Priceless: Would putting a small price on Florida’s groundwater help stop overpumping?

By Natalie Bauta

Underlying most of Florida and the American South, the Floridan Aquifer runs for some 100,000 square miles underground. This highly productive source of groundwater is also is the main source of water we drink and use as Floridians – and the lifeblood of the the state’s lakes, rivers, streams and springs.

When Floridians and most Florida businesses draw groundwater from this aquifer, through our pipes and faucets, we pay for it through our local utility. In contrast, the state’s largest water users that extract groundwater directly from the Floridan Aquifer, such as major agricultural and mining operations, don’t have to pay for the water they use.

In all, Florida uses about 6.4 billion gallons of freshwater every day, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. An estimated 4.1 billion of that is groundwater pumped up from aquifers – but only half of that goes to customers of utilities who must pay for the water. The rest is large users such as agriculture, which draws about 1.4 billion gallons of groundwater each day statewide.

The imbalance of how we pay for water has led a growing number of voices to ask: In a time of over-pumping and worry over the future of water in Florida, is it time for Florida to consider a groundwater extraction fee? “The most effective and efficient dynamic of all for reducing groundwater use has received no debate, discussion, or even mention: market pricing for aquifer,” said Jacksonville business leader Preston Haskell, founder and director of the construction firm Haskell Co.

Florida’s freshwater springs are just one example of the noticeable consequences of human activity on local waters. Not only has groundwater pumping reduced the quality of water, but also the quantity. Robert E. Ulanowicz with the advisory board of North Florida’s Ichetucknee Alliance stresses that “agricultural interests pay essentially nothing for the precious water they extract.”

Darrell Smith, acting director of agricultural water policy at the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, said while it’s true that farming has an impact on the flow of Florida’s water, agricultural water use is on the decline in Florida, while the greatest-increasing category of water use is public supply including lawn irrigation. Agriculture also pays for the pumps and fuel that draw up groundwater, which is expensive. He said that adding costs could hurt farmers already earning small margins.

At a forum at UF’s Bob Graham Center for Public Service, Smith made the case that giving farmers incentives for innovations such as reuse, efficiency and creating recharge areas for water to replenish the aquifer would help maintain agriculture while reducing groundwater pumping. “We’ve got to look for solutions that take into consideration that ag lands or other lands are actually providing lots of recharge,” Smith said. “What can we do to incentivize more recharge?”

Haskell said it’s simple economics that conservation will be enhanced as cost savings exceed the price of withdrawals. On not only putting the right price on water, but on valuing water in general, “we’ve got to galvanize the public. We’ve got to educate the public,” Haskell said. “And hopefully the state legislators.”

“The most effective and efficient dynamic of all for reducing groundwater use has received no debate, discussion, or even mention: market pricing for aquifer.”Preston Haskell, Jacksonville business leader

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.