The St. Johns River Water Management District Tuesday night approved a permit that would allow Jacksonville utility JEA to withdraw up to 163 million gallons of groundwater daily in the next 20 years.

Environmentalists have concerns about the impact of allowing the utility to suck more water out of the ground, but the District says that it comes with conditions intended to minimize its impact on wetlands and waterways in surrounding counties. The case highlights the concerns over the effects of groundwater pumping on already-depleted aquifers, especially by electric utilities, which are some of Florida’s largest consumers of water.

Representatives for the St. Johns River Water Management District say that the new permit is essentially the result of consolidation. Back in September 2005, JEA came to the District and said that they wanted to combine 27 water-withdrawal permits into one, and the request was granted over the following years. The total of all of those permits together equaled 155 million gallons of water withdrawal a day.

This latest permit request for 165-million gallons of water withdrawal a day was granted Tuesday night, with certain stipulations. “The District approved a permit allowing JEA to withdraw 142 million gallons a day of groundwater, with the potential to increase that number,” says Teresa Monson, Senior Communications Specialist for the District.

In order to increase that amount to 155 million gallons a day, JEA has to meet conditions, which include providing significantly more reclaimed water for reuse.

JEA currently reuses about 11 million gallons a day. Monson says that under the permit, the utility will have to reuse around 31.5 million gallons a day by the end of 2020, eventually reusing up to 44 million gallons a day.

Monson says that, if JEA can meet that and several other conditions, it can begin withdrawing up to 155 million gallons a day.

“To get to 162 million, they need to go above and beyond,” says Monson. JEA would need to start providing reclaimed water to entities currently drawing on the aquifer, such as golf courses, factories or other utilities.

Area environmentalists disagree with the District’s decision, expressing concerns about the impact more water-withdrawal could have on surrounding areas. Just last week, St. Johns Riverkeeper Neil Armingeon wrote a letter to Water Management District officials, urging them to reconsider approving the permit.

Armingeon cited a report conducted by the District itself, which noted that “superficial aquifer levels are predicted to decline” in wetlands, lakes and ponds, in some areas, by up to six inches, due to groundwater pumping.

“The Water Management District has been saying for years now that we are very close to the limits of what can be safely withdrawn from the aquifer, and no more additional water can be allocated from the aquifer starting in 2013,” says Riverkeeper Jimmy Orth. According to Orth, the recently-issued permit  represents a twenty-two percent increase  from what JEA is now using.

“In 10 years, they will then be allowed to increase pumping by nearly thirty-three percent over what they are currently using and, by 2031, forty percent more,” says Orth. ”This totally goes against what the District has been preaching and goes against their own models and observations.”

The final decision to approve the permit came after a St. Johns River Water Management District meeting held in Palatka Tuesday night.  Orth says the Riverkeeper will continue to push JEA to implement more water conservation strategies and to work with the community to actually use less water.

But just because JEA has a permit for 142 million gallons a day, doesn’t mean that they have to use that much.  ”We are going to try to make sure that they don’t,” Orth says, adding that using the entire allocation could significantly degrade the aquifer, wetlands, lakes, springs, and many rivers.

Monson says that the district doesn’t feel that JEA is the only one to blame for environmental degradation. In fact, she says, most of the problem is natural.

“We’ve done a lot of water quality monitoring in the Keystone area, and the District believes that the primary problem causing the lakes to dry up or go down is lack of rainfall,” she says.  Though the District acknowledges that “a portion of the problem” is caused by groundwater pumping, Monson says that it is not the primary cause. “A percentage of the impact belongs to JEA and JEA needs to mitigate for that impact,” she says.

“JEA basically got everything they were asking for,” says Armingeon, who was in attendance at the recent meeting. Armingeon says that he believes the District has “no leverage.”

“The consumptive use is causing environmental damage, there’s no question. And then the district gives them the permit,” says Armingeon, who doubted JEA would end up re-using thirty-seven percent of their wastewater.”

The city of Groveland, Florida, also had a permit request at Tuesday night’s meeting, of 1.4 million gallons a day. They were awarded a two-year permit. Armingeon says the decision was hypocritical.

“They tell Central Florida to cut back on the water supply, and then give JEA a bigger permit than ever before … It’s water-banking, pure and simple,” says Armingeon.”This was politics. JEA and these other utilities have backed these districts into a corner, and they’re going to get whatever they want. The inmates are running the asylum.”

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