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Cooperation and conservation in regional water management

Broward County, Fla., addresses a unique set of circumstances with an open-handed approach

October 01, 2013
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By Honey Rand, Ph.D.

<photocredit>Prill Mediendesign & Fotografie/iStockphoto/Thinkstock</photocredit>The United States enjoys access to abundant supplies of potable water. But, water suppliers know what the average person does not.

“Reliable delivery of affordable water requires increasingly diverse water sources and thoughtful decisions in balancing investments in new sources and infrastructure while considering the potential water supply benefits to be gained with effective water conservation programs,” says Jennifer Jurado, Ph.D., director, Natural Resources Planning and Management Div. for Broward County, Fla.

To meet these type challenges, Broward County adopted a “big picture” approach to managing water resources with emphasis on regional coordination and management strategies. This includes collaboration with the regional water regulator: the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD), municipalities, local water utilities and the numerous other water management entities across the county.

According to Jurado, water conservation is critical to this approach. Under pressure, with a real-time water crisis, Broward County officials and municipal leaders agreed to create a partnership for water conservation and education.

Working with 18 municipalities and water utilities the Broward Water Partnership was created — a regional collaboration of local governments committed to making conservation easy and appealing through rebates, incentives and a sustained outreach campaign. Through marketing, the distribution of rebates on high-efficiency toilets (HETs) and by offering free water-conserving fixtures, the partnership aims to save 30 million gallons of water per day over the next 20 years.

This management strategy is becoming more prevalent as water managers and suppliers deal with more frequent and severe droughts and as sea level rise and saltwater intrusion affect coastal water sources and communities. Today more than 50% of the U.S. population lives near the coast and this trend is expected to increase to 75% in the coming decades.

Water sources are limited, and the availability of “cheap” water, even more so. What, then, are the circumstances that moved Broward County to make changes?

Technologies for production

Alternative water sources and treatment technologies exist for expanding the total production of potable water. However, these are generally expensive, require infrastructure, and treatment processes can be energy intensive, while also resulting in the production of byproducts that must then be managed.

Saltwater is abundant and offers a long-term solution, but desalination can be a costly alternative and may not rank high in short- and mid-term planning. Water is recyclable, but the level of treatment can be fairly intensive, depending on the intended application, and in most communities extensive public education and engagement will be necessary before becoming policy.

“In Southeast Florida there is a complex set of issues,” Jurado says. “The region is densely populated and concentrated in a coastal zone with a sole-source aquifer that is vulnerable to saltwater intrusion. While population growth slowed temporarily, there is still a projected increase in water demand of about 12% or 214 million gallons per day in the next 20 years. At the same time, restricted use of traditional water sources and acceleration of saltwater intrusion due to sea level rise substantially constrains utilities and limits low-cost options.”

Broward County is situated between Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties. With a population of nearly 1.8 million people, Broward anticipates growth at roughly 1.3% per year over the next 20 years. The population is expected to reach 2.35 million by 2030. Balancing the demands for water with environmental protection is challenging, and Broward competes with hundreds of cities and more than a dozen counties for a limited water supply.

The state of affairs

In Broward County, water is provided by dozens of public and private utilities.

“Source water is provided from the Biscayne Aquifer which is recharged through local rainfall, regional canals, and groundwater seepage from the Everglades,” explains Jurado. “Ultimately, annual rainfall replenishes the aquifers that supply more than 90% of the region’s drinking water. But, in Florida, most of the rain falls in just a few months, and with a flat, low-lying landscape, there is little opportunity for long-term storage. What is more, demand is highest when rainfall is lowest as a result of winter residents and the yearlong irrigation of lawns and landscapes. This creates a management challenge.”

The South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) regulates water use for 18 counties in South Florida. Presently, Broward County, like neighboring counties, draws the majority of its water from the Biscayne Aquifer. In February 2007, the SFWMD adopted the Regional Water Availability Rule, which limits additional withdrawals from the Biscayne Aquifer. Consequently, it is becoming more and more critical to explore various alternatives to meet future demands while sustaining existing water sources.

Jurado says that this challenge is complicated by the number of water managers and providers throughout the region. Broward County is just one entity in the long line of water providers that is tapping into the Biscayne Aquifer. Throughout Broward County the various governmental jurisdictions and water utility service areas and their boundaries are not necessarily the same. The 31 municipalities, nearly two-dozen water districts and 28 public and private utilities within Broward County all share this resource, along with the equally diverse communities that surround Broward County.

“Because everyone shares the resource, it makes sense to work together on management solutions,” Jurado says.

Saying and doing

“When new water policies and water shortages were beginning to loom large and water providers throughout Broward County were confronted with potential massive investments there was an organized effort to consider more cost-affordable alternatives, including water conservation,” Jurado says.

While conservation is by far the least expensive way to provide “new water,” water conservation is often deemphasized and under-funded as part of long-term water supply planning strategy.

Broward County’s collaborative efforts in­clude technical and conservation strategies,various cost-share and grant programs, and the coordination of regional policy and technical advisory boards dedicated to water resource issues, the Board of County Commissioners and Broward League of Cities. This collaborative approach among municipal and county leaders has proven to provide the most efficient use of the avail­able water while protecting the environment and the supporting the community.

As a matter of policy, the Broward County Commission believes that water resource management can continue to improve from intergovernmental cooperation and implementation of effective conservation programs. Broward has sought to ensure that policy and programs are implemented in a manner that meets the needs of the urban population while providing the highest level of protections for the natural environment.

This is particularly true in the area of water resource management and Everglades restoration. Two-thirds of the County remains undeveloped conservation lands as part of the Everglades natural system. The Everglades restoration project is the largest of its kind in the world. The Everglades is essential to both water supply and the quality of life throughout South Florida and today is increasingly realized to be fundamental to regional climate mitigation and adaptation efforts.

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