Monday, May 8, 2017

Water Visions: The Ichetucknee: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

Public Meeting on Draft Ichetucknee Springs State Park Unit Management Plan, Photo by Eric Flagg

One Step Forward:  A Good Draft Park Plan. As part of my work for the Ichetucknee Alliance, I have been reviewing the new draft management plan for Ichetucknee Springs State Park. The plan is a good one that does not mention multiple or consumptive uses such as cattle grazing and hunting that have been floated as moneymaking ideas at some of our state parks. There is mention of timber harvesting, but only at specific sites where the Florida Park Service (FPS) wants to restore disturbed areas to more natural habitats, something the FPS already does routinely.
It’s heartening to read that the Park Service acknowledges what we already know, that the Ichetucknee is impaired by pollution and loss of flow. Since the plan urges that FPS cooperate with other state agencies to solve problems within the park, we might expect FPS to be an effective advocate for policies that could restore the Ichetucknee—except for the fact that some of those other state agencies are the ones that are trading the long-term health of our publicly owned rivers and springs for short-term private profits.
  Two Steps Back:  A Bad Water Supply Plan. A case in point is the new North Florida Regional Water Supply Plan that was approved by two water management districts, Suwannee River and St. Johns River, in January of this year. While the plan acknowledges that pumping from as far away as the St. Johns affects flows in the Ichetucknee area, the Directors and Advisory Board members of the Alliance found nothing in the plan to ensure the Ichetucknee’s restoration.
According to Florida law, the state is required to establish “Minimum Flows and Levels” (MFLs) for our rivers and springs. The idea was for the state to decide how much damage or reduction in flow it would allow before needing to create a recovery strategy for those natural systems.
In 2015, the state set an MFL for the Ichetucknee that disregarded much of the loss of historical average flow that had occurred since the mid-20th century. Even though the MFL recognized that the Ichetucknee should be “in recovery,” the decision to ignore part of its flow loss was an effective and convenient boon for people who are today requesting large water use permits throughout North Florida.
Florida law requires that a recovery strategy be developed “concurrently” with the MFL for any rivers that need to be in recovery. For the Ichetucknee, that time frame applied to the January 2017 adoption of the new North Florida Regional Water Supply Plan.
Florida law also requires that the water supply plan include specific information that shows how flow recovery will be accomplished. It’s that detailed information—prioritization of new water supply projects, cost, timing, benefit to flows, implementation schedule and funding commitments—which reviewers from the Ichetucknee Alliance failed to find.
While the new water supply plan mentions water conservation, there is no commitment to cap water use permits or to implement water use fees. Instead, there are plans to develop alternative water supply projects or ways to increase the amount of water that recharges the Floridan aquifer. Those projects could be expensive, however, and if they are funded by taxes—which seems very likely—that means the public will pay to replenish water that is being freely used by a few people and corporations to generate private profits. I’ve heard this situation described as “privatizing profits and socializing losses.”
Conclusion. So we weigh a good park plan (one step forward) with a bad water supply plan (two steps back). On March 17, 2017, the Ichetucknee Alliance filed a Petition for Administrative Hearing to challenge the water supply plan for its failure to provide the legally required recovery strategy for the river and springs. We’ll see what happens.
In the meantime, as usual, I’m left with questions.
If we can’t agree on a water conservation ethic, won’t the creation of expensive water supply projects simply lead to more and more water use?
Should the true costs of water use be factored into the costs of water supply permits?
Is it right for people to make private profits while publicly owned natural systems suffer as a consequence?
How do private legal rights intersect with the impairment of a critically needed public resource such as water?
Should we agree to limit the issuance of water use permits and if so, under what guidelines?
Should our laws focus on the amount of damage we are willing to allow to the Ichetucknee, or should they instead provide for its health?
Do we really want to save the Ichetucknee and are we willing to make sacrifices to do so?

This article originally appeared in the April 2017 issue of "The Observer," a free monthly tabloid (circulation 5000 copies) distributed in the High Springs/Alachua/Newberry/Jonesville/Fort White areas of North Florida. Many thanks to publisher Barbara Llewellyn for her kind permission to post it here.