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The Looming Water Shortage Crisis in Florida

CRISIS - Biosystem Viability by Olivia Lai Americas May 13th 20225 mins
The Looming Water Shortage Crisis in Florida

The potential Florida water shortage fuelled from its growing population and excessive public water demand as well as increased threats of droughts could replicate ongoing water security fears in California and the US western region. 

Known as the Sunshine State in the United States where more than 130 million tourists flock to its beaches that stretch hundreds of miles, amusement parks (both DisneyWorld and Universal Studios), and of course, sunny weather, Florida is also home to some of the most unique ecosystems including the Florida Everglades and the Florida Reef – the only living coral reef system in mainland US. 

But as the third most populous state in America, whose population continues to boom thanks to its attractive low taxes and more affordable homes, Florida is also consuming water faster than it can be replaced despite its close proximity to major water and aquifer systems. 

Historically or around 30 million years ago, Florida was entirely underwater. It only emerged when sea levels fell, forming dry land. Its natural landscape, which is mainly made up of porous limestone, resulted in underground areas that could hold large amounts of groundwater called aquifers. 

The aquifer systems stretches for 82,000 square miles beneath Florida and other neighbouring states. These aquifers then feed Florida’s robust system of rivers, streams, springs, which are responsible for 90% of the state’s drinking water, or the 100-150 gallons of water an average Florida resident uses every day

But Florida has access to plenty of other surface freshwater too, from more than 7,700 lakes as well as biodiversity rich estuaries and wetlands. In fact, the famous Florida Everglades alone provides water to nearly 8 million people living in the southern stretches of the state, and the vast wildlife there – including more than 350 bird species and some of the most endangered animals like the Florida panther and bottlenose dolphin.

It’s also worth noting, despite its moniker, Florida happens to be the fifth rainiest state in the US. Annual precipitation in the state reaches about 51 inches (1,300mm), though 70% of which returns to the atmosphere through evaporation or transpiration by plants. 

The largest share of Florida’s freshwater supply goes towards public water use and consumption. An estimated 24% of household’s water use goes to toilets, 20% for showers, and nearly 19% for running faucets. But half of all the public water supply is used for watering private lawns, reaching up to 900 million gallons a day. 

Aside from supporting public water supply, Florida’s freshwater is used for agricultural irrigation, commercial and industrial uses, power plants and energy generation as well as public water sectors. When combined, these sectors consume about seven billion gallons of water a day, most of which is taken from the Floridan aquifer.

Read more: Lake Mead and Colorado River Basin Water Shortage

But the state’s ever-growing population has led to overconsumption and over-withdrawal from the aquifer, combined with worsening effects of climate change, this once abundant water supply is now under threat. Urban water demand rose sharply since the 1990s when developers drained low-lying swamps and wetlands to build more homes and more land for crop production. The strategy clearly worked; today, an estimated 900 people a day relocate to Florida, which adds up to about 300,000 people a year. It is projected that by 2030, Florida’s demand for fresh water will increase by about 28% against 2005 levels. 

Since more people are attracted to beachfront properties, vast development saw seawalls being built to straighten and maintain shorelines, resulting in a change in the natural flow of water in the environment. Unsustainable public and agricultural practices such as the aforementioned reckless use of lawn watering and inefficient farming irrigation, pose another challenge, as do pollution from fertiliser and sewage runoff, which are harming the health of springs and contaminating the main source of usable water. 

With climate change, widespread attention has been mainly focussed on Florida’s rapidly rising sea levels –  sea level has risen up by eight inches compared to 1950 levels, averaging one inch every decade – and more frequent and severe hurricanes. But the changing climate has brought unpredictable and inconsistent rainfall, along with extended droughts and heatwaves, which could impact water storage in the aquifer system. Sea level rise and coastal storms are also increasing the risk of flooding, resulting in saltwater intrusion into freshwater aquifers. Hotter temperatures and subsequent droughts means irrigated farmland requires more water; the total demand for water is likely to increase more than 25% in the next 50 years

In short, water levels at the aquifer are depleting and there’s a a high risk of widespread Florida water shortage in the next 30 years.  To mitigate the looming crisis, officials are currently focusing on water conservation to reduce current water demand and meet future needs. 

Florida has adopted year-round restrictions using what is known as “Florida-Friendly” landscaping techniques. This includes water-efficient irrigation, low water-using plants, and reduced stormwater runoff. Combined with increased use of reclaimed water, residential water use dropped 18% in 2010 from 1995 levels as a result, according to the Florida Department of Environment (DEP)

In 2017, the DEP proposed 747 projects to conserve water around the state. The following year, the 2018 America’s Water Infrastructure Act provided investment in water infrastructure improvements across the country including Florida. Aside from efficient water irrigation, residents are encouraged to water their lawns less, take shorter showers, minimise toilet flushing, and shutting off faucets whenever possible. Replacing older models with more water-efficient machines and toilets are also key. Simply replacing half of Florida’s household toilets with WaterSense labelled models (EPA certified) could save the state nearly 38 billion gallons of water annually, which is enough to supply every household in Orlando for four years. 

But there’s a glaring lack of legislation and regulatory enforcement to ensure water conservation efforts and usage restrictions. Without it, it will be difficult to mitigate with any potential water shortage in Florida amid a growing population and rising temperatures. And the Sunshine State is not alone in this; other states like Nevada and Hawaii are already feeling the pressure, and have made attempts to adopt stricter conservation measures. Regions that depend on the dwindling Lake Mead and Colorado River are scrambling to secure their water supplies for its millions of residents. 

It’s time for Florida to get serious about water. Whether it is through restrictions or disincentives on public water consumption, especially regulations for lawn watering, or overhauling the agricultural sector, the state needs to take action now before water supplies in aquifers run out. 


About the Author

Olivia Lai

Olivia is a journalist and editor based in Hong Kong with previous experience covering politics, art and culture. She is passionate about wildlife and ocean conservation, with a keen interest in climate diplomacy. She’s also a graduate of University of Edinburgh in International Relations with a Master’s degree from The University of Hong Kong in Journalism. Olivia was the former Managing Editor at Earth.Org.

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