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The Santa Fe and Ichetucknee

A Citizen's Guide to protecting the

rivers and springs of the Santa Fe Basin

The Santa Fe and Ichetucknee Rivers and their springs are important to the people of Alachua County. 

Protection of these resources is largely in the hands of State agencies. Their flow has fallen below the level that can sustain a healthy ecosystem. Why? How do we fix it? The key to reversing the damage and protecting our area's waterways is for the residents who love and depend on the water in this basin to be informed and involved. This is your roadmap.

Overhead view of the Santa Fe River and Poe Spring

Photo by Kelly Del Valle

The Santa Fe River's flow has declined

The Santa Fe and Ichetucknee Rivers' flows are in decline because the Water Management District continues to issue consumptive use permits that beyond what the aquifer can sustain. In theory, the permitting system overseen by the water management districts ensures that water is distributed to those who want to use it, for public supply, agriculture, or industry, without harming the environment, but the Santa Fe and Ichetucknee Rivers continue to lose flow. What has gone wrong, and what tools are available to address it?

This graph shows the decline in Santa Fe River’s flow, decade-by-decade.

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In violation of its
Minimum Flow and Level (MFL)

Florida Statutes require the State to establish Minimum Flows and Levels (MFLs) to determine “the limit at which further withdrawals would be significantly harmful to the water resources or ecology of the area.” 

Both Santa Fe River and the nearby Ichetucknee Rivers fell below their required minimum flows (MFLs) in 2015 because the water management districts approved harmful water use permits beyond what the aquifer could sustain.

Falling below the MFL triggers the adoption of a “recovery strategy” to restore adequate flows. State law requires the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to adopt a recovery strategy, which should set a limit on water use permits to protect the ecology of the rivers and their associated springs and restore flow.

So in 2015 a Recovery Strategy was adopted.

Why hasn't it helped? Not only have flows not been restored, pumping has INCREASED in the eight years since the recovery strategy was implemented.

 

This is because the strategy did not include regulations to limit current or even new withdrawals. 

 

  • Existing pumping permits were not reduced.

  • Renewal permits were automatically approved for five years. Even where increased pumping from the permit would further harm the Santa Fe and Ichetucknee, such as with the contested “Seven Springs Bottling Permit” at Ginnie Springs.

Clearly, these rivers can not recover the necessary flow to prevent significant harm as long as the permits that caused the problem in the first place are allowed to operate unchanged!

  • Even NEW applications or renewals asking for an increase were approved unless they demonstrated an impact on the rivers.

The "de minimus" Loophole

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The District approved 28 NEW permits in Alachua County, and denied none, even as withdrawals continued well past unsustainable. How?

If the impact is determined by Water Management District staff to be “de minimis” – that is, trivial – the permit is approved. The value that is considered a “de minimis” impact is not to be found on the District website, in their rules, or in any technical publication. It is not even clear if each district uses the same de minimis criterion. As long as each individual permit did not exceed this vaguely defined limit, all could be approved, no matter their cumulative impact. Which is how withdrawals not only did not decrease, they INCREASED by 6 million gallons per day - and that's just in Alachua County, one county in the Santa Fe basin. 

A Regional Plan

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Florida’s water management districts are required to create Regional Water Supply Plans to meet future water needs while protecting the environment. The Santa Fe and Ichetucknee River basins are included in the North Florida Regional Water Supply Plan.

Spoiler alert - we cannot depend on the Regional Plan to adequately achieve reductions in water use needed to restore the Santa Fe and Ichetucknee Rivers. 

According to the plan, groundwater use is expected to increase by 135 million gallons per day, a 30% increase. 

 

While CONSERVATION (reducing water use) is, according to the plan's budget, four times more cost-efficient and more efficient in general, the plan relies on expensive SUPPLY PROJECTS to address 90% of the increased demand.

More effective and cost-efficient CONSERVATION projects account for only 10% of the plan. 

All without a budget to effectively carry out these plans.

  • The Santa Fe and Ichetucknee Rivers are already experiencing “significant harm” due to over-pumping of groundwater within the basin.

  • The North Florida Regional Water Supply Plan anticipates a 30% increase in groundwater withdrawals over the next twenty-five years, without providing a realistic plan to offset those increases through water conservation projects.

  • The current Recovery Strategy isn't isn’t denying or reducing permits to reduce use, either

Restoring the flow of the Santa Fe and Ichetucknee Rivers requires a strong regulatory plan to limit harmful water withdrawals. Current plans do not have the strong regulations needed.

 

It is up to the residents of the Santa Fe Basin, including Alachua County, to be engaged in the process to strengthen the updated Recovery Strategy expected in 2025.

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