How Many Straws?

Water officials say that, added up, the impact of private irrigation wells may be significant in Florida. Lack of data keeps them from knowing for sure, and may be skewing the state’s rosy water-conservation numbers.

By Hannah O. Brown

In the Turnberry Lake development near Jonesville, private irrigation wells are a familiar sight in the backyards of many homes. When prospective residents come to view the neighborhood, they are given the option to add an irrigation well to their home site, alongside options like low-flow shower heads and LED light fixtures.

Turnberry Lake, known for its sandy soil and grassy landscapes, consumed the most water out of 28 neighborhoods surveyed in the 2014 Envision Alachua report. While it’s landscaped with drought-tolerant Zoysia grass and many native plants and trees, a single-family Turnberry home averaged 538 gallons per day; that’s 73 percent higher than the county average of 308 gallons per day.

With high water consumption comes higher water bills from the local utility — a factor that prompts some homeowners to seek alternatives for landscape irrigation. Private irrigation wells are one option. But water officials are beginning to worry about the impact private wells may have on water resources. Every well drilled into the Floridan Aquifer is like poking another straw into a drink; scientists say the cumulative sips contribute to the decline of the region’s springs and rivers.

“If you have a really high water bill, but you still really want that green lawn, one alternative you have is to put in an irrigation well,” said Stacie Greco, Alachua County water conservation coordinator.

Floridians use about 6.4 billion gallons of freshwater every day, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, a number that has dropped in recent years amid increasing efficiency, awareness and prices. In the city of Gainesville, water use has dropped 22 percent since 2007 despite population growth.

“We are seeing public supply water use decrease over time but population is going up,” Greco said. “So everyone is patting themselves on the back, people like myself, saying, ‘Oh, we are doing such a great job. We are conserving water.’”

But this good news wouldn’t be so good if the numbers are dropping in part because uncounted backyard well pumping is replacing irrigation from public supplies.

Richard Marella, a geographer with the U.S. Geological Survey, is tasked with collecting data from water management districts across Florida to create statewide maps of water use.

“I think there is a little bit of a fallacy that the districts are doing such a great job to lower per capita (public supply) when, in essence, some of that lowering is just being shifted off of public supply on to self-supply wells,” he said.

Marella said information on private irrigation wells is difficult to collect because of inconsistencies across regulatory agencies, but he has noticed some trends in South Florida, which he described in a presentation at University of Florida’s Water Institute Symposium this spring.

Marella saw that utility water rates in Sarasota County are relatively high when compared with other counties and so are the numbers of irrigation well permits issued, but the public water supply in the county is one of the lowest in the state.

“We don’t know how many wells are out there, but I don’t even know if we can ever find that out,” Marella said. “But we can certainly find out large areas or large blocks of them.”

Marella believes the increase in private irrigation wells is more prevalent in South and Central Florida than other areas in the state because of the consistently warm temperatures, leading to year-round green grass, and the cheaper costs of digging a well, since in some areas wells average a depth of 20 to 30 feet.

“In South Florida, you can dig a well with a post-hole digger,” said Stan Griffis, of Griffis Drilling Specialists in Alachua. “It doesn’t take much to get to it.”

Griffis has been drilling wells in Alachua County for more than 50 years. He said the depth that a driller has to dig to reach groundwater varies where you are in the county, but all wells in the region are significantly deeper than in South Florida.

“If you are in the east part of the county and go to the Floridan Aquifer, you are going to go a couple hundred feet,” he said. “If you are in the west part of the county, where the Hawthorn Formation doesn’t exist, then you are only looking at about 100 feet.”

The cost of an Alachua County well can average anywhere from $4,000 to $6,500, he said. With prices so high, Griffis has seen a trend contrary to Marella’s theory. The number of wells he drills in the county has decreased over the past few years, with a typical year bringing seven or eight new wells.

“You don’t see as much of it anymore now that people are more conscious of how much money they have to spend,” Griffis said. “Irrigation wells are kind of decreasing now rather than increasing, but that’s just time that it is. With our government now and the economy like it is, people don’t have the kind of expendable income that they use to have.”

In Alachua County, Greco has noticed inconsistencies in the number of irrigation wells reported and in the permitting to regulate installation of new wells. The St. Johns River Water Management District and the Suwanee River Water Management District, which cover different sides of the county, differ in their requirements. While Suwannee requires a permit for all water wells, St. Johns only asks for permits on the construction of wells more than 6 inches in diameter.

To compensate for this disparity, Alachua County has implemented its own well registration program. But Greco said that many well drillers forego the permitting process altogether, and it is difficult for the county and the districts to keep track.

“I’m sure if you looked at our well registration forms, how many we have versus how many wells are out there, I mean we probably don’t even have 50 percent,” Greco said.

She compared the regulation landscape of well drilling to the “Wild, Wild West.”

“We don’t report on irrigation well data at all because it’s not collected,” she said. “We don’t know who has one. There’s no metering. There’s not really accounting of who is putting in these wells.”

Greco and other water officials believe that some Florida residents may be capitalizing on slack regulations to save money in the long run.

“If someone has public supply and they are putting in an irrigation well, the only reason they are doing that is because they don’t want to pay for the water, so you know they are using a lot,” Greco said. “So why are we allowing people to do that?”

A community in northwest Florida’s St. Johns County advertises private water wells as an amenity. Water officials are beginning to worry about the impact private wells may have on Florida’s water resources. Every well drilled into the Floridan Aquifer is like poking another straw into a drink; scientists say the cumulative sips contribute to the decline of the region’s springs and rivers. (photo by Robert H. Wells II)

“If you have a really high water bill, but you still really want that green lawn, one alternative you have is to put in an irrigation well.”Stacie Greco, Alachua County water conservation coordinator

“We don’t know how many wells are out there, but I don’t even know if we can ever find that out.”Richard Marella, geographer with the U.S. Geological Survey

About Project Blue Ether

WUFT News is publishing this multi-week series on water by University of Florida students, led by award-winning environmental journalist and author Cynthia Barnett, who is a visiting professor at the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications.