The 2011 figure is the result of an increase from 2010 of 0.46 million gallons of reclaimed water available per day, which in turn was a 0.23 million-gallons-a-day increase from 2009, according to data from GRU.
Reclaimed water can be used by homeowners and business owners as an alternative to ground water for needs such as lawn irrigation, thereby decreasing the demands on other water sources, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. It can also be used to recharge ground water and eliminate discharges that could pollute surface waters.
“Water supplies are diminishing, so anything we can do to conserve water is a good thing,” said Agustin Olmos, water resources manager for Alachua County. “Reclaimed water is just as important as any other source of water.”
GRU’s reclaimed water use rose from 1998 to 2007 before slightly diminishing in 2008 from an all-time high in 2007 of 3.15 million gallons per day to 3.08 million per day.
But in 2009, the amount of reclaimed water flow had its biggest drop in 17 years, plummeting from 3.08 to 1.83 million gallons per day.
Rick Hutton, GRU supervising utility engineer, wrote in an email that the decline in reclaimed water use in the last few years is due in part to its customers using water more efficiently.
GRU hasn’t been connecting new customers to the reclaimed water pipe network as rapidly as it had in previous years because construction has slowed due to the U.S. economic downturn.
As the economy improves, however, Hutton said the customer base should increase.
GRU’s reclaimed water use began to climb in 2001, with a large increase of 1.15 million gallons from the previous year.
Since then, GRU has expanded its customer base for reclaimed water and now serves about 1,000 people who use it for irrigation. About 900 of them are residential customers, Hutton wrote.
“Generally, it’s very desirable because people are able to use it to water their yards, and it’s less expensive than potable irrigation,” Hutton said.
GRU has two water reclamation facilities, one bordering Lake Kanapaha off Tower Road and one on Main Street, Hutton said. Some of the water that cycles through each plant eventually flows back into the Floridan aquifer.
“It’s probably over 100 years before it ever reaches somebody’s tap, but the Floridan aquifer is part of the drinking water supply,” he said.
GRU is also working with the city of Gainesville Public Works Department on the Paynes Prairie Sheetflow Restoration project, a $26 million program that aims to use reclaimed water and stormwater to improve water quality and restore more than 1,300 acres of wetlands on the prairie.
Reclaimed water use is regulated at the state level by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and at the regional level by water management districts. Florida’s Reuse Program, which was created in response to the objectives regarding water reuse listed in a 2011 state statute, requires oversight of permitting.
The St. Johns River Water Management District’s consumptive-use permitting program requires the use of reclaimed water and stormwater where feasible, such as if a golf course needs water for irrigation, said Teresa Monson, public communications coordinator for the district.
“We recognize that there is not just a single solution to solving our water supply challenges, so what we believe is that there should be a combination of sources along with conservation to help stretch our traditional freshwater supplies,” she said.
The Suwannee River Water Management District requests that applicants for consumptive-use permits who have the opportunity to use reclaimed water do so, or else show why that isn’t feasible, said Executive Director David Still.
“We want to know (why). As it stands today under the current law, reused water is still a resource of the state. It doesn’t belong to the utilities, it belongs to people,” he said.
A bill in the Florida House of Representatives aims to change the rules regarding the use of reclaimed water by utilities.
If passed, House Bill 639 would allow water management districts to require the use of reclaimed water only under specific conditions and would otherwise prohibit water districts from requiring reclaimed water permits. Utilities would no longer need to meet the districts’ consumptive-use permit requirements for reclaimed water as they do today.
The bill, written by Rep. Dana Young, R-Tampa, would also prohibit water management districts from either restricting or requiring certain services by reuse utilities.
“We are charged with the protection of surface and groundwater, which is in trust for the public,” Still said. “Now if that bill passes and the governor signs it, you’re saying water doesn’t belong to the people, it belongs to the utility.”
While the Legislature determines the fate of the reclaimed water bill, an ongoing drought in Florida raises the question of how much water will be available for use regardless of lawmakers’ decisions.
According to the U.S. Drought Monitor website, all of Florida is experiencing some level of drought as of Feb. 2. Alachua County is experiencing a severe drought.
Florida is still pumping a lot of water for consumptive use despite the drought, said Chris Bird, environmental protection director for the Alachua County Environmental Protection Department.
“As we get further into this drought … we’re reaching a more concerning situation where we might actually get to the point where wells are running dry and it gets more expensive to supply water to people,” he said.