People and Companies

Water At Risk

Leaders Thirsty for Answers to Impending Statewide Shortage

By Eric Wright

“The Quiet Industry” is how Florida’s Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam refers to the state’s agribusiness. But as Florida moves past New York to become the third most populous state in the nation, the issues farmers have been grappling with for generations are getting amplified, particularly in the realm of resource conservation and water management. Now, the industry is taking center stage and may be positioned to provide key solutions in what could be one of the most extensive public-private partnerships in the state’s history.


Putnam, along with incoming Speaker of the House Steve Crisafulli, are planning to use their political clout to focus the legislature on what many feel is our most critical problem…water.

The challenge is not just solving the riddle of how to deal with the pollution and stormwater runoff quandaries affecting Central Florida’s lakes and rivers or the perilous state of the Indian River Lagoon; it is meeting the water requirements of our rapid growth.

Like Putnam and Crisafulli, Michael Minton, a lawyer with Dean Mead (see One on One interview, pg. 91), was raised in a multi-generational Florida agriculture family. Minton, having spent his career serving as an advisor on tax, land and water management issues for the agriculture industry observed, “We are planning to spend billions of dollars on infrastructure and improvements in anticipation of the growth new industries and technologies will bring to the region as well as the population increases that will result from an improving economy. But the most critical issue is often overlooked in this discussion, namely how will we provide enough water for those new demands and for people to live?” According to Minton, while other users’ volume, including industrial, power generation and agricultural have remained relatively constant and during the recession there was a reprieve from the need to increase public water supply, current projections reflect that needs are accelerating upward and Central Florida will soon have a severe water supply shortfall.

Charles Fishman, author of The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water, told WBET, Florida has “dunderheaded, if not dumb, water problems. The state gets four feet of water a year; 48 inches fall on average on every part of Florida. [Yet it has] chronic water shortages. And half the water used in Florida is used for outdoor lawn watering. So they need to connect the dots a lot. They need to collect the water that falls and use it.”

Crisafulli said, “Florida is world-renowned for its 1,200 miles of beaches, springs and more than 7,700 large lakes. Yet our water supply is far more than just a tourist attraction; it’s also what sustains our agriculture industry and the source of drinking water which we all depend upon to live.” Adding, “Water has no boundaries, and it is imperative that policymakers, thought leaders and the public reject a limited parochial view.”

To those who live along the state’s coastal areas or in metro Orlando, Florida’s huge agriculture industry goes largely unnoticed, but as water awareness grows, that is changing.


SidebarIt’s “Orange County” for a Reason

Crisafulli and Putnam share a legacy that connected them to the land. Their roots provided a cultural dynamic that linked their life, work ethic and values to husbandry. As Crisafulli said, “I enjoyed and appreciated the challenge agriculture presented growing up. It was hard work but I enjoyed it. Also I was aware, very early on, that food doesn’t just appear on the shelves at Publix nor is it made in a food factory. The reality is that a farmer makes it happen; it won’t happen on its own.”

It also taught them that it requires constant vigilance and care, or the land’s value and productivity can be lost. Today, there are nearly 48,000 farms that work close to nine million acres, almost a third of the state’s land and the majority are family operations of less than 200 acres.  According to Putnam, “Agribusiness contributes more than $104 billion to our state’s economy and supports some two million jobs.”

It was explorer Juan Ponce de Leon that introduced cattle and citrus to Florida and North America nearly 500 years ago. Today, one Florida ranch owns the largest brood cow herd in the United States and Florida is home to four of the 10 largest cow-calf operations in the country, bringing the state to rank 12th in the number of beef cows. The state has four million acres of pastureland and one million acres of grazed woodland. Much of what we refer to as “Natural Florida” is in fact the working landscape of Florida’s cattle industry.

Of course, it is the citrus industry that most people think of when it comes to Florida agribusiness. Hence, “Orange County” and the enduring influence of early citrus innovators like Dr. Phillip Phillips. The urban growth of central Florida and a series of freezes in the 1980s caused most of the industry to move further south and the once iconic “Citrus Tower” in Clermont to become an eroding monument to a bygone era.

However, in spite of the state’s ongoing battle with citrus diseases, which has reduced the state’s actively managed citrus acreage from over 900,000 acres in the late 80s to between 350-400,000 acres, Florida is still the king of citrus in the U.S., producing 66 percent of the oranges grown in the United States, 66 percent of the grapefruit and 25 percent of the nation’s tangerines. It has also become a primary supplier of vegetables particularly during the winter months. That market share has also steadily grown, especially where the realization that “fresher is better” is the market trend.

Today, the state produces 44 percent of the nation’s sugarcane for sugar and seed, 36 percent of the bell peppers, 25 percent of the fresh market tomatoes, 33 percent of the squash, 25 percent of the fresh market cucumbers and 21 percent of the watermelons. Not to mention Florida’s place in the foliage and ornamental plant industry. In 2012, Florida ranked seventh among U.S. states with agricultural exports, topping $4 billion.

But agribusiness’ growth along with Florida’s growth depends on water.


Screen Shot 2014-07-21 at 3.07.17 PMWater Isn’t a Pain Point … Yet

“Most people in Florida don’t think about water issues, because it is always there when we turn on the tap. But without water, everything stops. There is no economic growth, there is no quality of life, there is no life.

“Each person typically uses approximately 150 gallons of water per day. Currently, in Central Florida we use about 800 million gallons of groundwater per day for public supply, agriculture, mining, industry and recreation. Over the next 20 years, our water needs are going to grow by about 300 million gallons per day in Central Florida, but groundwater will not be able to meet that need. We have to develop 250 million gallons a day from other sources. This is a regional problem that requires regional solutions,” explained Robert Beltran, executive director of the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

To solve the various challenges that growth presents will require unprecedented collaboration and innovation. “Central Florida, particularly the Space Center, attracted some of the most brilliant minds from around the world and captured the world’s attention for what was accomplished there. There isn’t necessarily a large gap between the type of big thinking and research that is involved in the space industry and that which would be required for us to be a global leader in life sciences,” Putnam explained.

“It is high tech and high yield science that is allowing the one and a half percent of our population involved in agriculture, to feed not only our nation, but much of the world. We need to have that focus on high tech in the life sciences if we are going to feed the nine billion people in the world by 2050, and to keep Florida’s $100 billion-plus agribusiness growing, competitive and profitable in the future.”

Perhaps the greatest opportunity for innovation will focus on solving the challenges of preserving Florida’s water resources and ecosystems, while meeting the growing demands of urban consumers and the agricultural industry.

Florida’s water is provided by two sources: surface water, which includes lakes or rivers, and ground water which is supplied by the aquifer. Aquifers could be described as vast underground, porous rocks that hold water and allow water to be filtered as it passes through the sand, shell and limestone that it is made up of. In places where the aquifer is overlain by a thick layer of clay, the pressure below the surface can cause the water to rise above the land’s surface. In some places these appear as springs, like Silver Springs, Wekiva Springs and Alexander Springs.

Ninety percent of the people in northeast and east central Florida use groundwater, which comes from the aquifer, as their water supply. The largest aquifer in the southeastern United States is called the Floridan. It is found beneath all of Florida and portions of Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina and extends beneath the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.

The Floridan aquifer averages 1,000 feet thick and fresh water can extend to a depth of 2,000 feet below the land surface. It is deepest in the central part of the state and thins as it nears the coast.  Salt water, which is heavier than fresh water, can seep into drinking water wells; this is known as saltwater intrusion; thus in some areas, particularly in south Florida, the water supply comes from surface waters and shallow wells.

So with all this surface and groundwater, what is the problem?


Floridan aquiferDefining the Issue

Brett Cunningham is Jones Edmunds’ director for water resources. He sums up the debate in two core elements: “Water supply as it pertains to its impact on natural systems, and to the point where our water use is having an impact on springs, lakes and rivers.  In many places throughout the state we have hit the point where we have used as much of the ‘cheap water’ as we can.” With increasing demand, the amount of water being taken out of the aquifer is exceeding the supply, resulting in saltwater intrusion along the coast and pressure on the delicate balance of the aquifer.

“The other issue is impairments; we have numerous water bodies that are not meeting water quality standards.”

Ron Edwards is the CEO of Evans Properties, Inc., which owns and manages over 40,000 acres of agricultural land in Florida. Edwards described the problem, “For the past 150 years, Florida’s orientation was toward drainage, to create usable land, particularly for farming, ranching and urban growth. These efforts accelerated the flow of water off of land as quickly as possible, discharging it into a water body that eventually released it into the Atlantic Ocean or the Gulf of Mexico.”

These drainage practices were combined with flood control efforts, which saved thousands of lives, when Lake Okeechobee flooded in times of heavy rainfall. The unintended consequence, however, were the multitude of environmental dominoes that began to fall.

First, instead of Lake Okeechobee gradually releasing water into the Everglades where it is filtered and slowly mixes with the salt water, the Corps of Engineers built canals that can carry huge volumes of fresh water and release it directly into the estuaries in the Gulf and on the east coast into the Indian River Lagoon, with damaging consequences during periods of heavy precipitation.

Secondly, according to Crisafulli, there are over 750 stormwater dumping points along the Indian River Lagoon and only 10 percent of them are treated. Not only is fresh water being introduced in quantities the Lagoon cannot absorb, but oil and other pollutants that collect on the roads is washed directly into these water bodies.

According to experts, what is happening in the Indian River Lagoon is a very visible “canary in the mine” of what is happening across Florida, where pollutants from septic tanks discharge and fertilizer runoff adds nutrients to the state’s surface water, which choke it with algae and muck. Surprisingly, most of the fertilizer runoff is not from the agriculture industry, but from Florida’s homeowners who put a premium on any kind of “waterfront property.”

As more surface land is built out, more of this fast moving water flows downstream either to lakes, rivers or coastal estuaries. Generally, what that means is down the center of the state south in the Kissimmee River basin from metro Orlando, and from South Florida north in the St. Johns and the Indian River Lagoon, there is a rush of water that is not being naturally processed.


Screen Shot 2014-07-21 at 3.07.33 PMSolutions? How About Water Farming?

Fortunately, Florida is leading much of the nation and the world in finding answers to our water conundrum. Our challenges are threefold: 1) How do we slow down the flow of water, so that it can be naturally filtered before being discharged into large water bodies? In other words, reengineer the historic water management strategy. 2) How do we store water so that we have reserves in times of drought? 3) Are there technologies that can clean water in rivers and lakes that are dead or dying?

Today our agriculture industry may provide the answer to our first question.

Distributed Water Storage, or what has been called “Water Farming,” has caught the attention of both agricultural and environmental groups. The idea is that farm and grove land that often is designed to drain water off, would be repurposed to store excess water.

Edwards sees great potential in using land that has been devastated by citrus greening Huanglongbing (HLB), which is ravaging citrus production worldwide. At present, the disease has no cure and even when a cure is found, because citrus is a food product, it would be years before such a cure could be widely used. “There may be more value or better use for these abandoned citrus groves, which happen to be located on some of the large canals of the South Florida and St. Johns River Water Management district. Instead of pumping water out, you use existing and modified topography to keep water in, perhaps one to two feet per acre.”

Needless to say, there are many questions and concerns that accompany such a proposal. For the landowners, there is the fear that land, which has been leased to the state to be used as water storage for a prescribed number of years, could be declared by the state or federal government as a wetland. This would prevent the owner from repurposing it once again for farming, when a viable cure for citrus greening is developed.

Crisafulli, however, is optimistic. “Unlike the more narrow thinking that sometimes characterizes local interest groups on all sides of the issue, in Tallahassee people have had to talk and work with each other for years. There is an ability to focus on the whole of the state and to arrive at solutions that hopefully will begin to address everyone’s concerns.”

Reservoirs are another option, both for water storage and filtration. One example is the 9,000-acre RV Griffin Reserve on the border of Desoto and Sarasota counties, which is designed to capture water during peak times and store it for dryer seasons.

This is part of a “Recovery Strategy” that focuses on supplying the majority of the water needs of the residential and commercial land uses with surface water (mostly the captured high flows of rivers), reclaimed water and desalinated seawater on the west coast. However, reservoirs, according to Minton, can be expensive. “Unlike reservoirs created in the valleys of mountainous regions on a flat terrain, like we have in Florida, it is a costly and challenging engineering project, because the risk of flooding in the event of a dike being breached.”

Some of the most exciting technologies on the horizon are those which actually filter large volumes of water, removing harmful contaminants and nutrients, like the Central Florida firm Aquafiber Technologies Corporation. The company, which is demonstrating their technology locally on Lake Jesup, has 26 U.S. and international patents and eight patents pending. The company can remove and even convert algae, which is choking water sources, into commercial products.

All agree that the challenge of water quality both for human consumption, agricultural uses and the environment is a problem that has no single solution. It will require the innovation of private enterprise and academia, along with the commitment and cooperation of political leadership and every citizen.


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