The tug-of-war over finite water resources is only becoming more intense. Agriculture must have its portion for irrigation, while industry and municipalities must have theirs.

In Florida — where an extremely sensitive environment is also part of the allocation of water — state government is utilizing a variety of approaches to deal with the shrinking freshwater pool.

Rich Budell, director of the Office of Agricultural Water Policy, Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, spoke with Farm Press about ongoing projects, how funding of those projects is tied to a morose economy, and the good news in the agricultural sector. Among his comments:

On water demands by Florida agriculture and municipalities…

“There’s always potential for conflict to arise. The urban supply sector is focused on providing reliable, high-quality water at a reasonable cost. Agriculture is focused on having a locally available adequate quantity of water to meet their production needs.

“In the current environment, particularly the economic climate, the amount of money available for the development of alternative water supplies — something different than the ground or surface water normally used — is difficult to come up with.

“Public supply utilities have more options available to develop alternative water supplies because they have rate payers to whom they can pass on the costs. Agricultural producers have few options to develop alternative water supplies because they have no one to pass the costs on to.

“Looking long-term at water supply plans and what urban needs will be in 10 years or 20 years, along with what agricultural needs will be — all the while recognizing we must reserve enough water for the environment, wetlands, rivers, springs, lakes — we’re increasingly running up on a situation where water demand projections exceed water availability. That isn’t a comforting outlook.

“It’s difficult for utilities to plan for infrastructure needs when the availability of an adequate water supply is uncertain. They have to go to bonding entities to fund construction and expansion. If water supply plans suggest there won’t be enough water to meet demand, it’s difficult to get such infrastructure bonded.”

On alternative water supplies…

“Florida is one of the leaders in the country in
coming up with innovative ways to try and fund de-velopment of alternative supplies. Alternative water supplies include Aquifer Storage and Recovery (ASR

ASR is a technology that allows for excess water, during periods of high rainfall when river and spring flow is high, to be injected into the ground to create a freshwater ‘bubble’ that can be withdrawn later during dry times.

“There is also surface water storage. You can create reservoirs and store water aboveground. During the rainy season or hurricanes or tropical storms, you can fill the reservoirs. Later, those reservoirs can be tapped as a source for agriculture, industry and municipalities.

“ASR and above-ground reservoirs are expensive. They also take a lot of time and effort to design, construct and maintain. There are mechanisms in Florida to fund those kinds of things.

“But it is increasingly difficult when the economy takes a downturn like it has in the last five or six years. Most of the funding sources for the designated trust funds to offset the costs of alternative water supplies come from the ‘Documentary Stamp’ tax on land transactions, real estate and refinancing activities.

“With the real estate market as it is, there aren’t a lot of those revenues coming in, and there’s a shortfall of money to meet the demand for all the alternative water supply projects that need to be developed.

“Because of Florida’s topography and geology, we don’t really have a shortage of water. We just don’t have ways to store water very effectively.”

Where are most of the reservoirs situated?

“Mostly they’re in central and south Florida. Several are in the Southwest Florida Water Management District, several in the St. John’s Water Management District, and in the South Florida Water Management District.

“Regionally, the reservoirs are important resources. However, on a statewide basis, they pale in comparison to the amount of water we still rely on from groundwater and traditional surface water sources.

“While we have a program that promotes alternative water supply development, it hasn’t realized its full potential. About the same time we were creating the policies and statutes that established the funding mechanism, the economy started to turn south.

“We’ve been unable to build out the alternative water supply projects at the pace we’d originally hoped to in 2005 when the trust fund was created. Since 2007, there’s been very little money available because revenues have been swept from the trust fund accounts to offset deficits and balance the state’s budget.”

On actual water demand numbers in coming years…

“In 2010, estimates showed there was about 6.9 billion gallons of freshwater per day used in Florida. That is for all uses.

“By 2030, projections are that we’ll need 8.2 billion gallons of water per day to meet demand. That’s a 19 percent increase over 2010.

“In several areas of the state, we’re already finding situations where there isn’t enough water to maintain current uses. In some cases, folks are concerned there won’t be enough water in five or 10 years, let alone 20.

“There are water-use caution areas around Tampa Bay where groundwater levels have been drawn down and the resource must be managed very carefully. There are areas around central Florida, the greater Orlando area and slightly south, where all available resources have already been allocated. Even in rural north Florida, at the juncture of the St John’s district and Suwannee district, there are significant groundwater draw-downs.

“A lot of this is driven by weather. It isn’t completely a matter of ‘we’re using too much water’ or ‘we’re using water faster than it can be replenished.’

“We’re in a fairly long drought cycle. In northern Florida, we’re used to getting 55 to 58 inches of rainfall yearly. Farther south, the average is slightly less. But we’ve been in a cycle for a considerable period, especially in north Florida, where the rainfall average has been way under the norm. That has a huge impact, particularly on groundwater levels.

“As water resource managers, as those tasked with the responsibility to develop water supply plans, we must work while recognizing the uncertainty looking forward. There really isn’t a ‘normal’ rainfall year ­— you receive ‘more’ or you have ‘less.’ That uncertainty must be built into plans.”

Precision agriculture and how those technologies factor into Florida’s water plans? If funding wasn’t an issue would the state push new agricultural technologies to save water?

“Absolutely. Industry-wide, agriculture has done a remarkable job of reducing the amount of water they use. If you look at the water statistics in Florida over the last decade — maybe even 12 to 15 years — agricultural water use has been flat or even slightly declining. Meanwhile, production has been rising.

“If you look at freshwater use in agriculture across the state, that’s a telling statistic. There has been widespread adoption by agriculture of more conservative and precise irrigation mechanisms, tools and systems.”

On mobile irrigation labs…

“I absolutely believe even more efficiency can be gained. We have a program where mobile irrigation laboratories are funded. These are teams that go out and do irrigation system evaluations and make recommendations on how those systems can be upgraded or improved. We then help to cost-share for those improvements. 

“Billions of gallons of water can be saved annually as a result of these mobile labs. That’s a huge component of Florida’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Service’s overall water resource conservation and protection program.

“We’d like to see more of that type of program. The demand far exceeds our ability to supply the evaluations or cost-share.”

More on irrigation in Florida…

“Interestingly, only about 10 percent of Florida’s agricultural acres are irrigated. There are roughly 18 million acres in crops — including forestlands — and about 1.8 million acres are irrigated.

“To help economize water, we have tools other than the mobile irrigation labs. If we can figure out ways to give the growers information, they can fine-tune how much irrigation water to apply and what time of day to apply it. That way, only the amount of water the crop needs is actually applied.

“Other tools include things like soil moisture probes and weather models, which allow growers to make real-time decisions on turning irrigation systems on and off. Still other tools can be employed to reduce the amount of water the industry uses when protecting crops from frost and freeze events.

“The notion of irrigation conservation and use efficiency is very much at the forefront of our programs. With a bit more funding we could make even bigger strides.”

Any water-related legislation pending in Florida’s next legislative session?

“There isn’t too much activity going in. We’re working collaboratively with the water management districts and Florida Department of Environmental Protection to consider the current methodologies and tools used in the statewide water supply plans. The aim is to bring more uniformity to the planning process, more predictability.

“In Florida, water is owned by the public. There is an administrative process to allocate that water out for use, a permitting program. That means consumptive use permits are required of all major users of water — utilities, agricultural producers, industrial facilities, mines.

“We think there could be much more predictability and transparency in the permit decisions. So, there’s an effort to bring more clarity to the whole water supply planning and permitting programs. That may lead to legislation being introduced in the 2013 session.”

How the Everglades fit in the water balance…

“Everglades restoration has been going on at various paces over the last 25 years. I don’t see that stopping anytime soon.

“I believe there are ways to meet the needs of the overall Everglades ecosystem and still maintain a healthy population, a healthy business climate and a healthy agriculture community. It will take a bit more compromise on everyone’s part to find the right combination of solutions, but there are a lot of things happening.

“There have been tremendous strides made in improving the quality of water entering the Everglades, whether coming from urban areas or agricultural areas. 

“Are we there yet? No, but the South Florida Water Management Districts, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, agricultural, urban and environmental interests, and other partners have worked for years and are honing in on the right mix of N-site source controls, regional storm-water treatment areas, reservoirs, and infrastructure.

“All of these components are aimed at improving the timing, distribution and quality of the water going into the Everglades.

“It’s an interesting time to be engaged in such work. A lot of ideas are still on the drawing board.

“But the biggest issue is: where will the funding come from? How can we keep all the players constructively engaged and focused on practical, economically viable solutions?

“It isn’t a matter of whether we can deal with water issues. We can. But we must focus the resources where they are needed and maintain the commitment to funding them long-term.”