Getting off the bottle

The President’s Hoot
by Richard H. Baker, Ph.D.
March 2006

During the early 1970s President Nixon visited Pakistan when I was working there for the University of Maryland Medical School. My job for his 36-hour visit was to carry his bottled water labeled “Spring Water from West Virginia” wherever he went. This was before the bottle water addiction of today. At the time, I thought, Wow, it is amazing the president brings his own water with him, and of course, I felt very important being among his Secret Service personnel.

Today, drinking water is increasingly scarce in many parts of Florida. On February 24th, Audubon of Florida reported that Florida’s Department of Community Affairs (DCA) denied nine applications filed by developers to expand Miami-Dade County’s Urban Development Boundary which is akin to Indian River County’s Urban Service Line. They cited water supply concerns, in addition to traffic, school impacts, and inconsistencies with their county’s comprehensive plan in making their decision. The DCA should be applauded for “holding the line” on further sprawl and encroachment into the Everglades.

Good water is becoming scarce in our region as well. Cities to our north in Brevard County have grown beyond their ability to provide new sources of fresh water. Titusville has informed SJRWMD (St. John River Water Management District) that by 2010, it will not have enough water to meet the needs of their projected growth.

What about our county? On March 20th at 7:30 pm at the Vero Beach Community Center, Dr. David Toth and Mr. Bill Osburn, scientists from SJRWMD, will discuss our county’s artesian water source and supply. In 2001, Toth suggested “that Floridan aquifer wells will cease to flow at the Indian River/St. Lucie county border as early as 2015.” Based on hydrology models, in 2005, Toth revised his projection, stating “the Floridan aquifer wells will continue to flow naturally at the county’s border until 2025. However, it should be noted that during drought conditions the natural artesian flow could be marginal.” Furthermore, a drawdown of 19 ft “will lower water levels to below land surface” and “may lead to vertical saltwater upconning in the Floridan aquifer.” Modeling aside, the bottom line is that Indian River County residents now have restrictions placed on watering our lawns by SJRWMD. Also many shallow wells are drying up.

Only 3% of the Earth’s water is fresh, and this has not changed for centuries. However, only 1% is actually available, because 2% is tied up in glaciers and ice. Thus the world recycles this 1% for drinking, hygiene, food production, and industry. Of this 1%, 70% is used for irrigation, 20% for industry, and 10% for residences worldwide.

Water tables are falling on every continent. Unfortunately, according to the Earth Policy Institute, “The world water deficit-historically recent, largely invisible, and growing fast-may be the most underestimated resource issue facing the world today. Because it typically takes the form of aquifer overpumping, the resulting fall in water tables is not visible. Unlike shrinking forests or invading sand dunes, falling water tables cannot be readily photographed. They are often discovered only when wells go dry.” Even with today’s 6.5 billion people, some countries are water deficient from overpumping water from wells. Where is the water coming from for the next 3 billion people expected by 2050 (growing at 80 million a year)?

Yet, many Americans seem to feel secure since they can continue to buy their water in plastic bottles. We are now the world’s leading consumer of bottled water, drinking 26 billion liters in 2004. Bottled water worldwide is estimated to cost $100 billion each year. This water comes from all over the world (but note some comes from our safe healthy tap water!) and costs more than gasoline. Actually the plastic bottles themselves require more than 1.5 million barrels of oil annually, enough to fuel some 100,000 U.S. cars for a year. Moreover, even more oil is needed to transport and produce the water. Eighty-six percent of the U.S. plastic bottles become garbage or litter. The remaining buried bottles can take up to 1,000 years to biodegrade. Forty percent of those recycled are sent abroad, many to China.

Indian River County’s Utility Services plans to drill six new wells to the Floridan aquifer to meet both current and future planned growth. However, this water is also critical for our county’s farmers and rural residents. Even if sufficient water is available from our aquifers for this additional demand, there is real concern about loss of artesian flow and increasing salinity for surrounding well owners. This would be most pronounced during periods of drought and freezes when farmers flood their fields for freeze protection. Other problems would occur when the loss of artesian flow affects rural resident’s wells thereby requiring electrical pumps to pump the water that once flowed naturally. This would be an even greater problem for farmers who are dependant on the positive flow of water to prime their irrigation pumps for freeze protection. Spending money to install new pumps and greater energy costs to run these new pumps to irrigate their crops will put an additional burden on our farmers. If the salt content of the artesian water becomes too high, it will not be suitable for crops and the farmer will have little choice but to cease farming.

Before Indian River County’s Floridan aquifer water is fit to drink, the salt must be removed. A process called Reverse Osmosis or RO does this using special membranes to remove the dissolved salts. These membranes are then cleaned with a surfactant to produce concentrated brine that must be disposed. Yet, there is no present solution for disposal of the resulting brine. Because it has a different kind of salt composition than seawater, the SJRWMD has told the county to stop putting it directly into the Indian River Lagoon. The county has proposed to excavate 22 acres of salt marsh and mangrove swamp for the construction of settling ponds, runnels, and ditches to contain the brine. In addition there were plans to fill an additional .49-acre of salt marsh and mangrove swamp for the construction of related infrastructure. Fortunately, the Army Corps of Engineers and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NOAA) determined this plan would have a substantial adverse impact on essential fish habitat in the Indian River Lagoon. So where is the county going to safely put the brine?

We need to control our county’s population, protect our environment by maintaining the Urban Service Line, and get off the bottle. There is hope- President Nixon signed the Clean Water Act!

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