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From concerns about algae and the aquifer to the overuse of bottled water, this series explores some of the pressing water issues facing north central Florida, as well as possible solutions.

Water Worries | Aquifer recharge becomes key to preserving tap water access

GRU pumps out as much water each day as the Floridan aquifer pumps out into Poe Springs.
(Maya Erwin/WUFT News)
GRU pumps out as much water each day as the Floridan aquifer pumps out into Poe Springs.

Navigate the full "Water Worries" series below:

Water WorriesNatural WaterTap WaterBottled WaterSolutions

Few things are taken for granted in modern society as much as tap water. Fresh, drinkable water is available at the twist of a knob or the turn of a wrist. Residents often are unaware of the resources, efforts and costs that go into bringing water before it comes trickling out of their spouts and sinks.

Florida tap water predominantly originates from the Floridan Aquifer, an extensive underground reservoir spanning 100,000 square miles across the southeastern United States. In Gainesville, the primary supplier of tap water is Gainesville Regional Utilities, or GRU, the 5th-largest municipal utility company in Florida.

Before the water can fill up our bottles and cups, GRU pumps it from the Floridan Aquifer, filtering and cleaning it and then delivering it through underground pipes to households across the greater Gainesville area. From advanced filtration systems to thorough testing, every drop of water that flows through the city's pipes is ensured by GRU to meet or surpass water-quality regulations set by the state.

Jennifer McElroy, supervising utilities engineer at the Water and Wastewater Department at GRU, oversees environmental compliance.

McElroy, who has been with GRU for 17 years, said the utility provides roughly 200,000 customers with tap water each day, extracted from one of 16 wells at the Murphree Water Treatment Plant. The wells run 500 feet underground into the aquifer and extract a total of roughly 23 million gallons of water each day.

That is more water than Poe Springs pumps out naturally each day.

Once the water has been pumped from the aquifer, it then goes through a thorough process to ensure that it is clean and safe to drink.

First, GRU gets rid of any hydrogen sulfide, a gas associated with groundwater that often smells like rotten eggs.

Next is a process called lime softening, where GRU cuts the hardness of the water in half and then adjusts the pH back to a steady level. By softening the water, GRU can get rid of excess minerals that could over time clog up water pipes.

“If you picture all of our pipes in the water distribution system, if we didn’t get rid of that hardness, it would precipitate in our pipes and eventually your pipes that were meant to be eight inches might end up being two inches. That means we can’t serve water as effectively and people’s water pressure would be impacted,” McElroy explained.

The water is then filtered.

“Filtration is just to get rid of if there is pollen or whatever that lands in the water, but there aren’t chemicals that we are removing with our filtration because we are really blessed in Florida with our water,” McElroy said.

After the water has been filtered, GRU adds chlorine and fluoride. The chlorine is primarily added to ensure that the water remains clean and potable. But it can add a strange flavor.

“If you fill a pitcher with water and you leave it in the fridge for like a day or so, usually that chlorine is going to evaporate off, or if you pour yourself a glass of water and let it sit out for a bit, that chlorine is going to be gone by the time you start drinking it,” McElroy said.

The fluoride, on the other hand, is relatively flavorless. It’s added as a dental hygiene bonus for GRU customers.

“Fluoride is touted as one of the biggest advancements in health in the past 100 years, and the reason why is it helps prevent tooth decay,” she said. “We have some underserved areas who do not have the dental care that some of the rest of us do, and if they aren’t on a well-water line we can provide them fluoride.”

Once the water is filtered and clean, and all additional compounds added, it is then sent through underground pipes to households, businesses and any faucets and sinks in the greater Gainesville area served by GRU.

Tap water is the most predominant source of Florida’s drinking water.
(Maya Erwin/WUFT News)
Tap water is the most predominant source of Florida’s drinking water.

GRU also returns some of the 23 million gallons it pumps from the aquifer each day with a process called aquifer recharge.

Aquifer recharge replenishes groundwater from the surface. In Gainesville, this aquifer recharge primarily occurs at Sweetwater Wetlands Park.

GRU fills the swampy area with cleaned wastewater that can be absorbed back into the Floridan Aquifer.

“The wastewater is highly treated to drinking water quality standards at the wastewater plant, and then it goes into Sweetwater Branch, which is a creek that flows to this constructed wetland,” McElroy said.

Once the water absorbs into the ground and travels down into the aquifer, it allows the water table to rise again, replenishing the levels of freshwater.

“We also have an aquifer recharge well that goes 1,000 feet under the ground and provides treated water to help build up lower levels of the aquifer. When we do that, it creates pressure that helps sustain the upper levels,” McElroy said.

While this process is a great step toward trying to preserve Florida’s main drinking water resource, it does not fully solve the problems faced by the aquifer.

According to a report by the St. Johns River Management District, some areas in Cedar Key suffered from saltwater intrusion. This occurred as aquifer levels became so low that salt water from the Gulf of Mexico intruded into the groundwater, contaminating the drinking water supply that locals had access to. Sinks in households and restaurants in Cedar Key were pouring out salty brackish water that could not be consumed.

“If you have a lot of water leaving our aquifer then you have a difference in pressures that allows salt water to come in,” McElroy said. “Saltwater intrusion is absolutely an issue for coastal communities.”

If water distribution companies, such as GRU, pump out too much water from the Floridan aquifer or if preventative measures such as aquifer recharge do not refill the aquifer at an equal pace as to the speed at which we are draining it, then other counties in Florida may face similar fates to Cedar Key.

While saltwater intrusion is less of a problem in more inland areas of Florida, such as Gainesville, our springs still face the concerns of depletion or brown outs due to over pumping, which could leave these natural waterways with undrinkable water.

Organizations such as Our Santa Fe River are working toward helping restore and clear up waterways, on top of GRU’s aquifer recharge, to help prevent Floridians from losing their access to clean tap water.

Navigate the full "Water Worries" series below:

Water WorriesNatural WaterTap WaterBottled WaterSolutions