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Water Quantity

In This Section:
Regional Water Supplies | ACF Negotiations | Water Exports

Regional Water Supplies

The Apalachicola River has the biggest flow of any river in Florida. Under the river basin is the massive Floridan aquifer. You would think that the region's water supply is practically limitless.

Alas, this is not so. Both the river and the aquifer are threatened.

Threats to river flows. Much of the Apalachicola’s flow comes from rainfall in the Chattahoochee and Flint river basins in Georgia and Alabama. These two rivers come together just north of the Florida/Georgia line, forming the Apalachicola River. As rainfall in these northern river basins fluctuates from year to year and season to season, so does the Apalachicola's flow. During most winters, the Apalachicola overflows its banks and inundates a floodplain up to 4.5 miles wide. The flow usually slows in the late spring and summer--just when demands for irrigation water are greatest. Water withdrawals for irrigation in the Chattahoochee and Flint basins have a huge effect on the amount of water that gets to the Apalachicola.

Threats to the aquifer. Rainfall in the Apalachicola region, as in the rest of Florida, seesaws between too much and too little. Water recharging the Floridan aquifer comes from rain, which percolates through permeable soils on down into the limestone that forms the aquifer. Blocking this process of percolation by covering permeable soils with impermeable surfaces (such as roads, roofs, and parking lots) forces rainwater to run off into ditches and streams, which carry it, eventually, to the Gulf of Mexico. Such water never gets to the aquifer. So, as more and more roads, houses, shopping centers, and parking lots are built, less and less water finds its way into the aquifer, which is a major source of drinking water in the region.

Water withdrawals from the Floridan aquifer are further constrained in portions of the region. Gulf and Franklin counties lie within the Apalachicola Embayment, where the Floridan aquifer has low transmissivities (a measure of the ease with which water moves through an aquifer) and water quality at depth is poor. Throughout the region, the Gulf of Mexico coastline is a discharge boundary for the Floridan aquifer system. Approaching the coastline, the freshwater portion of the aquifer thins considerably as freshwater is discharged to the Gulf.

Water in the aquifer underlying Gadsden County is limited both in quantity and quality. The Northwest Florida Water Management District has designated the upper basin of Telogia Creek in Gadsden County as a Water Resource Caution Area because irrigation demands have stressed this limited resource. Water Resource Caution Areas are designated throughout the state where water supply problems are already critical or are projected to become so in the next 20 years. State rules require that water conservation measures be put into action in such areas. In the Telogia Creek basin, the District helped to relocate a water line that carries reclaimed water to plant nurseries.

Sprinker Irrigation Sprinkler irrigation of shade tobacco grown under slats (photo courtesy Florida Photographic Archives)
During the heyday of shade tobacco production beginning in the 1920s, as many as 3,000 acres in Gadsden County were irrigated. At first, water was pumped through wooden troughs and directed down each row of plants. Later, overhead sprinklers were used. As much as 3 inches of water were applied each week depending on temperature, rainfall, and soil moisture. Today, irrigation water in Gadsden County is used mainly for tomato production and in plant nurseries.

Water supply planning: Areas of Special Concern designated by the Northwest Florida Water Management District

  • The Port St. Joe area in Gulf County: By 1950, groundwater supplies for the city were depleted because so much had been pumped for the St. Joe Paper Company's mill and associated industries. In 1953, an 18.5-mile-long canal was built between Port St. Joe and the Chipola River. In 1995, the Florida Coast Paper Company used 28 million gallons of water each day from the Chipola River, but these withdrawals dropped precipitously in 1998 when the paper mill closed. Groundwater is still used for public supply, and a modest cone of depression has developed in the aquifer centered on the City of Port St. Joe. (A cone of depression is an area surrounding a well where the underground water level has dropped because of pumping.)

  • Franklin County has historically depended on the Floridan aquifer for water. According to the Northwest Florida Water Management District’s Water Supply Assessment, “Water use in the area has expanded rapidly in recent years and has heightened concerns about resource sustainability in this region.” All of the fresh water for St. George Island has to be pumped over from the mainland. The District foresees the possibility of saltwater intrusion into the aquifer, given the projected increase in development along the coast and continued development of St. George Island.

Adjacent to the Apalachicola basin is Wakulla County. Here, because of the karst terrain, surface water and groundwater are related in intimate and immediate ways. According to the Northwest Florida Water Management District Water Supply Assessment, increased groundwater pumping to supply future increases in population “should be expected to reduce streamflow to the major surface water drains in an amount equal to pumpage...Potentially impacted features include Wakulla Springs and river, the St. Marks River, and Spring Creek.”

Compounding the problem: The Florida Constitution established the water management districts’ power to levy property taxes. The tax rate in the Northwest District is capped at .05 mill, which is 1/20th (5 percent!) of the rate authorized for the state’s four other water management districts. The Northwest Florida Water Management District simply doesn’t have the money to protect the region’s water supplies to the extent that water supplies are protected by the other water management districts.

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ACF Negotiations

The ACF Water Controversy: The fate of the Apalachicola River is up to the Supreme Court

Water wars have been waged in the western United States for many years, but the controversy over who gets what in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) river basin may herald a new era of water wars in the eastern states.

ACF Basin The Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) watershed drains 21,794 square miles in Georgia, Alabama, and Florida. Nearly 90 percent of the watershed is in Georgia and Alabama, and nearly 80 percent of the Apalachicola’s flow originates in these two states. Thus, water use decisions made in Alabama and Georgia have tremendous effects on how much water reaches the Apalachicola, how clean it is, and when it gets here, all factors critical to the health of both the Apalachicola River and the Bay. Upriver uses include irrigation, generation of hydroelectricity, flood control, municipal and industrial water supply, wastewater dilution, navigation, and recreation.

The Apalachicola River is one of the last major free-flowing alluvial rivers in the world. Seasonal inundation of the river floodplain and the coastal marshes flushes organic matter into the highly productive Apalachicola Bay, where it provides a substantial portion of the energy driving the food chain. The river and bay are tuned to fluctuations in river flow between seasons and between years.

In 1946, Congress passed the River and Harbor Act, which authorized the Corps of Engineers to maintain a channel 100 feet wide and 9 feet deep in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint system between Columbus, Georgia, and the city of Apalachicola. The Corps has continued to maintain this channel, although there has recently been increasing controversy about the costs (more than $10 million a year), given that use has dwindled to just a handful of barges. Piling the dredged material from the riverbed along the river bank has seriously damaged river and floodplain habitat.

Bad feelings in the ACF basin started brewing in the 1970s, when those in favor of keeping a navigation channel open for barge traffic started butting heads with those who wanted to protect the benefits provided by natural flows in the Apalachicola River. In 2002, Governor Jeb Bush and the Florida Cabinet voted unanimously for a resolution to end dredging on the Apalachicola River.

The dredging controversy continues, but in recent years it's been overshadowed by a spectacularly innovative but ultimately unsuccessful effort to negotiate the fate of the basin's river flows.

Near the headwaters of the Chattahoochee River is the City of Atlanta, whose population has grown from less than 500,000 in 1950 to more than 4 million in 2000. Near the city, the Chattahoochee River is dammed to form Lake Lanier, which is managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. In 1989, the Corps proposed a shift in the use of the lake’s water from hydroelectric generation to water supply for metro Atlanta. The State of Alabama sued, and the State of Florida was preparing to jump in on the side of Alabama when all the parties agreed to negotiate instead.

Fast-forward to 1997, when President Clinton signed the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin Compact into law. The Compact directed Florida, Alabama, and Georgia to develop a water allocation formula to apportion water in the basin. The Compact was eventually ratified by the three states and by Congress.

Negotiations began. Deadlines came and went. In July 2003, Georgia, Alabama, and Florida signed a memorandum of understanding to provide the basis for an allocation formula agreement. So close…yet not close enough: On August 31, 2003, the three states announced that they had failed to reach an agreement. After nearly six years of negotiations, the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint Compact was terminated.

The battle for the water in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint Basin will now be waged in the courts. Previously filed lawsuits may now go forward. The final decision resides with the U.S. Supreme Court, which has jurisdiction in conflicts between states.

David Struhs, then Secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, explained Florida’s reasons for allowing the compact to terminate without an agreement: “In the end, Florida was unwilling to accept only minimum flows, plus whatever else the upstream states were not able to consume or store. This would place too great a risk on one of the most naturally productive rivers and bays in the United States. This is the position that Florida has held throughout the life of the ACF Compact. I believe that over time, with the impartial oversight of our highest court, we will be able to better protect our river and bay.”

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Water Transfers and Exports

Residents of north and west Florida live in a region that is still relatively water-rich. These Floridians are often protective of their water supplies, which are increasingly coveted by high development areas to the south.

Florida law discourages the long-distance transfer of water across hydrologic and county boundaries. Transfers must not diminish the availability of water for present and future needs of the sending area, and the receiving area must have exhausted all reasonable sources and options. Transferring water across basin as well as political boundaries, however, is not unprecedented in Florida. The Florida Keys and St. Petersburg have never had enough freshwater to support large-scale development. Water travels through a 130-mile pipeline from the mainland to Key West. St. Petersburg ran out of water in the 1920s and now relies on well fields in Hillsborough and Pasco counties. Fast-growing Charlotte County gets water from DeSoto County, and Sarasota gets water from wells in Manatee County.

In 1998, the Florida Legislature strengthened and clarified the state’s policy against water transfers with passage of an amendment to Chapter 373, the Florida Water Resources Act, known as “local sources first.” The law (373.016(j)) states: “…the Legislature directs the department and the water management districts to encourage the use of water from sources nearest the area of use or application whenever practicable. Such sources shall include all naturally occurring water sources and all alternative sources, including, but not limited to, desalination, conservation, reuse of nonpotable reclaimed water and stormwater, and aquifer storage and recovery.”

The wisdom of “local sources first” to meet all of Florida’s needs was questioned by a September 2003 report from the Florida Council of 100 entitled “Improving Florida’s Water Supply Management Structure: Ensuring and Sustaining Environmentally Sound Water Supplies and Resources to Meet Current and Future Needs.” The Florida Council of 100 was formed in 1961 at the request of Governor Bryant “to promote the economic growth of Florida.”

The report concludes, “that Florida’s localized shortage issues are not a water resource problem, because the water exists within the state. One need only to fly on an airplane around the state to see that Florida has an abundance of open space and potential for environmentally sound sources of water. Rather, we would argue a significant part of Florida’s problem is one of water storage and distribution.” The report recommends transition from regional management to statewide management through the establishment of a water supply commission and evolution of “local sources first” into a “resource based test.”

The report further argues for establishment of an economic value to water whereby “water would become a general source of revenue for the state of Florida and the sending area.”

Groups throughout the state including the Florida Water Coalition, Inc, (Florida Wildlife Federation, Florida PIRG, Legal Environmental Assistance Foundation, 1000 Friends of Florida, Defenders of Wildlife, Audubon of Florida, Clean Water Network, and Earthjustice), and the Sierra Club opposed the Council of 100’s conclusions and recommendations and reaffirmed the value of the present regional structure of water management based on hydrologic boundaries.

Local groups were also vigorous in their opposition. As Svenn Linskold, chair of the ad hoc water response committee for Save Our Suwannee, has written, “There are 80+ different natural communities in Florida, and each has been created as a result of variation in water. Thus, preserving natural Florida requires maintaining the unique water features across the many regions of Florida. Florida’s water is not one big bathtub to draw from.” There is no “excess” water in the Apalachicola region or anywhere else in Florida.

Click here to download a PDF file of the Council of 100 report.
Click here to download a PDF file of the Florida Water Coalition report.

Another form of water export that may become a hot topic in this region is private water-bottling enterprises. Wakulla County is home to numerous springs, including Wakulla Spring and the offshore Spring Creek Springs Group, one of the largest collection of freshwater springs anywhere. A landowner has proposed pumping water from wells not far from Wakulla Spring and sending it in tanker trucks to a bottling plant in a nearby county. Some see this proposal as a foot in the door which would open the county to other, larger water-bottling projects. Others see it as a source of jobs and revenue for the county. It's not clear whether the county government has the legal right to allow or deny such water transfers. Florida’s Attorney General has declined to issue an opinion. As of May 2004, the waters are very muddy as to who has the right to do what.

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This page was last modified on : 03/15/2005

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