As West Volusia’s cities continue to grow, at what point does the right to fresh, affordable water butt up against the right of landowners to develop their property? Is there enough water for everyone?
There is enough water, but when it comes to clean, affordable water, Gabrielle Milch is concerned.
“I’m not sure we’re going to run out of water. I think we’re going to run out of good quality, cheap water,” Milch said. “I think we’re kind of shortsighted sometimes.”
Milch is the Middle Basin Advocacy Coordinator with the St. Johns Riverkeeper. She’s a jack-of-all-trades when it comes to water; she has worked in advocacy, with the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, and with the St. Johns River Water Management District, among other experiences that have given her insight into the future of our water supply.
Milch said her concern is not necessarily about adding more people to the area, but about adding them without first putting in place conservation-minded policies about how we use our natural resources.
The easiest and cheapest way to get water is to pull it directly from the enormous Floridan aquifer under our feet. We’ve already built the infrastructure for doing this, and the water is fresh and doesn’t require expensive treatment.
As long as the amounts we’re drawing out allow the aquifer to be recharged at a sustainable rate, there’s plenty to go around.
But what if the population continues to spike, and we start drawing too much water from the aquifer?
DeLand — 4.96 million gallons
Deltona — 6.25 million gallons (7 million in the dry season, or 5.5 million in the wet season)
Orange City — 1.6 million gallons
Lake Helen — 245 thousand gallons.
Pierson — 134,730 gallons (2019-2020)
DeBary — 2.1 million gallons
Note: Some cities gave us exact figures, while others gave us rough estimates. Lake Helen’s number includes Cassadaga.
Watching the springs
Recognizing the possibility that growth and development could eventually overstress the aquifer, the state decided several years ago that the water levels and flow rates of Florida’s natural waters would determine whether too much water was being drawn from underground.
Priority is given to the network of natural springs in Florida. Because the springs connect with the aquifer below, they provide a visual picture of the health of a water supply that is, for the most part, hidden.
After study, minimum flows and levels — now commonly called MFLs — were established for the springs, like Blue Spring in Orange City and DeLeon Spring. The MFLs are now monitored, and guide the St. Johns Water Management District in its decisions about how much aquifer water can be taken out.
Keeping it cheap
“We have plenty of water, it’s just that what we’re using is the cheap water coming out of the aquifer,” environmental activist Clay Henderson explained. “If you go to removal of water from the St. John’s or the Atlantic, it’s absolutely possible, but it’s a lot more expensive.”
Henderson, a former Volusia County Council member and Stetson University staffer, is also concerned about having enough water.
When The Beacon asked him whether West Volusia was developing at a rate too intense for our water supply, he explained that, well, it’s complicated.
“There isn’t anyone that can give you an honest answer to that question. It’s complicated, but it’s also classic Volusia County,” he said. “There are people that will tell you right now that we have a healthy water supply. At the same time, it’s under a tremendous amount of pressure and it changes from year to year because it’s dependent on rainfall. It’s not an infinite supply.”
According to Henderson, things are currently looking good for Volusia County’s waters — from Blue Spring to the St. Johns — but with so many variables, conservation efforts need to be at the forefront of development decisions to keep it that way.
The verdict? Things are going OK, but we’re going to have to work to keep it that way.
There are other options, but they’re pricey.
Cities can pull water from the St. Johns River, but, while it is technically fresh water, the salt content is too much to reasonably drink. Salty water needs to be desalinated, a process which isn’t cheap.
Water Management District has the permitting power
Volusia County and its cities are keeping an eye on our waters.
Situated along the eastern bank of the St. Johns River, Volusia County is a part of the St. Johns River Water Management District, a regulatory agency focused on protecting water quality for the area.
Want to build a well that pulls from the aquifer under our feet? The Water Management District has the final say.
West Volusia’s cities are permitted by the Water Management District to draw a set amount of water from the ground. But as the number of people in an area increases, what does that mean for the water?
“Water, like any public facility or commodity, requires treatment and distribution, which translates into increasing costs over time,” Volusia County Environmental Management Director Ginger Adair told The Beacon. “Growth alone will not be the driving force for increases in costs of providing potable water.”
Change is coming
To reduce the need for high-cost solutions to a water crisis, Adair said, everyone can do their part to limit water waste.
“Estimates vary, but some sources say that up to 50 percent of residential water use is for irrigation,” she explained. “If this were reduced or eliminated, that could support other household uses or additional residents.”
In 2024, the MFL for Blue Spring is set to shift, and everyone will have to make some changes.
“The [Water Management District] has declared that Volusia Blue Spring is not meeting its target flow, which has negative impacts on the springs ecosystem,” Adair said. “The county (and all utility providers in the springshed) have developed a recovery strategy to increase the flow at the spring vent by decreasing the reliance on groundwater in the springshed.”
The county isn’t just placing the problem at your feet, though. They’re working to keep your water clean, too.
“Efficiency and conservation should be the first alternative, and the county has been focused on this for decades,” Adair said. “Making these changes will require people to modify their behaviors in order to be water-wise.”
DeLand plans new wells, continued use of reclaimed water
DeLand, for instance, is planning to build new wells at the Volusia County Fairgrounds, outside of the recharge area for Blue Springs and DeLeon Spring.
According to City of DeLand Public Services Director Keith Riger, DeLandites shouldn’t have too many water woes.
“The city has planned for many years for growth, and the growth kind of goes in fits and starts,” Riger said. “I think that, overall, the city is in pretty good shape as far as its water, sewer and reclaimed water capability.”
To keep that momentum going, the city plans to continue to bolster its reclaimed water supply so that potable water isn’t wasted on plants that don’t care as much as people do.
Reclaimed water is water that DeLand users have discarded. It’s treated at the wastewater treatment plant, then pumped out to a few areas where it can be used to irrigate landscaping, but not for drinking.
Currently, for example, pipes are in place to take reclaimed water to the Stetson University campus and Victoria Park.
Riger is the czar of DeLand’s water. He explained that not only is drinking water in good shape for the current growth plan, reclaimed water is helping to prevent drinking water from ending up on plants.
But if growth and the demand for irrigation continues, Riger said, there will come a time when the city will need to augment its reclaimed water supply by harvesting stormwater or pulling water from the rivers, for example.
For now, though, the city’s system of recharging the aquifer with reclaimed water and rotating the wells that draw from the aquifer is working. With additional wells built, DeLand will be able to expand that rotation.
Cities help each other, too, with interconnects, which allow, in extraordinary circumstances, one city to pull from another’s water supply. If a hurricane were to disrupt DeLand’s wells, for example, the city can go to Deltona, hat in hand, and request some of their excess water.
‘You can live without your cable TV, but you can’t live without your water.’
Efforts are being made by other entities, too, including Stetson University.
Before retiring in 2019, Henderson headed up the university’s Institute for Water and Environmental Resilience.
To conserve water, the university uses reclaimed water whenever possible, resulting in, Henderson said, “water neutrality.”
“Every gallon of potable water used returns as reclaimed water,” he explained. “It’s a complete loop.”
Using reclaimed water rather than potable water for keeping our lawns green is one way, Henderson said, we can make sure there’s plenty of clean, cheap water available for everyone. After all, Henderson said, our lawns are the biggest users.
“You would never go to the grocery store, buy a case of Zephyrhills water and dump it on your lawn,” he said. “We take this highly treated, chlorinated, sometimes fluorinated, potable water and feed it to our grass.”
Milch recognized that Florida will continue to grow, but there are measures that can be taken to ensure growth has conservation in mind.
“I think I want us to build smarter. Build with low-impact development in mind. If there could be a new citizens handbook to help them understand,” she said. “People come to Florida with all these expectations, like a palm tree in their yard and perfectly manicured grass. That may not be the best thing.”
Low-impact development melds many ideas — from Florida-friendly landscaping, to onsite conservation, and energy efficiency in construction — to create development that is less disruptive to the environment.
Floridians, Milch said, may have to rethink the way they live their lives if we all want to keep living here.
“You can live without your cable TV, but you can’t live without your water,” Milch said. “I’d like to see the development community consider doing things differently so we can all enjoy the future together.”
Volusia County’s Ginger Adair agreed — all of us may have to rethink our relationship with water.
“The key is understanding the absolute value of water and not taking for granted the diminishing supply of low-cost water,” she said. “Understanding the value of conservation actions is important.”
Volusia County is an appealing place to move; according to 1000 Friends of Florida, a nonprofit organization focused on smart growth, the state is set to add 15 million residents by 2070 if trends from 2010 continue. The same report found Central Florida was the state’s fastest growing area.
As West Volusia experiences a high-growth period environmentalists stress that if all residents — new and old alike — want to enjoy all this area has to offer and not pay too much for clean water, they must pay attention and be willing to change.