Robert Maliva, principal hydrologist for WSP in the U.S., answers questions regarding the importance, strategies and trends of groundwater management in places like Florida.
Why is groundwater management a crucial consideration for sustainable development?
Maliva: Put simply, any new development that’s in the works requires water, and for states like Florida and other areas in the country, groundwater is the primary water source. But in many parts of Florida, groundwater use is reaching the limits of sustainability. In fact, there are only a few areas in the state where there is excess water for development.
As utility providers across Florida are scrambling to develop alternative water supplies — looking at possibilities like surface water treatment, desalination and wastewater recycling — it’s critical now to optimize the use of existing fresh, high-quality groundwater resources.
What are the biggest current threats for groundwater sustainability?
Maliva: The biggest threat is population increase. Florida is still seeing significant growth, particularly in the major urban coastal areas and Orlando region, and conventional fresh groundwater resources that have worked in the past are no longer sufficient to meet this growth in demand. That’s why regulatory agencies are putting limits on how much more water can be extracted from the aquifer.
Another threat to these coastal areas is the salinization of aquifers. This is due to excessive pumping. Along the coast, when too much groundwater is pumped, it can draw seawater landward, and in some instances, seawater can be drawn upwards. Fortunately, this is generally under control and monitored in most locations.
One big wildcard is climate change. We really aren’t sure what’s going to happen in Florida when it comes to climate change. If it gets warmer, we’ll have an increase in demand for groundwater, and it’s uncertain whether we’ll see more or less rainfall and how that pattern is going to affect aquifer recharge and the amount of water that’s available.
For a long time, there was plentiful fresh groundwater that could be extracted in many areas, but that’s just not the case anymore.
What are some of the innovative strategies for groundwater management efforts going forward?
Maliva: One of the things that we’re seeing more of in Florida is cooperative projects between the different utility providers. Historically, the pattern has been that each community’s utility wanted to control their own water resources and have their own well fields.
There’s a need to develop alternative water supplies, and brackish groundwater desalination is probably the primary source of additional groundwater in the state. But as these alternative supplies are being developed, it’s become clear that it’s more economical for communities to come and work together.
For example, we’re working on a project right now in Polk County with the Polk Regional Water Cooperative, which includes 16 different member governments in that region. They’re all working together with the Southwest Florida Water Management District, contributing financially and providing input and advice to develop alternative water supplies that will support all of them. In that case, rather than everyone operating on their own, they’re looking county-wide for cooperative solutions to their common problems.
Describe some of the other notable, recent trends in groundwater management, like the push for cooperative solutions?
Maliva: In addition to cooperative management, there’s a transition going on from fresh groundwater to alternative sources, like the brackish groundwater desalination method. We’re also seeing more managed aquifer recharge being employed across the state to try to increase the amount of water in storage.
I would say those are the big three trends that I’m seeing in groundwater management.
How does WSP improve effective groundwater management?
Maliva: We have team members who have been working on groundwater management projects in Florida for more than 30 years, and we support every aspect of these projects.
One of our specialties with our Florida group, specifically, is the development of brackish groundwater well fields for desalinization systems. We’re one of the leaders in that field in terms of the amount of capacity of systems constructed. Also, a key part of the desalinization process is that you produce salty water as a byproduct, and our team finds environmentally safe disposal methods for that byproduct.
WSP is taking a leadership role in solving resiliency issues and adapting to climate change in this country, and water supplies are certainly part of that.
Part of the groundwater management equation that’s now coming into focus is this: if we’re already at our sustainable limits, then what’s going to happen if climate change causes a sudden, drastic increase in the demand for water?
That’s how WSP is working to improve groundwater management, both in Florida and the rest of the country.
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