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Turning Oceans into Tap Water
Page 2

Only 3 percent of the earth's water is fresh, and more than two-thirds of that is bound up in glaciers and ice caps, rock-hard and beyond reach. This leaves less than 1 percent of the planet's water available for drinking and washing and mixing with bourbon, and that meager amount is not evenly distributed.

On the face of it, the Tampa Bay region would seem to have an abundance of aqueous resources. Buried among the layers of sedimentary rock beneath Florida and its continental shelf lies an ancient bubble of freshwater, the Floridan Aquifer, one of the largest in the world. Like the state, the aquifer is bounded on three sides by salt water. The layered rocks hold roughly two quadrillion (that's 2,000,000,000,000,000) gallons of water. To this hefty amount add 50,000 miles of rivers and streams, nearly 8,000 lakes and ponds, and 600 springs, some so large they become navigable rivers when they reach the surface. All this water sits on, or under, or slices through, more than three million acres of wetlands. When compared to other Sun Belt states, Florida appears submerged in good fortune. The question arises, then: Why are the 11 well fields that serve the greater Tampa Bay area running out of water?

One reason is that groundwater does not behave like surface water. Wells take longer than lakes to recharge, and the lower pressure created by depleted wells pulls surface water downward. The more water drawn out of a well field, the deeper and wider the zone of lower pressure, and the more surface water fills the void. As surface water drains away, wetlands dry out, and even though particular localities sit atop a subterranean sea of freshwater, they may suffer a dramatic loss.

Prior to the passage of the state's 1972 Water Resources Act, which established five regional water management districts within the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, anyone could drill anywhere. After 1972, the water management districts began to issue consumptive use permits. Twenty years later, when Pinellas County's groundwater permits expired and Pasco County balked at having them renewed, the crisis moved from the faucets to the courts, eating up millions of dollars in legal fees.

Photo of Tampa Bay's desalination plantIn 1997, after a lengthy and contentious review process, the Southwest Florida Water Management District agreed to cofund a search for new supplies of freshwater for the Tampa Bay area. In an effort to alleviate Pasco County's water shortage, the water management district agreed to scale back pumping of the well fields. The goal was to reduce the level of pumping by more than half -- from 192 million gallons a day (mgd) in 1996 to an eventual low of 90 mgd by 2008. This reduction, hydrologists hoped, would be enough to restore the health of the aquifer. By 1998, continued water shortages forced the governments of Hillsborough County, Pasco County, Pinellas County, St. Petersburg, New Port Richey, and Tampa to try something new. They decided to commission the construction of what would be the largest desalination plant in the country.

More Sky and Trees, Less Steel and Wire
Bush Science
The Salamander Man
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Photo: Brian Smith
Map: Steve Stankiewicz
Illustration: Colin Hayes

OnEarth. Summer 2004
Copyright 2004 by the Natural Resources Defense Council