Protecting Florida's Water Supply

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Image of Green algae grows in Fanning Springs, which has the highest nitrogen levels of any of the state's largest springs. Excess nitrate from agricultural fertilizers, wastewater treatment and septic systems continues to contaminate ground water in the watershed.
Green algae grows in Fanning Springs, which has the highest nitrogen levels of any of the state's largest springs. Excess nitrate from agricultural fertilizers, wastewater treatment and septic systems continues to contaminate ground water in the watershed. Russell Sparkman

Video Transcript

Florida's aquifer - the source of drinking water and water flowing from its springs - is vulverable to overuse, pollution and drought. Protecting the aquifer is one of DEP's highest priorities.

Jon Arthur – Florida Geological Survey: Here we are at lake jackson, which is a lake on the order of maybe 4000 acres. Right now, we're staring at it and it's a prairie as opposed to a lake

Narrator: That's Jon Arthur of Florida's Geological Survey; he's exploring the dry lakebed and former home of lunker bass with Richard Drew of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection's Water Resources Management division.

I have a pick I pulled out of my car because we need to make our way down into the sinkhole and show where the water is flowing into the sink.

Yeah, this is a great view. Yeah, come around I'll pull the weeds back for you.

Lake Jackson has drained into a sinkhole which feeds into the Floridan aquifer system. Along the margins of this lake you see homes, some of which are quite beautiful. They have docks, and I'm sure they're not happy about having to mow around their docks.

Narrator: This fickle lake may confound those who live on its waterfront. But such is the way of water here in Florida. The interaction between surface water and groundwater is dynamic. Lake Jackson has filled and, like an unplugged bathtub, drained many times before into the aquifer via sinkholes.

Jon Arthur: The surface water that runs into this sinkhole is a perfect example of a vulnerable point of the aquifer system. We get about 90 percent of our drinking water in Florida from the aquifer and areas where surface water runs into the aquifer without any kind of natural filtration that is a very vulnerable point, because any contaminants in that surface water are also going into our drinking water.

Narrator: Lake Jackson shows us that the connection between surface water and groundwater is closer than people think. Pollutants on the ground's surface sometimes rapidly infiltrate Florida's shallow aquifer. This is particularly evident in Wakulla County just 10 miles south of Lake Jackson. Here "windows" into the aquifer dot the landscape and one can literally dive into the aquifer. However, the effects of groundwater pollution are evident in places like Wakulla Spring. The once crystal clear water is now darkened by green algae fueled by nitrates, a byproduct of wastewater treatment, septic systems and fertilizers used on lawns and in agriculture.

Jon Arthur: We have between 800 and 1000 people moving to Florida every day, depending on the economy. And, also depending on the economy things grow. We see condominiums and apartments and storm water ponds springing up all over the place and knowing where the aquifer is more or less vulnerable helps us make some smart decisions about where to allow these places to be developed. Where do you want to put your pipeline, where do you want to put a landfill? What neighborhood should be on septic versus sewer? All of these things hinge on the vulnerability of the aquifer system because ultimately, we want to protect that resource.

Narrator: Protecting the aquifer from pollution is only half the battle, because even in water-rich Florida the groundwater supply is stressed, particulary during periods of drought. More than six point five billion gallons of water are used daily and most of it is water withdrawn from the aquifer.

Richard Drew, Florida Department of Environmental Protection:
What we're trying to do, working with the water management districts is to come up with ways to provide, well, better use the water and maybe provide other sources of water that will be able to feed that population as it increases over the next period of time.

Narrator: The best single step, everyone agrees, is conservation. It's been estimated that half of the groundwater being used could be saved simply through conservation.

Richard Drew: In the last 5 or so years, the state has really put a lot of emphasis in conservation, particularly in those areas where we have the populations. And, it reaped a benefit. We have seen diminished water use per capita.

Narrator: Florida DEP and water managers have pursued many solutions to augment the groundwater supply including reclaiming and reusing treated wastewater.

Richard Drew: When we have water come into a sewage treatment plant, we treat it, treat it to a high level and then we have re-use, which is basically taking that wastewater and instead of disposing of it in a stream or river and having it go to tide, going to the ocean. What we're doing is we're trying to put it back on crops, put it back on golf courses. Use it in areas that would typically be drawing water from the aquifer.

Narrator: Drew adds DEP is working to protect groundwater by encouraging communities to diversify their water supply sources. The Tampa Bay region, which has a history of overuse of its groundwater resources, is now what many consider to be ground zero for water supply protection. The counties and cities surrounding Tampa Bay are part of a regional water delivery system that uses a mix of ground water, aquifer storage and recovery, surface water resevoirs and now ...desalinated water.

Chuck Carden, Tampa Bay Water: And here we are, this is what they call the headworks of the plant like I said those pines under the ground where we were that water's coming up into the plant for the first time.

Narrator: That's Chuck Carden of Tampa Bay Water, which supplies drinking water to two point six million people. At the Tampa Bay Seawater Desalination Plant - now the nation's largest --17-thousand gallons of seawater is turned into drinking water every 60 seconds.

Chuck Carden: Basically the water in here will clump with the chemicals gets real heavy and it settles to the bottom of these basins, these big swimming pools.

Narrator: First, there's a series of mechanical and chemical processes during which sediments and contaminants are filtered out. Then, the sea water ends up in the plant's inner sanctum.

Chuck Carden: This is where the salt is removed. Up until this point, that water looked pretty good, but it still had the salt in it until it gets here.

Narrator: In the reverse osmosis building the water is forced at high pressure through fine membranes that trap salt.

Chuck Carden: Once we take it through the membranes it strips out everything in that water, minerals, everything, salt. It's the purest state of water, but it really doesn't have a taste to it at that point. It's got no taste. It's just wet.

Narrator: The final step of the process is adding minerals and other ingredients back in so that the desalinized water tastes... well... like water.

Chuck Carden: This morning, water that was out there, and manatees were swimming in, came into our plant and one hour later, it's in that tank, ready to be drank.

Narrator: From there, the desalinated water travels north through a 14-mile pipeline and is blended with treated water from rivers and with groundwater before being distributed to customers. It's a complex journey -- one that is ensuring a reliable water supply for the Tampa Bay region while also taking the pressure off of the region's groundwater supply.

Chuck Carden: The way I think of it is there's not just one silver bullet out there that's going to save you. It's a combination of different types like we've done here; a desal plant, a surface water system and a groundwater system, all three make it work.

Related Links

DEP's Groundwater Program

DEP Sourcewater Assessment and Protection Program

Florida Aquifer Vulnerability Assessment (FGS)

Florida's Springs: Protecting Nature's Gems