Florida's Thirst for Water Pressuring Wild River, Exper

Stefan Lovgren in Lake City, Florida
for National Geographic News
November 21, 2006
In water-starved Florida, the Suwannee River is a treasure more precious than gold.

So far the river, which winds its way for more than 200 miles (320 kilometers) through northern Florida, has washed away every attempt to stem it.

(See an interactive map of the Suwannee River.)

Without any dams, it is the only undisturbed major river system in the southeastern United States.

But Florida's explosive population growth—and the unquenchable thirst that comes with it—has some wondering how long the Suwannee can keep flowing at its current levels.

"It's kind of an oasis that's now surrounded by extensive development on all sides," said Brian Katz, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Tallahassee.

According to Kirk Webster, the deputy director of the Suwannee River Water Management District in Live Oak, the local population is expected to increase by nearly 65 percent, from 282,000 in 2000 to 462,000 in 2020.

"The thing that has contributed to the preservation of the Suwannee River more than anything else has been a lack of population," Webster said.

"But that's changing, and we're now starting to see the effects of this increased population."

The region's water problem has also recently been compounded by drought, which prompted officials last week to issue a water shortage advisory for the Suwannee. Water managers are calling on all users, from homeowners to farmers, to reduce their water consumption.

Tampa and St. Petersburg

The demand for Suwannee's water extends far beyond the Suwannee itself.

"The Suwannee is particularly vulnerable to water withdrawal for St. Petersburg," Katz, the USGS scientist, said.

Situated 160 driving miles (260 kilometers) south of where the Suwannee reaches the Gulf of Mexico, the Tampa-St. Petersburg metropolitan area is home to more than 2.5 million people. (See Florida map.)

That area has depleted its groundwater supplies and must now find new water sources.

"There's already talk about sending water from north Florida to the Tampa area and south Florida," Katz said.

"I worry about the possibility of water being extracted from the Suwannee Basin and ending up in other parts of Florida."

So far the Suwannee has been able to keep its thirsty neighbors at bay.

In southwestern Florida, the water district is reportedly spending more than a billion U.S. dollars to come up with ways to meet the growing demand, including desalinizing ocean water.

Webster, the Suwannee water manager, says constructing a pipeline for water to be transferred from the Suwannee to southern Florida would be economically and environmentally unfeasible.

"Hopefully desalinization and other methods will eliminate the need for having to pipe water from north Florida to some other place in Florida," he said.

Environmental Health

In addition to dealing with pressures like Tampa's growing demand and this year's drought, perhaps the most important function of the Suwannee water district is looking after the environmental health of the river.

Much of this involves setting minimum flows and levels (known as MFLs) for the Suwannee.

"The MFLs are intended to protect the health and ecological integrity of the river," Webster said.

MFLs are established to protect the water resources from significant ecological harm caused by water being withdrawn from the river. Flow levels are developed using data ranging from weather reports to historical drought and flood records.

"The way we do them is we evaluate the things that need to be protected—it might be manatees, it might be submerged aquatic vegetation, or it might be fish passage—to make sure that no significant harm is done to certain species."

Yet another concern is the mounting pollution caused by the region's burgeoning population.

More development—with more people moving into nearby towns like Lake City and Live Oak—can translate into increased pollution runoff into the river.

Water managers are particularly concerned about runoff from the septic tanks used in homes.

"When you're in an area that has experienced slow growth for decades to all of a sudden see this accelerated growth, it brings a lot of challenges for local governments and the water management district to put in place rules and regulations to deal with this large influx of people," Webster said.

"It's straining things, there's no doubt about it."

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