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Water managers in ever-growing Southwest Florida work to ensure the drinking water supply is safe

 The Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed provides a natural filtration system for Florida aquifers. The large permeable surface allows for local water systems to recharge.
Katie Fogarty
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The Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed provides a natural filtration system for Florida aquifers. The large permeable surface allows for local water systems to recharge.

Southwest Florida prepares to meet the future water needs as 1,000 people move into the Sunshine State every day. Access to drinkable water has already reached a crisis level in places worldwide, which nonprofits and celebrities are working to fix.

The lack of access to drinkable water is devastating communities around the world, and Southwest Florida's water managers are working to make sure the same thing never happens here.

“We turn on our tap and water just comes out of the faucet,” said Robert Lucius Jr., who oversees a 60,000-acre watershed that spans Lee and Collier counties.

“We don’t really give it much thought."

In other parts of the world, however, having water to drink is always on everyone's mind.

UNICEF found in 2020 that about one-quarter of the world’s population does not have a reliable source of drinking water at home, and half do not have properly working sanitation systems. In places, the demand for water is outpacing the growth rate two-fold. In Africa and Southeast Asia, the United Nations reports clean water is either scarce or completely unavailable.

The dearth of clean water is deadly. Nearly half of the roughly 2.2 billion people who struggle to find enough clean water to drink will die of thirst, disease caused by ingesting tainted water, or the unsanitary conditions that are becoming endemic in water-starved countries. The UN found that more people worldwide have access to a cell phone than do a toilet.

The World Water Council, World Resources Institute, and Global Water Leaders join charities like Water.org and charity: water in working in most of the drought-plagued places in the world. Kristen Bell, Jay-Z and Matt Damon are among a group of Hollywood heavyweights who have thrown their substantial clout behind the effort to ensure everyone on the planet has access to fresh water.

Bell raised almost $70,000 for charity: water, a New York nonprofit focused on providing drinking water to developing countries. Rapper Jay-Z created a documentary in 2007, “Diary of Jay-Z: Water For Life,” and worked with MTV and the UN to develop an clean-water advocacy campaign. Damon co-founded Water.org, which works to help families in struggling countries build sanitation systems and maintain a clean water supply.

“Access to water is access to education, access to work, access above all to the kind of future we want for our own families and all the members of our human family," Damon said on his organization's website. “You cannot solve poverty without solving water and sanitation.”

Increasing populations as well as climate change are but two of the things contributing to water woes, around the world and in Florida. More people mean more of a need for fresh water on a planet with a finite amount of it, and more than 1,000 people move into the Sunshine State every day. A warming planet means hotter air temperatures that increase evaporation, robbing reservoirs of drinking water.

The water woes in Southwest Florida are not nearly as bad as they are in other parts of the world, but not enough water still causes a host of problems in the region. Countless hours are spent by the region’s water managers divvying up the supply so the situation here doesn’t ever approach the struggles other parts of the world are having. And plans are being made now for decades in the future so water woes won’t sneak up on Southwest Florida’s residents.

Right now drought is gripping Southwest Florida and state and local water managers have been forced to limit lawn watering and car washing. More than 1,000 people move into Florida every day, and the state is already the third-most populated in the nation with 21.5 million residents in 2020.

But under our feet is a massive water resource that not many other states, or even countries, have: The Floridan aquifer. Fed by groundwater in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and South Carolina that seeps deep underground until it becomes an underground river that moves millions of gallons of water throughout the state. The Everglades alone provide nine million folks with clean water.

The South Florida Water Management District  is one of the agencies working to protect the aquifer and meet the water needs in the region. The district, and others like it, are required by Florida law to create new water supply plans every five years to meet the needs of the population, but the South Florida agency is even looking out to 2045.

The study will identify how water is used in the region, where it will come from in the future when the population is expected to continue to swell, and is will detail different categories of water utilization in the area, how they anticipate meeting those water needs, and what sources are available to meet those demands. The different categories include commercial, industrial and power generation sectors.

Bob Verrastro, a SFWMD hydrologist, said even the mighty Floridan aquifer and the Everglades does not produce enough fresh water to meet even today’s needs. As freshwater sources become more limited and water managers have had to start treating brackish supplies to make it drinkable, prices will increase as the water treatment process becomes more expensive and the costs are passed on to the public in water utility bills. The higher costs are already being applied throughout the state.

Another way to make sure state residents have water in the future is to preserve what we have now. Conservation efforts on the lower west coast of Florida have reduced the amount of water used per person per day.

In 2005, the number of gallons used per person per day was 170. That was down to about 130 gallons by 2011, a figure that has stayed about the same despite the growth in population.

“Water conservation in the lower west coast area has been a real success,” Verrastro said. “Certainly we are encouraging, you know, more and more of an ethic in water conservation.”

Verrastro said the is working on several projects to meet future water needs, such as building a canal along the Caloosahatchee River that will provide water to the downstream estuary. They also are working in the Picayune Strand State Forest to make large amounts of water available for Southwest Collier County, some will go straight into the environment, some will be treated for people to use, and some will be for the region’s farmers.

“We hand in hand with developing water supplies for people,” Verrastro said. “But also for the environment.”

WGCU is your trusted source for news and information in Southwest Florida. We are a nonprofit public service, and your support is more critical than ever. Keep public media strong and donate now. Thank you.

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Katie Fogarty