Sharing Water Conference: Agriculture Solutions

The above photo of an algae covered turtle swimming among algae mats was taken at a sinkhole near to Wakulla Spring.  The sink is a stop on Jim Stevenson’s Wakulla Spring Overland Tour, which WFSU will be taping as part of our EcoShakespeare series.  Jim uses the sink as an example of the connectivity between area sinks and Wakulla Spring, and to illustrate the high level of nitrates entering the spring.  Wakulla Spring’s issues are representative of those facing the larger Floridan aquifer, through which the Wakulla Spring underground cave system runs.  The Floridan aquifer was the focus of the Sharing Water Conference in Monticello earlier this month.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

Are agriculture and the environment inherent enemies?  Seven billion people on this planet need to eat.  Industrial agriculture produces food on a large scale, but can tax water supplies and create nutrient rich runoff that can wreck marine and freshwater ecosystems.   Small organic farms like those in the video above take great care to use practices that protect waterways.  But can the world be fully fed by this type of agriculture?  In early October, a diverse group of people gathered in Monticello to discuss issues such as these.

On October 2-4 2014, the Sharing Water Conference looked at issues facing the Floridan aquifer.  Geologists, legislators, lawyers, land and water managers, farmers, and other concerned citizens gathered to learn about the aquifer and the challenges facing it.  Through a series of multidisciplinary discussions, the conference looked to find innovative solutions facing this giant limestone formation that stretches from South Carolina to Orlando.

The aquifer is the source of springs and rivers.  And it is also the source of the tap water within its range.  Tallahassee has 27 wells that bore beneath the clay of our red hills and into well protected limestone.  Cities like Tallahassee and Monticello are situated on red clay which filters pollutants from water as it sublimes into the earth.  It’s great protection for the aquifer, but it also means that water fills it slowly, possibly at a rate less than that we withdraw.

In his speech at the conference and in his interview with us, State Senator Bill Montford lamented a decrease in the quality and quantity of water in our springs.  As was noted in a recent report on the state of Wakulla Spring, the slow recharge rate of the Red Hills proportionate to water consumption is listed as a possible cause in the increase in the Spring’s dark water days.  In other words, we may be using that clear water faster than rain can replace it.  The report advocates conservation measures, and public education on better conservation practices.

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This water treatment facility in Monticello, FL, uses a five-carousel system to filter human waste from wastewater. The water then travels four miles south to a lake at Simpson’s Nursery. Treated effluent accounts for about 400,000 of the 2 million gallons the nursery uses daily.

Another issue facing Wakulla Spring is an increase of nutrients in the water supply.  A problem area identified in the report are the spray fields in the south of Tallahassee, where “gray water” is sprayed on plants in a field located north of sinkholes that feed the Wakulla Spring system.  Gray water is treated sewage, with most of the “sludge” removed (What is sludge?  Watch the video.  I apologize in advance for the image).  It does still contain nitrates, an excess of which can contribute to algae growth and possibly the growth of invasive hydrilla.  Driving with springs advocate Jim Stevenson yesterday to scout our Wakulla Springs Shakespeare EcoAdventure, he did mention that improvements are being made to the wastewater treatment plant feeding the spray fields that would reduce nitrates from over 12 mg per liter to under 3 mg/L.

As you can see in the video, there is a similar arrangement in Monticello between that city and Simpson’s Nursery.  The nursery is located north of the Cody Escarpment, in the Red Hills region; the Tallahassee spray fields are located on the Woodville Karst Plain.  The Red Hills filters water and protects the aquifer; on the WKP, the aquifer is much closer to the surface and water enters more freely.  The Simpson’s Nursery arrangement seems beneficial to the nursery and to the city of Monticello.  The city is spared the expense of disposing of its gray water, and doing so in a way that keeps it out of waterways.  The nursery pumps 400,000 gallons a day less from the aquifer, saving in electrical costs.  These are the kinds of solutions that were sought at the Sharing Water Conference- private business working together with government to mutual benefit and to the benefit of our groundwater supply.

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Both Turkey Hill and Full Earth farms use a compost made from fish waste and wood chips. The fish waste comes from local seafood markets, the wood chips from tree cutters. These products would otherwise have sat in landfills, but now they are used to fertilize plants on these small organic farms. #fishcompost

In the final part of the video, I included interviews I conducted for segments on the Red Hills Small Farm Alliance (watch our first Red Hills Farm EcoAdventure here).  I wanted to show alternative methods of protecting waterways.  There is a lot of noise about wetlands legislation, and it is definitely important to decide how best to conserve sensitive ecosystems.  But many of the burdens placed on our water supply can be eased by more efficient practices in our homes, businesses, and farms.  Simpson’s Nursery uses reclaimed and recycled water and reduces their withdrawals from the aquifer.  Turkey Hill and Full Earth farms fertilize their plants using materials that would otherwise sit in a landfill, creating compost that keeps nutrients in soils and out of water (not to mention saving local fish markets a trip to the dump).  These are practices that are cost effective as well as environmentally friendly.

Cost effective AND environmentally friendly.  Beneficial to business AND government.  Solutions are out there, and they don’t always have to arise from conflict, which is so often at the center of environmental debates.  Do any of you reading this know of any similar “win-win” arrangements that benefit the environment and private interests?  Let us know below in the comments section.

Slide presentations from the Sharing Water Conference were uploaded to their site earlier this week.  They are packed with information for those of us who want to learn more.

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About Rob Diaz de Villegas

Rob Diaz de Villegas is a senior producer for WFSU-TV, covering environment and the outdoors. Rob is in the process of completing Roaming the Red Hills, an exploration of north Florida/ south Georgia ecology funded by Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy. Rob’s previous ecology projects include EcoShakespeare, which was funded by PBS member station WNET and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and In the Grass, On the Reef, a collaboration with the Florida State University Coastal and Marine Lab funded by the National Science Foundation. Rob’s EcoAdventure segments air on WFSU’s Local Routes and can be found on the WFSU Ecology Blog.