Water and You

Project Blue Ether

This spring, students in Environmental Journalism class devoted the semester to Project Blue Ether, a series of water stories that reveals our connection to the aquifer — and our collective role in solutions to over-pumping and pollution. The series ran for 14 weeks on WUFT News. Read it here, for a powerful impression of how our taps connect to groundwater and the springs that define the good life here in North Central Florida.

Project Blue Ether

Smart Landscaping

Erin Alvarez is a landscape instructor at the University of Florida Environmental Horticulture Department. Her teaching program is based in landscape management, which also includes public gardens management and a focus on landscape management issues.

In this interview, Alvarez talks about the common mistakes some homeowners make when it comes to plant selection and irrigation systems.

Water Efficient Irrigation

Joe Floyd is one of four co-owners of Abundant Edible Landscapes. From fruit trees to rainwater collection systems, the company provides several services to homeowners who would like to develop their landscape with environmentally conscious features.

In this interview, Floyd talks what irrigations systems could cut down your water bill in the long run, why you should stay away from imported plants, and how growing your own produce cannot only save you water, but also gas and money.

Alternative North Central Florida Lawns

One Floridian uses the same amount of water in one day, as an average person living in Mozambique, Africa, would in 88 days: 176 gallons, according to the Orlando Sentinel.

The St. Johns River Water Management District reports that 58 percent of that water goes to outdoor needs – the worst offender being irrigation.

While some homeowner associations may not permit it, there are other ways to create a lush, beautiful lawn that will not only be visually appealing but also save money and water.

The most common turfgrass for residential areas in north central Florida is St. Augustine grass; however, it can come at a cost with higher fertilizing and watering demands than other types of turfgrass, Floyd Gainey of Soil-Enrichment Products said. Gainey recommends Centipede grass instead of St. Augustine grass.

Most common in the Florida panhandle, Centipedegrass doesn’t grow quickly, requiring less mowing, and is drought and shade tolerant. This grass variety also does well in acidic or infertile soils, according to the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agriculture Sciences extension.

Gainey stresses amending your soil before planting any type of plant. Amending includes anything that adds nutrients to the soil and locks in moisture. Not amending soil before planting is like “buying a steak and throwing it in the refrigerator and never cooking it,” Gainey said.

Using organic matter from composting also provides a more nutrient rich soil that will help reduce irrigation needs, because the organic matter holds more moisture than soil lacking either nutrients or organic matter, Joe Floyd of Abundant Edible Landscapes said.

Florida Friendly Landscaping strives to help create residential and business landscaping behaviors and techniques that instill the use of low-maintenance plants and sustainable living.

A typical yard in the program minimizes the use of potable water for irrigation, avoids runoff of excess fertilizers and pesticides from the yard and provides habitat for wildlife. There are nine principles of FFL. The eighth principle—reduce storm water runoff—includes using rain gardens instead of turfgrass, another method to creating alternative lawns.

Rain gardens are shallow areas that have grasses (not turfgrass) and plants that catch rain, allowing it to sink into the ground to replenish the Floridan Aquifer, Florida’s main water source. Mulch or stones are used as groundcover, but any porous surface can be used to allow rainwater to seep into the ground, instead of storm water drains. FFL recommends the use of bricks, gravel, turf block, mulch, pervious concrete or other porous surface when possible to allow water to drain into the ground.

The number one principle of FFL is “right plant, right place.” This principle constitutes acknowledging what areas in your yard are adequate or lacking elements such as soil type, watering needs, shade or sun, and acidity. This principle is best put into practice by carefully planning a landscape. More information on how to pick the right plant for the right place can be found on the FFL website.

Saving water IN and OUT of your home

Spring and summer seasons for Floridians are characterized by recreational activities involving water sources that are especially unique to us like springs and beaches. While we use these resources almost all year around, it can be difficult to notice that these water sources, once plentiful, are now gradually being depleted by wasteful behavior and old technology.

The average gallons per day for a person in Mozambique (Africa) is 2 gallons, Germany, 72 gallons, Canada, 114 gallons, the United States, 150 gallons and Florida, 176 gallons, according to  statistics from the St. Johns River Water Management District. The St. Johns district statistics show that about 58 percent of water use goes to outdoor uses – the worst offender being irrigation.

Other uses include about 10 percent for the toilet, about 8 percent for washing machines, about 7 percent for the shower, about 6 percent for faucets and about 5 percent goes to any kind of leak. Cutting down usage of all of these appliances could make a dent in water usage, considering they account for about 36 percent of water usage per person.

There are numerous excuses for not cutting back on water: not enough money, time or lack of knowledge. But whether you don’t have money or you don’t have time, water saving behaviors or upgrades are still in reach.


By just changing behaviors or making upgrades outside the home, 40 gallons or more of water can be saved per day. Behaviors that can easily be changed to reduce water usage are:

  • Water plants and grass only when needed.
    Tip: Step on the grass – if it springs back then it doesn’t need water
  • Set the lawn mower blades one notch higher.
    Tip: Never cut more than the top third of grass to decrease evaporation. Longer grass means less evaporation.
  • Don’t water on windy days
  • Only water before 10 a.m. or after 4 p.m. Watering midday can waste up to 65 percent of water to evaporation.
  • Don’t let the hose run while washing your car, instead use buckets to hold water and soap
  • Group plants according to their watering needs
  • Water less in the winter.
  • Use a broom instead of hose to clean driveways
  • Adjust sprinklers to reduce spraying on sidewalks and driveways
  • Repair leaky hoses or sprinklers

Ready to take the next step?

There are nontraditional upgrades that can be made to the outside of the home. Some of them, like rain barrels and cisterns, that seem foreign to some, but they can stop wasteful watering easily. Upgrades to the outside of the home are:

  • Water-efficient drip irrigation for trees, shrubs and flowers
  • Install a rain shut-off device on automatic sprinklers
  • Put mulch around trees, shrubs and flowers to lessen evaporation
  • Use rain barrels or cisterns to collect rain run-off
  • Replace turf grass with native drought-tolerant vegetation
  • Make a compost pile
  • Replace traditional St. Augustine grass (high water use) to a lower water use grass
  • Install a smart irrigation controller that adjusts watering for temperature and rain
  • Install a pool cover to reduce evaporation
    Also: Be careful with small children around these.

Inside the Home

Even though most of the water usage is accounted for outside of the home, 41% of water use comes from uses inside the home. By changing behaviors and making a few upgrades, water can be saved and used efficiently, saving anywhere up to 30 gallons per person, per day.

Water saving tips involving behavioral change are:

  • Shower in 5 minutes or less
    Tip: Don’t think you can shower in just 5 minutes? Try just cutting back your shower by 2 minutes to save 5 gallons per day)
  • Run only full loads in the clothes washer
  • Don’t leave water running while washing the dishes
  • Run the dishwasher only when full
  • Turn off water while brushing your teeth
  • Fill the bath tub only halfway
  • Don’t use the toilet as a waste basket

Still not enough?

You can upgrade appliances and plumbing in the home to further water saving. Some of these upgrades cost $1 while some cost hundreds of dollars.

Upgrades to save water in the home are:

  • Fix leaky faucets and toilets
    Tip: Put a few drops of food coloring in your toilet tank, wait 15 minutes, and if bowl water is colored then you have a leaky flapper that should be replaced.
  • Install a shower head with a maximum flow rate of 2 gallons per minute
  • Install low flow shower head (2 gallon/min)
  • Purchase efficient clothes washer (Energy Star)
  • Purchase an efficient dishwasher (Energy Star)
  • Install toilets with 1.28 gallons per flush
    Tip: If you can’t afford a new toilet, try this to reduce the amount of water it uses – fill half way a half-gallon jug with pebbles, gravel, sand or water, and put it in the toilet tank.
    **Also: If one flush doesn’t clean out the toilet, then remove the jug.
  • Install sink aerators with maximum flow rates of 1.5 gallons per minute

Information was provided by Stacie Greco of the Alachua County of Environmental Protection Department. More resources on saving water include Gainesville Regional Utilities, St. Johns River Water Management District, South West Florida Water Management District and the Suwannee River Water Management District. GRU also provides free home surveys where their trained professionals can point out how to save water and energy in the home.

Swimming in Green

Visitors to Ginnie Springs looking out at the Santa Fe River. There is visible algae in the background, though the spring's waters were clear.

On a Tuesday afternoon, Ginnie Springs near the city of High Springs, Fla., is filled with divers, swimmers and people relaxing in the water. For a weekday, there are more people than you’d expect.

Every year, millions of people visit Florida’s springs and rivers, bringing their money with them. An annual report compiled by the Florida Park Service estimates that the 15 most popular of Florida’s state parks bring in combined revenue of over $12 million. In addition, visitors to places such as Ginnie Springs, a private spring, and Ichetucknee State Park have a sizable economic impact on the nearby towns.

In many parts of Florida, natural beauty is an economic asset. At least one person thinks that might change.

Trouble in paradise

Roland Loog, director of Visit Gainesville, said that the waters of the Santa Fe and Ichetucknee rivers, as well as all the connecting springs, have deteriorated over the last 12 years.

“The water was crystal clear,” said Loog, when describing his childhood experiences with the Ichetucknee River. “Today, the water definitely has a greenish hue.”

He said that the Suwannee, the Santa Fe, and all the connected bodies of water have suffered. Algae blooms, decreased water levels, and weaker water pressure are among the problems he listed.

Loog said the town of High Springs has “economic woes” directly related to declining conditions in the springs and the Santa Fe River.

Marc Bryan, of the Cave Country Dive Shop in High Springs, disagrees with Loog.

“Where else are people going to go? We still have the most beautiful springs,” said Bryan. “It’s not like they’re going to say the High Springs area is terrible and go to Tampa.”

Bryan said High Springs is suffering due to the poor economy nation-wide, not because of worsening conditions in the nearby springs and river.

He doesn’t deny that he is concerned about algae, but he is reluctant to believe there is a long-term problem with decreasing water levels.

“It’s a timing thing,” he said. “We could have this conversation three weeks from now and things could be different.”

During the the six months the dive shop has been open, one employee estimated about 500 customers have come through.

“Have you ever, ever heard one person say that business is bad because of algae or the water level is down?” Bryan asked Marissa Lasso, another employee at the dive shop. “No,” she replied.

Gently down the stream

Jim Woods, CEO of the Santa Fe Canoe Outpost in High Springs, said that problems with the springs and the river are something he is “extremely concerned” about. Although his business hasn’t seen a decrease in customers, he worries that lower water levels will make canoeing too difficult for his patrons.

Woods said the canoe outpost has had about 5,000 to 7,000 customers over his last business year. An average year, he said, customers number 3,000 to 5,000.

Even though people are still renting his canoes, Woods said that the state of the water has made his cost of business go up.

“We’ve had to adjust,” he said.

Woods’ bookkeeper, Ross Ambrose, said that the water levels have forced the canoe outpost to change where it can put its clients in the water.

“We used to put people in the water right here,” he said. “Now we have to drive them to the next bridge. There’s a cost to our clients.”

In addition, Ambrose mentioned other issues, such as problems navigating canoes in low water and algae making it difficult for divers to see underwater.

Ambrose said he doesn’t think lower water levels, increased algae and more pollutants in the water are temporary problems. Lax regulations and more water use in Jacksonville are to blame, he said.

Ambrose said it is entirely possible that High Springs could eventually end up like White Springs, in Hamilton County, Fla., where phosphate mining disrupted the water flow of the nearby springs. The nearby waters ultimately vanished, causing economic devastation for the town which once featured eloquent destination hotels.

Ecotourism’s secondary business

Aside from canoe rental shops and similar places, other businesses in High Springs rely on tourist cash.

Lucie Regensdorf, owner of the Grady House, a bed and breakfast in High Springs, estimates that 90 percent of her customers are people coming to see the river and springs.

“Ecotourism is huge here,” she said. “Most people come here for the river.”

Her business had about 1,600 customers in 2011. Her best year was 2008, when she had 1,800 customers, she said.

Regensdorf beleives that if the springs and rivers were not in good condition, people would stop coming to High Springs.

“It would hurt my business and a lot of other businesses in town,” she said. “People who think that rivers are important are going to try and protect them, and hopefully they can prevail and get the city commissions and county commissions to do the right things.”

Dan Mijajlovic, owner of the Springs Diner in High Springs, said that during the summer, he gets around 6,000 customers a month. He estimated that nearly half of those patrons are tourists.

Differing viewpoints

Opinions by local business owners on the state of the Santa Fe River and local springs have varied. Loog and Ambrose expressed a pessimistic view, while people like Regensdorf and Bryan said things are good.

A senior employee with Ginnie Springs, who did not wish to be identified, said there is no problem with the water conditions in the area. Ben Harris, former park manager for the Suwannee River Wilderness Trail, agrees.

“The water is better than it’s ever been,” he said. Harris said he believes that the springs and rivers all throughout North Florida have been improving.

“The state has made a concerted effort to make sure there is no pollution,” he said.
Harris said lower water levels are caused by a recent drought and fluctuate with the weather.

The big picture

High Springs is just one place that has capitalized on water tourism. There are many other similar towns that benefit from Florida’s scenic rivers and springs.

In its 2011 annual report on the economic impact of springs in the state, the Florida Park Service looked at the direct economic impact of Florida’s springs from 2009 to 2010. It gathered this information by studying how much money tourists spent in nearby areas while visiting the springs.

Blue Springs, near DeLand, Fla., brought nearly $20 million into  surrounding areas.

Ichetucknee Springs, northwest of Fort White, Fla., attracted over $7 million dollars into its local economy.

According to the report, the top 15 most popular springs in Florida had a combined economic impact of $114 million that fiscal year.

Happy campers

Jeff Reeves, a diver originally from Michigan, has no complaints about the water at Ginnie Springs. He has been cave diving in Florida since 1991 but only moved to the state five years ago.

‘The diving brought me here,” he said.

He suits up near a spring known as The Devil’s Eye. Reeves said the water looked just as good as it always has.

“This is one of my favorite spots.”

Agriculture vs. Water: Bottling the Consumptive Question

The fact that water bottlers in Florida get free access to water they package and sell — and therefore make 100 percent profit on the materials — is often a sticking point for conservationists.

While giving away water bottling rights in a state expecting water shortages may seem to be the perfect illustration of bad water policy, it is worth taking a look at the actual consumption of the primary industries in the state that use water, industries like agriculture.

Water bottle companies have become an easy target for environmentalists because of their notorious use of plastic. But when agriculture’s use is brought into the picture, water consumption numbers may not appear as critics of the bottled water industry assume.

The total consumption of water for the agriculture industry statewide in 2005 was 2,766 million gallons per day, according to the 2005 state report, Water Withdrawls and Use. That is about 40 percent of the total water use in the state — for one industry.

Comparatively, Nestlé, the state’s largest private water bottler, was permitted to withdraw 2.7 million gallons per day, excluding the water rights it purchases, according to Nestlé Waters. In total Nestlé bottles about three million gallons a day.

Other companies like Coco-Cola, that bottled Dasani on the Santa Fe River, bottle anywhere from 600,000 to 800,000 gallons a day. The Coca-Cola plant has since closed because of the cost of fuel to ship from its location. However, the bottling permit still holds value and another company may decide to purchase it in the future.

There is no clear number for how many gallons of water are bottled in the state because those types of consumptive use permits are awarded through the five different water management districts.

A Need vs. A Luxury

Advocates like Merrillee Malwitz-Jipson, president of the group Our Santa Fe River, have fought the expansion of the water bottle industry in the Suwannee River Water Management District for the past five years. The group has argued against those trying to open new bottling facilities on the Santa Fe River and at various springs in North Central Florida.

For advocates like Malwitz-Jipson, agriculture’s water use is a topic of debate. While agriculture is using more water, bottled water opponents argue that industry is producing food.

“Water use for agriculture is a much more important use than putting water in a plastic bottle,” Malwitz-Jipson said. “It’s a luxury item.”

It is how agriculture is using the water, and in what ways they are failing to conserve it, where the industry becomes a target for its consumption.

While water bottlers have invested in technology that has reduced water lost while bottling from 3 gallons to 1.3 gallons per gallon produced, the same cannot be said for farmers.

Investment in technologies that could save the agriculture industry millions of gallons a day are expensive and require investment not only from the farmers, but the locality from which the farms are getting their water.

In agriculture, most small farmers don’t have the capital to invest and large farmers don’t have the incentive to invest, said Kayla Martin, a farmer from northeast Florida.

Water bottlers, on the other hand, have been forced to demonstrate their interest in the environment because of decreasing consumer demand and pressure from environmental groups.

Agriculture may not receive the same kind of pressure because many view the product as essential to life and many do not know how much water agriculture consumes.In addition, the agriculture lobby in the state of Florida is one of the largest.

Agriculture directly employs more than 400,000 people statewide according to a report by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, also leading to economic pressure should the industry’s way of doing business change.

From a water perspective, the amount of water used is an issue. From an environmental point of view, water bottles are wasteful through their entire lifecycle, taking more energy to produce and leaving behind more plastic than could ever be recycled.

There is a difference in the industries, too, when comparing how each one maintains the water used. Nestlé, for example, works with the local community to maintain the springs it bottles from because they are reliant on fresh clean water. Agriculture, on the other hand, is notorious for it’s waste runoff that can contaminate groundwater.

Maintaining enough safe and clean drinking water in the state is the goal of everyone who studies water issues as was evident at the 2012 Water Policy conference at the University of Florida. What advocates like Malwtiz-Jipson would like to see is a tax on water bottlers so the industry is giving back to the community it makes a profit from.


(Florida Statutes Section 4, (a) 1 )