UF Professor: Drought Highlights Value Of Reused Water
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — A statewide ban on outdoor burning and water restrictions in some cities may make the drought seem severe, but conditions would be worse if Florida didn’t reclaim and reuse so much water, a University of Florida professor says.
Despite extensive water reclamation and reuse statewide, however, it’s likely many Floridians will see the price of water rise in the future even as normal weather returns, said agricultural and biological engineering Professor Allen Overman.
“With Florida continuing to grow every day, we’re going to have problems with our water supply. Reuse won’t solve that,” Overman said. “The likely result is that water is going to become more and more costly in some parts of Florida.”
Overman, an expert in water and population issues, worked extensively on the first large-scale wastewater reuse and reclamation project in Florida, the city of Tallahassee’s Southeast Farm. Completed in 1980, the 1,897 acre farm has an extensive irrigation system that uses reclaimed water from the city’s wastewater treatment plant to irrigate canola, corn, soybeans and a variety of other crops. The farm, leased to private farmers, uses all of Tallahassee’s treated wastewater, an amount totaling some 17 million gallons a day.
The farm is suffering as a result of the drought, but not nearly as much as it would be without the treated water, Overman said.
“They’re having to pick and choose which crops get the most water, but the farm is viable at this time, thanks in large measure to the reclaimed water,” he said.
When the farm was built, many people were skeptical of reusing water, and part of public officials’ task was convincing the public it was a good idea, Overman said. The argument was the same as it is today: While reclaimed water, which contains elevated levels of nutrients and some contaminants, is not suitable for drinking or household use, it can be used for irrigation or a wide range of other applications. The message has taken hold slowly, and more and more municipalities have begun finding ways to reuse water, Overman said. Statewide, 523 million gallons of treated wastewater were reclaimed each day in 1999, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. That’s about 37 percent of the 1.4 billion gallons of treated water produced every day in Florida, the DEP says.
David York, reuse coordinator for the DEP in Tallahassee, said the biggest uses of reclaimed water are landscape and agricultural irrigation, groundwater recharge and industry. But other uses include fire protection, commercial laundry facilities, car washes, artificial wetlands and even a facility in Sanford that washes train cars.
The drought has spurred interest in reclaimed water statewide, York said.
“The drought from the reclaimed water demand perspective is a big plus,” he said. “Folks become much more interested in using reclaimed water when water management districts begin squeezing down on what they can and can’t do” with the traditional, potable water supply, he said.
Overman said Florida and California are leaders in reusing reclaimed water, but that other states are becoming more heavily involved as well. Much of the initial activity was spurred by the 1972 Clean Water Act, which placed a high priority on beneficial reuse of reclaimed water, he said. Given current drought conditions in much of the Southeast and Midwest — as well a projected U.S. population of 500 million by 2100 — reusing treated water will likely become commonplace priority nationwide, he said.
Even as the use of reclaimed water increases, Florida’s population growth will continue to make water an increasingly scarce commodity — especially in water-starved areas such as Tampa and St. Petersburg. Solutions such as desalination or piping fresh water from elsewhere are expensive and politically charged, while voluntary conservation efforts don’t always have pronounced impacts, he said.
The result is that officials will be left with little choice but to increase the price of water as a way of discouraging overuse and growth.
“For lack of other options, jacking the price up is a sure way to reduce consumption,” he said.