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Conserve water before building expensive pipelines

Rather than working harder to get Floridians to reduce water use, officials are seeking to make up for excessive groundwater pumping with costly pipelines moving surface water around the state.

In June, the Suwannee River Water Management District

proposed building such a pipeline at a price tag of up to $457 million for construction and up to $4.4 million annually for operation and maintenance. The pipeline would bring water from the Suwannee River to recharge the groundwater that flows through Ichetucknee Springs and eventually into the Santa Fe River.

The idea attracted widespread criticism, including

from the Gainesville Sun Editorial Board . We scoffed at the notion that taxpayers should foot the bill for restoring the depleted flows of springs, calling on regulators to instead start rejecting groundwater withdrawal permits for farmers and other big users such as a water-bottling plant near High Springs.

But the project isn’t the only pipeline being planned by a water management district in Florida. As

The Sun reported as part of its Fragile Springs Revisited series, the Gainesville City Commission in July voted to give $2.7 million to the St. Johns River Water Management Districts for its own pipeline project. (Alachua County is split between the St. Johns and Suwannee districts.)

The $43.3 million pipeline will funnel water from Black Creek into Alligator Creek, with the water intended to move from there to Lake Brooklyn in Keystone Heights and then through a sinkhole into the aquifer. The goal is offsetting some of the groundwater pumping by municipalities such as the city of Jacksonville, which pumps 100 million gallons a day on average.

Jacksonville has long been criticized for the effect of that pumping on springs as far away as the Suwannee River Valley. But the City Commission’s contribution to the pipeline project acknowledges Gainesville’s role in contributing to the problem. Gainesville Regional Utilities pumps between 22 and 23 million gallons a day to serve about 200,000 people in the Gainesville area.

GRU senior engineer Rick Hutton told The Sun that the water withdrawal amount is unchanged from the 1990s, despite population increases since that time. GRU deserves credit for projects that encourage water conservation and the reuse of treated wastewater, which is used in landscape irrigation in several west Gainesville neighborhoods and other areas.

Landscape irrigation is estimated to account for 60% of residential water use, much of it used to irrigate lawns and non-native plants that require more water that nature provides. Government

limits on lawn watering and fertilizer use are helpful in reducing excessive water use and pollution, but additional steps should be taken.

Alachua County has provided incentives in recent years for residents to

swap out their irrigated turf grass with water-conserving 'Florida Friendly Landscaping.' Rebates for half the cost of these projects, up to $2,000, have been provided through $150,000 in funding from the Suwannee River Water Management District.

Such efforts should be accelerated rather than spending far more on building pipelines. Water management districts need to stop issuing harmful water-pumping permits to rural users, but city dwellers must also take responsibility for further cutting their water use.

The Gainesville City Commission would better protect the springs and aquifer by developing new ways to promote water conservation, instead of wasting taxpayer dollars on questionable pipeline projects.

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