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Lee Arnold. Fred Bullard. Bill Frederick. Gary Morse. Whit Palmer. Darryl Sharpton. Leo Vecellio.

Heard of ’em? Probably not. But observers of a plan to drain millions of gallons of water a day from the St. Johns River believe these guys are the ones driving state water policy. As part of the Florida Council of 100 – a group of CEOs that advises lawmakers “on key Florida issues from a business perspective,” their power is as expansive as their name is creepy. They, along with other members of the organization’s “Water Management Task Force,” released a report in September 2003 that pitched the idea of sending North Florida water downstate to areas growing (even more) unsustainably. Thankfully, the idea was broadly derided, hit with a shovel and buried.

Or so it seemed, but the idea hasn’t merely survived. It’s currently being studied, coordinated and effectively endorsed by the St. Johns River Water Management District. That’s right: The government agency charged with managing the region’s water supply has given its blessing to an $800 million to $1.2 billion plan – half funded by the state – to drain Northeast Florida’s chief natural resource for the benefit of Central Florida developers. Worse yet, according to a growing chorus of opponents, the district is doing so without having made an earnest effort to promote water conservation.

District officials deny that removing 155 million gallons daily from the St. Johns between its headwaters in Indian River County and DeLand (not to mention another 107 million or so from one of its tributaries, the Ocklawaha River) will impact the health of the waterway. The agency is presently creating computer models and conducting studies to back up that position, insisting the plan is only “being considered” and promising the agency won’t permit any undertaking that hurts the river.

But local environmental watchdogs say the plan is already a done deal, and that it will devastate the river’s complex and fragile ecosystems. The result, they say, will be nothing short of a biological, economic and recreational disaster.

Northeast Florida lawmakers – even those who’ve fought for the St. Johns in the recent past – are strangely silent on the issue. Meanwhile, the prospect of a new water source to exploit has Central Florida communities and their respective utility companies scrambling to get in on the ground floor.

“It’s like a feeding frenzy,” says St. Johns Riverkeeper Neil Armingeon. “Who in the hell ever thought you’d see towns fighting over water?”

Why conserve?

As a respected marine biologist and dean of Jacksonville University’s College of Arts and Sciences, Quinton White often lends a voice of moderation to local environmental issues. He has quietly advocated for better protection of manatees. He has gently pushed for tougher pollutant monitoring. But his position on the proposed withdrawal marks a dramatic departure. He predicts it will devastate the St. Johns.

“I think it’s going to have catastrophic impacts on the river,” he says. “I think it’s going to impact the river in ways we haven’t thought of yet.”

The river’s ability to flush itself of junk like fertilizer, leaked sewage and other pollutants will be reduced, says White, giving the already excessive levels of pollution a new intensity.

Dubbed one of the world’s laziest rivers, the north-flowing St. Johns is famously slow-moving, taking up to two months to push water from Palatka to Jacksonville. Once its flow is reduced by 4.9 percent – which will happen under the withdrawal plan, according to the Water Management District’s own estimates – the river will have an even more difficult time expelling pollution. Compounding the problem is that the district has proposed sucking out even larger quantities of water during times of peak flow (after rainfall, for instance), a process known as “scalping.” Times of peak flow are especially crucial to the river’s ability to maintain its own health, says White, meaning that the scalping will only compound the impact of the withdrawal.

Another concern is that the utilities receiving the St. Johns’ water will have to treat it through reverse osmosis, and will likely discharge the byproduct – loaded with river-damaging nutrient pollution – back into the river.

Additionally, as the St. Johns’ flow is reduced, saltwater from the ocean will creep farther from the river’s mouth to its southern reaches, pushing the salinity line farther upstream. In southern Duval County and northern St. Johns and Clay counties, where the water is more fresh than not, additional salt will kill the river’s submerged grass beds, which provide critical habitat for shrimp, crabs and other marine life, says White. As for the two most common types of river vegetation – salt marsh cordgrass, which is light green, and the darker-pigmented black needlerush – White predicts a “dramatic shift” visible to even the casual observer, as the latter species dies off and is replaced by the former around the mouth of the river.

The increased salinity will mean less recreational fishing, White says, which will have far-reaching economic impacts. And as the river grows less capable of flushing out sedimentation, the Jacksonville Port Authority will need to deepen the river channel through more, and more frequent, dredging. Says White, “It’s going to have economic consequences for the people of Northeast Florida.”

Asked how the water withdrawal plan will impact the river, the St. Johns River Water Management District’s logic seems circular at best. Officials point to the agency’s obligation to follow state laws that prohibit issuing permits that damage natural resources. In other words, because the agency is forbidden to hurt the river, this proposal couldn’t possibly hurt the river.

“I have no reluctance to say, no, it’s not going to hurt the river,” says Barbara Vergara, director of the district’s Water Supply Management Division.

White says the Water Management District is “minimizing” potential problems. Others contend that the agency’s complicity in the withdrawal plan is especially egregious in light of its paltry push for water conservation – mostly limited to the marginally effective “Think Two” campaign, which urges homeowners to curb lawn hydrating practices. (The program is at best a suggestion; it provides no mechanism for enforcement. According to Riverkeeper executive director Jimmy Orth, the first three times a resident is reported for unlawful irrigation, the district merely mails out a brochure on water conservation, without explaining why it’s being sent. After a fourth report, the district sometimes contacts the homeowner.) Furthermore, none of the counties that are slated to receive water siphoned from the St. Johns has a meaningful conservation program in place. Volusia County is the only one with any mandatory program at all.

“The Water Management District doesn’t want to sully their hands with [promoting conservation],” says Armingeon. “They’d prefer to destroy the St. Johns River because it’s easier.”

Armingeon is one of many who find dubious the similarities between district’s plan and the Council of 100’s report from 2003. Vergara denies any connection, saying the district had been exploring the idea before that report. “It [just] happens that that came about during the same time frame we were working on this.”

While the district insists that conservation alone isn’t enough to fix the problem, the Riverkeeper says the river-sucking proposal is being driven by development interests as “a way for [municipalities] to continue to grow in a way that’s unsustainable.” Even with the St. Johns River water, some Central and Northeast Florida regions will have to turn to desalinated water as soon as 2025. The Water Management District concedes the withdrawal plan is only a band-aid for our out-of-control water-use patterns. “But nobody wants to talk about that,” Armingeon says.

Wait and see

It’s not clear if the withdrawal plan is legal under the “local sources first” component of Florida Water Law. Adopted by the Florida Legislature 11 years ago, the law mandates that before one municipality attempts to plunder another’s water supply, it must exhaust “all economically and technically feasible alternatives,” including conservation and desalination. The Water Management District has previously claimed that the law applies only to
groundwater, not surface water like lakes and rivers. The original language of the law seemed to dispute that, defining protected waters as “any and all on or beneath the surface.” But legislation quietly passed in 2005 may have undermined the original law’s intent, limiting the definition to groundwater. Vergara says that “the local sources first consideration will be looked at by the [district’s] governing board.”

It’s an issue that is going to determine district policy around the region. Besides tapping the St. Johns for 155 million gallons a day, the St. Johns River Water Management District is proposing draining 107 million gallons a day from the Ocklawaha River, and two weeks ago announced it wants to suck 43 million gallons from the Withlacoochee River in Citrus County.

The fact that these proposals are coming from an agency tasked with protecting state waters highlights the district’s awkward regulatory position. For that reason, Water Management District critics have reason to doubt the agency’s data. Armingeon contends the agency’s reports are not the stuff of good science, but rather good public relations. He describes them as “paid for by the district to give them rationalization,” and “internally developed and handed out as fact.” (Riverkeeper plans to coordinate its own studies.)

Additionally, according to Orth, the district’s modeling regarding the withdrawal plan doesn’t include key pollution sources – like Georgia-Pacific’s plan to stick a new discharge pipe into the center of the St. Johns, or the future dredging of the river. (Vergara claims the district’s models can include those variables if they choose, and that District executive director Kirby Green has recently ordered staff to expand its research regarding the plan.)

District officials say the siphoning won’t move ahead until all questions are answered, and they insist the deal isn’t done. But the district is simultaneously urging the more than 40 interested utilities to apply for some $40 million in project assistance available to build the infrastructure needed to move water from the St. Johns to Central Florida taps. Asked about the timeline of the project, Vergara says ideally, the “project partners” will be “firmed up” by the end of this calendar year. The partners would commit funds for preliminary design work over the following two years, and the projects would be up and running by 2013, the year Central Florida growth is expected to outstrip existing drinking water supplies.

Northeast Florida officials aren’t saying much in defense of the St. Johns. Even purported river advocates – the same people who stood on a rented barge in the river last year and pledged millions in funding as part of the River Accord – aren’t making a peep about the prospect of plunder.

Jacksonville Mayor John Peyton says he’s waiting until the Water Management District releases additional studies in the fall of 2008 to take a stance. “I prefer to see the results of the work the District is doing and make a fact-based decision at the time the study results and science are completed,” he wrote in a Sept. 24 e-mail.

Asked if he believes the plan will adversely impact the river, Peyton put his confidence in the District’s judgment: “According to the District, they WILL NOT allow removal of surface water if the study shows adverse impacts.

“I am proud of my record as an advocate for the St. Johns River and commit to the citizens of Duval County that I will vigorously oppose adverse impacts to the St. Johns River,” Peyton concluded. “However, I want to review the science before making a final decision.”

State Sen. Jim King, whose hefty influence has been instrumental in capturing state funds for the river, did not return calls for comment over the course of several days. (King, who urged caution against the withdrawal plan in the recent Riverkeeper documentary Revenge of the River, has since stopped responding to the group’s calls about the issue, according to Riverkeeper.) Jacksonville city council president Daniel Davis – who, as executive director of the Northeast Florida Builders Association, isn’t exactly predisposed to oppose a plan that will facilitate more growth – also didn’t return calls. As for typically pro-river St. Johns County commission chair Ben Rich’s thoughts on the matter, an assistant returned a call only to say, “This is not really a county issue,” before deferring to the Water Management District.

Marion County officials are taking a different approach. Faced with the prospect that the Ocklawaha River will be drained for similar purposes, county commissioners instructed their legal staff to prepare to fight the Water Management District. Prior to the Sept. 12 directive, commission chairman Stan McClain had demanded that counties and utilities seeking to exploit the state’s surface water rein in their consumption – and growth rates – before exploiting Marion’s natural resources. His remarks didn’t resonate. “It was disgusting,” he reflected, according to a Sept. 13 Ocala Star-Banner article.

Officials in Hernando and Citrus counties are also rallying against a St. Johns River Water Management District plan to siphon water. There, the district wants to drain the Withlacoochee River and Lake Rousseau in northern Citrus County, again to service Central Florida. According to the St. Petersburg Times, one Hernando County commissioner said it “will happen over my cold, dead corpse.”

Locally, the only elected official who seems to be standing up against the plan is Duval County Soil and Water Conservation Board member Austin Cassidy, who recently criticized the idea in a letter to local media, calling it “a terrible idea and a short-sighted, band-aid solution.”

Barbara Goodman, superintendent of Jacksonville’s federally protected Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve, has also challenged the proposal. In a Sept. 19 letter to District executive director Green, typed on U.S. Department of the Interior letterhead, Goodman said that withdrawing water from the St. Johns “will have detrimental impacts on the coastal marshes that Timucuan Preserve was created to protect,” wiping out species of plants and animals dependent on freshwater.

“The National Park Service has great concerns” about the project, Goodman asserted, imploring the district to “fully investigate the issue” before proceeding. But the future of the river may have less to do with district research than public pressure. And so far, there has been little pushback from elected officials or local media. The Florida Times-Union covered the withdrawal issue in a Sept. 5 article. But don’t expect the paper’s editorial board to come out against the plan. Back when the Council of 100 pitched the idea, Times-Union publisher Carl Cannon served on the group’s task force.

The big suck is unusual in the fact that it would seem to unite environmentalists and some polluters. Because industries discharge into the river, they need a certain amount of water to dilute their pollution to allowable levels. One might therefore expect large-volume waste dischargers to speak out against the plan. But JEA, the biggest local water polluter, is also deferring to the Water Management District. According to JEA spokeswoman Gerri Boyce, the Jacksonville utility has the “utmost confidence” in the district’s ability to “ensure water quality and maintain downstream minimum flows” when authorizing the use of surface water as an alternate water supply.

Of course, JEA relies on district-issued permits to pump the Floridan Aquifer, which has so far been an abundant source of income for the utility. Boyce says that JEA has considered using water from the St. Johns to help meet Northeast Florida’s needs, but that because of the salinity of the water in the local portion of the river, “aggressive conservation programs coupled with aggressive reuse projects” have made for a better solution. However, “in other regions, other supply options may make sense,” Boyce says. “Accordingly, we support the [district] in their efforts to balance the environmental sustainability issues associated with protecting our Floridan Aquifer and the St. Johns River.”

Bad track record

Mankind doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to attempting to reconfigure nature, especially water sources. There’s the well-documented Salton Sea disaster of 1905, in which a fetid lake in Southern California was accidentally created during a poorly engineered irrigation project. Construction of the Three Gorges Dam in 2003 in China displaced 1.13 million residents and is expected to push multiple endangered species to extinction.

Closer to home, the destruction and hamstrung rehabilitation of the Everglades and Lake Okeechobee have shown that manipulation of natural resources is futile at best, tragic at worst. If predictions from local scientists hold true, the St. Johns might be added to the list of bodies of water wrecked by Florida’s appetite for unbridled growth.

The St. Johns River Water Management District has hardly inspired confidence in its withdrawal plan, says Orth, considering that it has overseen the depletion and gradual degradation of the Floridan Aquifer, one of the world’s largest groundwater supplies. “Why should we trust them with our river if we can’t trust them with our groundwater?” he wonders.

But once pipes are laid and water treatment plants erected, there’s virtually no chance that utilities and their customers will cut back on water use, even if the St. Johns is harmed. Says White, “Once you start, it’s going to be one, hard to police, and two, hard to shut off the valve. I see more and more water getting pulled out of the river once this starts.”

The Riverkeeper concurs. “This is one of the most significant threats to the future of the river. Everybody in the community should be concerned about this process,” says Armingeon. “Once this starts, it’s not going to stop.”

A version of this story appeared originally in Jacksonville’s Folio Weekly.

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