a development that cuts average daily water use by 50 percent from the current usage of existing developments.

Plum Creek contracted with IFAS to conduct a study of existing water usage at nearly 30 local residential developments built since 2000. Using Gainesville Regional Utilities records, Jones said single-family homes with yard irrigation systems had an average daily usage of 358 gallons, with the highest usage levels at large-lot subdivisions in unincorporated western Alachua County. Eliminating a sprinkler or irrigation system reduced that usage to 190 gallons a day, Jones said, already coming close to achieving the 50 percent reduction.

Jones said Plum Creek then could hit its goal by reducing the number of single-family homes for more densely planned apartments and condominiums that do not have yards for individual residences.

Jones said where some communities and homeowners associations require lush green, irrigated lawns, Plum Creek's approach is "almost the reverse."

While public debate swirls about whether the Plum Creek property, with its wetlands, is appropriate for development, Jones said he feels the company has made a "very far-sighted commitment" on the water supply issue.

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