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Does Florida have enough drinking water to keep up with our growing population?

Courtesy photo
Is water plentiful enough in Southwest Florida for new residents to come?

“We forget that the water cycle and the life cycle are one.” – Jacques Cousteau

Southwest Florida’s environmental gifts are proving so irresistible that folks keep moving here despite rising prices for food, more congested roads, and fierce competition for costly housing.

Agreeable daily temperatures afford residents a parade of pitch-perfect days to pursue outdoor activities, whether boating the waters out in the Gulf of Mexico or fishing our inland great lakes – Okeechobee, Seminole and Kissimmee – where monster bass stalk just under the water’s surface to be caught by skillful anglers.

Golf courses designed by sports legends await – as do the water traps near every green.

The Everglades are magnificent, and the River of Grass provides stellar birdwatching, vast hiking trails, and endless opportunities for photographers to catch that perfect nature shot.

The beaches are comprised of pure quartz, a white-powder sand so fine it squeaks under bare feet. The sand barely moves as tropical turquoise water laps at the shore.

Hundreds of new residents moved into Southwest Florida today. Hundreds more will tomorrow, and even more will pour in every day thereafter.

Every one of them will consume more natural resources.

None of those are more important than water: To drink, to clean with, to flush. We can live for weeks without food, but only days without water.

Will all the new residents love Florida to death?

Virginia Haley, president of the Sarasota Convention & Visitors Bureau for the last 22 years, said visitors who have become residents have told her the reasons for their move to Southwest Florida range from the environment to good schools to shorter commutes to the arts. The ocean, the beaches, and the sunshine are givens, she said, as is a steady supply of water.

“Visitors to Florida, and new residents, assume there is no problem with water,” Haley said. “There has always just been the assumption about the availability of drinking water, that it is going to be there.”

But are we really going to be able to find enough drinking water to keep up with our growing population?

Water management

Southwest Florida has an interconnected cadre of professional water managers at every level of government, longstanding plans for region-wide sharing of drinking water, and independent consultants with decades of experience routinely brought in to review it all.

Water allocation in the state is complicated by the competing needs of residents, agriculture, government, businesses, the environment, and the community as a whole. And conservation measures are key along the way.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection is the lead water agency in Florida, but by no means the only one with all the answers. The DEP is assisted by the state Department of Health, the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission, the Florida Public Service Commission as well as the federal EPA and Army Corps of Engineers.

Most visible to the public is perhaps Florida’s five water management districts, which assist the DEP in coordinating everything to do with the state’s water quality and quantity, as well as serving as an axis for the other federal, state, local, private and community organizations involved in ensuring residents’ water needs are met for the foreseeable future.

The South Florida Water Management District is the oldest and largest of the five, and it manages water resources in a 16-county area including Lee, Collier, Hendry, Desoto, Highlands, and Okeechobee counties.

“Water managers throughout Florida rely on each other at all levels of government, academia, outside scientists as well as the data itself in terms of rainfall,” said Mark Elsner, chief of the district’s water supply bureau. “It's just this big complex web of smart people in all these disciplines that are working together in this network that's over South Florida. They do pretty good job.”

Mark Elsner of the South Florida Water Management District

Key, however, is the more than 50 inches of rain that falls on Florida annually and refreshes groundwater supplies, water that along with conservation measures allows all those people to divvy up the supply.

“We always say that we don't want to take our foot off the accelerator here in the way of conservation, too,” he said. “Conservation should be part of everyday life.”

Elsner believes that with all the rain that falls on Florida, the oversight, and conservation measures on the city and county levels will provide enough water and other natural resources to all the new residents moving here before a slowdown in migration is expected to occur in the years to come.

Some current residents are a bit more skeptical.

Water fears abound

A straw poll conducted by WGCU News on the popular neighbor-to-neighbor social media site Nextdoor during the week of Aug. 26 to Sept. 2 asked: “Are you concerned about future residential water supplies given that so many people move into South Florida every day?”

The unscientific opinion poll with an unknown margin of error, discovered 100% of the nearly three dozen respondents had at least some degree of concern that there will be too much stress put on drinking water supplies by future residents and the homes and business that will be built to cater to them.

Out of 33 respondents in northern Sarasota County, 67% chose “very much so,” 18% chose “somewhat” and 15% chose “not really.” Nobody chose the fourth answer, “very much no.”

All the water in the world

Fears abound that so many people will move into South Florida that water will somehow “run out,” but truth is, there is the same amount of water on the Earth, today, as there was when the planet was formed. Most of it, then and now, is undrinkable.

Nearly 97% of the world’s water is too salty. Another 2.5% is locked thick in the deep, blue ice of glaciers. Or somewhere else unavailable: too deep, or too polluted.

That leaves less than 1% of the Earth’s fresh water available for humanity. In that fraction of one percent is where billions of us find enough water to drink when clean, to ski on when frozen, and to swim in when warm.

Our planet provides enough H2O to make water balloons at every child’s birthday party, to water every farmed field, and to use making concrete to create big cities worldwide.

That’s because there are 326 million trillion gallons of water on Earth, a number so massive it’s impossible to grasp.

No less inconceivable is the percentage of the total that is fresh and available: .05%.

That tiny percentage – of a really, really big number - means there is an average of 2.2 million gallons of fresh water for every human being on the planet, every day, as water moves through the never-ending hydrological cycle.

Water molecules, like calories, don’t go away. They just transform. Over and over, again and again.

They keep coming

The counties in Southwest Florida proper – Sarasota, Charlotte, Lee, and Collier – are among the fastest growing area in terms of population nationwide during the last decade.

Lee County’s population increase of 21.5% to 1.4 million people since 2010 makes it the second-fastest growing county in the nation, according to the Census Bureau. Fort Myers, with 92,205 residents, is the sixth fastest-growing city in the nation with a 7.9% increase from last year. And Cape Coral, the city with the most miles of canals of any place in the world, already has 201,952 residents and is growing by more than 3% per year.

Throughout the region are museums, historical sights, preserves, theaters, symphonies, and water parks for people and for dogs

The state’s population in 2000 was 16 million, this year it’s 22 million.

Yet the cost of gas, food and housing are all rising. This year’s rental market is a mirror image of last year’s homebuying frenzy, with landlords receiving dozens and in some cases hundreds of queries as soon as properties are listed.

The rental market in Fort Myers is so lucrative that more homes are occupied by tenants than owners according to RentCafe, a national apartment listing service. The average rent in Fort Myers is $1,928 for a 990-square-foot residence. In Cape Coral rents average $1,976, while Bonita Springs and Estero both top $2,100.

The high price of paradise may keep some away, but hundreds still come.

In some places the strain of an ever-increasing population is easy to see. Schools have been overcrowded for years. Southwest Florida’s roadways become near-parking lots when the winter residents settle in around Halloween. Churches, beaches, restaurants, and malls are packed.

Arguably harder to recognize is how more and more residents impact the environment. Easy to see are the homes and businesses that must be built to house and provide for more people, building on top of wide-open spaces used by a host of animals and plants with important roles to play in Florida’s ecosystem.

Often those complaining about new subdivisions being built next door on sensitive lands don’t stop to think that their houses were, too.

Harder to notice is the additional power that must be generated. The acres more of food that must be fertilized. The combined tons of animal waste, lawn fertilizer, oils and bits of rubber and plastic from vehicles that are washed from subdivisions new and old into the bays and backwaters polluting fragile marine ecosystems.

The water cycle

Florida has 10,550 miles of rivers, 7,700 lakes, and more than 1,000 freshwater springs – each major sources of drinking water throughout the state.

More than three billion gallons of water are used every day in Central and South Florida, a staggering amount of anything.

Three billion seconds takes 95 years to happen.

To save $3 billion at $100 a day it would take 82,191 years. It would take more than 285 years to count to three billion. Someone earning $45,000 a year, who did not spend a penny on anything, would need 66,000 years to amass $3 billion dollars.

Thankfully, Florida’s water cycle moves far more quickly.

Drilling for water

Most of the water used, in all the ways we use it, gets back into the ground and percolates down in relative short order. The soil, rocks and other components of the planet cleanse that water as it re-enters the various underground water sources, ready to be pumped out again.

At the same time, water conservation measures - repairing household leaks, taking shorter showers, closing faucets whenever possible, installing low-flow appliances, lawn-watering restrictions – are all key to Florida’s water management efforts.

The municipalities and communities in the region use varying water sources, from groundwater to fresh water just below the surface, to wells that tap the Floridian Aquifer at more than 800 feet deep.

The easiest water supply is fresh groundwater, whether from a lake, river, or upwelling from a spring. But to keep the environment in balance only so much water can be taken from the surface. So they go deeper.

Water layers underneath the surface in South Florida
Water layers underneath the surface in South Florida

The surficial aquifer system, which is a supply of fresh water roughly 200 feet down, is next to be tapped but there, too, only so much water can be pulled for environmental reasons. Below that, at about 300 feet, is a sandstone aquifer system, and even deeper the water supply comes from the top layers of the Floridian Aquifer some 500 to 800 feet deep.

The farther down the water the more brackish it becomes, so those taking water from there must treat it to remove the salts and other contaminants, which is still much cheaper than treating full-on saltwater.

The water management districts re-evaluate their region’s entire water management plan every five years to ensure the system in the future will continue to provide the water needed for the population to come.

“Little minor things are always going to occur, but the big supply issues are well planned,” said Tom Missimer, executive in residence and professor at the Florida Gulf Coast University’s U.A. Whitaker College of Engineering. “There is always infighting, and some individual communities haven’t done their work, but people generally work together, and the South Florida Water Management District is a very professional organization.”

Missimer, a hydrologist and groundwater expert who has also been a water systems consultant for decades around the world, said Lee and Collier county’s diversity of water supplies are impressive, and Cape Coral’s plants to remove salts from brackish water are among the largest in the nation.

“The public water quality supply has been taken care of,” Missimer said. “Compared to California we are doing well.”

Florida Gulf Coast University ground water management expert and professor Tom Missinger
Florida Gulf Coast University ground water management expert and professor Tom Missinger

Several years ago, the Everglades Foundation announced the hiring of a score of environmental heavyweights to further its mission of restoring the River of Grass as much as possible and ensuring the slow flow of clean, drinkable water throughout the basin remains available to all.

“The hiring of these exceptionally experienced, sought-after professionals underscores our commitment to saving the Everglades and, hence, preserving clean drinking water for nearly 8 million (now 9 million) Floridians,” Eric Eikenberg, the foundation’s CEO said in a news release. “Florida’s future depends on clean water.”

Environmental reporting for WGCU is funded in part by VoLo Foundation, a non-profit with a mission to accelerate change and global impact by supporting science-based climate solutions, enhancing education, and improving health. 

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This story is in response to the WGCU Asks You audience engagement initiative. Because your questions about our community matter to us. WGCU is your trusted source for news and information in Southwest Florida. We are a nonprofit public service, and your support is more critical than ever. Keep public media strong and donate now. Thank you.