During the next half century, urban sprawl across Florida could double the water consumption of cities and suburbs, according to a new study released Tuesday.
It’s a thirst the state will be hard pressed to quench without putting natural resources at risk or making big improvements in conservation, water reuse technology and landscaping practices.
“We’re concerned the future looks very dark for water in Florida, but I want to point out we have an array of solutions available to us,” said Cori Hermle, an environmental consultant with the state agriculture department, in a briefing. “It’s implementation of those solutions [that] is vital.”
At the current rate of growth, the state’s population is expected to reach 34 million by 2070. To understand what that means for the state’s fragile water supply, researchers compared urban to rural water consumption and calculated how much green space would be gobbled by development. Because houses and malls drink a lot more water than farms and forests, what they found was eye-opening: A dramatic, and currently unsustainable, demand in the state’s most heavily populated areas, including South and Central Florida.
“If we put this many more straws into the aquifer to remove water, it’s going to increase the stress,” said Margaret “Peggy” Carr, a University of Florida landscape architect.
The study is the second in a partnership between UF, the Florida Department of Agriculture and the smart-growth group 1000 Friends of Florida that looks at the future of Florida as its population swells. In a September report, the group found the state stands to lose 15 percent of its green space to development over the next half century. This report followed up those findings by examining the risk to water supplies, a priceless resource threatened by growing demand, flood-control measures and saltwater intrusion worsened by sea-level rise.
According to the study, development across the state accounts for about 3.1 billion gallons of water used per day. Agriculture consumes another 2.1 billion gallons. The study did not even include water used by mining, industrial or power companies, nor did it factor in the water needed for natural systems like water set aside for Everglades restoration.
Based on a UF study that looked at water use in Alachua County, the team calculated that rural and suburban areas use three times as much water as densely packed urban areas where at least 2,000 people live in a square mile. The team then compared consumption, based on calculation from the U.S. Geological Survey, to changing development.
If the pace and pattern of growth continues across the state, by 2070 consumption by development is expected to increase to about 6.5 billion while agricultural uses will drop to 1.6 billion.
In South Florida, coastal utilities are already taking steps to deal with longtime sources that have been compromised. The city of Hallandale has already moved wellfields to avoid contamination from saltwater and the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority is also considering moving its wellfield farther west. In the region, water demand overall is expected to jump 40 percent, with the thirst of development climbing 107 percent.
In Central Florida, the fastest growing part of the state, overall demand increases 55 percent, with development use climbing by 112 percent and agriculture use dropping by 31 percent.
The team did not have the money or resources to look at how to develop new supplies, a more complicated projection, or to calculate just how much water the state’s aquifers can ultimately provide, Carr said. “It’s not difficult to project rainfall, but other pieces are challenging,” she said. But based on existing shortages, they concluded the rising demand was unsustainable in parts of the state.
Some simple but politically challenging fixes could reduce consumption — more compact development and stricter conservation measures that include changes in building codes to require water-saving features and better reporting by big-water users. But even under an alternative projection water demand still rises 27 percent.
By controlling sprawl, the study found the state could save 1.8 million acres of land from development, protect another 5.8 million acres of conservation land and keep 1.1 million acres in farming. Protecting more green spaces already slated for preservation in the Florida Forever and Florida Ecological Greenways Network, which help store and clean water, could also offset increasing demand.
“The situation does look dire, but I take good hope in the fact that there’s relatively simple things we can do as Floridians to dig us out of this hole,” said Ryan Smart, president of 1000 Friends of Florida. But, he added, “take much more commitment from the legislature and proactive government action.”
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