Restoring the Health of Florida's Waters
From the Keys to the Panhandle, Florida Department of Environmental Protection is working to protect and restore the state's water resources. The costs and challenges are significant and require the support of citizens, local governments, businesses and water managers to implement new strategies that will ensure clean water and healthy ecosystems for generations to come.
Kevin Claridge, Florida Department of Environmental Protection: It started in the beginning of this month when we finally lost water in our karst features, those last areas where it would be ponding up. So, just a slow gradual trend over the last few months; bone dry for a few weeks now.
Narrator: Florida DEP's Kevin Claridge is exploring the main channel of the Upper Peace River - on foot. Along the five-mile stretch in south-central Florida from Bartow to Fort Meade, it's distressingly shallow in some places. In others, it's a series of detached puddles. Here it's nothing more than a dusty, parched path - bone dry.
Kevin Claridge: As always be careful guys there's probably animals lurking here. The water levels are very low right now if non-existent because of the lack of rainfall.
Narrator: Even in the context of an extended drought, it's surprising to see a river gone dry in a state surrounded by water. A state that receives, on average, 40 to 60 inches of rainfall a year, making Florida one of the rainiest places in the U.S.
The problems in the Peace River watershed represent the challenges facing DEP, water managers, local governments and citizens around the state. Challenges that were, in many cases, years in the making.
Eric Livingston, Florida Department of Environmental Protection: Florida was developed historically on a simple philosophy. Ditch it. Drain it. Get rid of that water.
Narrator: As Livingston says, water management for more than a century was driven by the well-meaning desire to prevent flooding and move water off the land to accommodate agriculture, mining and development. While the consequences of these historic practices are particularly evident in places like the Peace River watershed, most communities throughout the state are grappling with diminished groundwater supplies -- a situation that few people would have thought possible just a few decades ago.
Mimi Drew, Florida Department of Environmental Protection: We've only now in the last 10 or 15 years begun to realize that by running all that water off the surface of Florida, not only are you potentially creating water quality problems for the receiving waters, but you are running out a whole lot of fresh water that could and should be used for water supply.
Narrator: While not all watershed problems in Florida are as complicated as those in the upper Peace River basin, nearly half of all of all rivers, streams and lakes in the state are considered "impaired."
Mike Sole, Florida Department of Environmental Protection: Impairment means it doesn't meet the water quality goals that we in the state feel is essential for that water body to be fishable, swimmable.
Narrator: DEP Secretary Mike Sole says that restoring health to the state's estuaries, rivers and lakes is the DEP's top priority. The massive effort will span generations and be costly.
Mike Sole: But that investment is clearly worthwhile when you look at the importance of those watersheds to quality of life and economic vitality of the state of Florida.
Narrator: Florida's multi-billion dollar investment in clean water involves everything from putting the oxbows back in the Kissimmee River as a part of Everglades restoration to experimenting with rooftop gardens in Orlando.
Mimi Drew: We have funded an effort at the University of Central Florida to put in what's called a green roof where basically they've planted vegetation on top of one of their buildings at the University of Central Florida where they capture rainwater. It filters through the plants. It runs off and they hold it in a barrel at the bottom of thte building and they recycle it or use it for irrigation. It's not inexpensive, but in the long run it's cheaper than having to clean up a water body that might get the runoff.
Narrator: As Drew points out, green roofs play an important role in future development and stormwater management plans. The here and now of watershed restoration is figuring out ways to clean up rivers and lakes that for decades have received polluted stormwater runoff. Strategies include retrofitting aging stormwater infrastructure in towns statewide and creating urban stormwater ponds that treat pollutants with some of the same technologies used to clean drinking water. New stormwater treatment requirements are meant to help reduce the flow of polluted stormwater into rivers and estuaries.
Mimi Drew: We need to hold more water longer, and that means more land needs to be given over to stormwater treatment and green space. In a state with high population growth, it may not be the most popular thing in the world, but that's what it is going to come down to.
Chris Ferraro, Florida Department of Environmental Protection: We might need to back up a little.
Narrator: Protecting groundwater and drinking water supply is also a key component of watershed protection. An extended drought along with ever-increasing demands have pushed Florida's aquifers past their limits. Water conservation is key. So is water reuse. Over 200 billion gallons of reclaimed water has been reused, since the project started up in December of 1986. DEP's Chris Ferraro is referring to Water Conserv II where treated wastewater from the Orlando area is stored for agricultural and residential irrigation as well as aquifer recharge. DEP has been at the forefront of helping communities pursue wastewater reuse programs. Florida is a national leader in the reuse of "wastewater," eliminating most wastewater discharge into rivers and bays by reclaiming the water
While DEP and water managers work to protect the water supply and restore the health of rivers and lakes, true watershed protection won't happen unless citizens recognize how they affect water that flows through their communities says Eric Livingston.
Eric Livingston: We all live downstream of somebody and that's because we all live within a watershed. A watershed is that area of land that contributes water to a water body. And it's typically defined by the elevations of the land and which way a drop of water would fall if it fell at any point within that watershed. So, even if you live many miles away from a lake and you're thinking, -- I don't have any impacts on that water body - well, actually, you do.
Narrator: Understanding that personal connection to the watershed is the first step. But DEP Secretary Sole says the next step is making the commitment to change.
Mike Sole: When you recognize that as a part of the community the connectivity that you have to the river, you then recognize the fact that you can make changes in your habits to improve the quality of water in the river. And that's something that we all need to accept, that we are connected to the waters in Florida no matter where you live and the fact that we can take actions to keep those waters in a pristine state is important to all Floridians.