The group, now called Florida Leaders Organized for Water (FLOW) had its genesis in Lake City one late November evening when hundreds descended on a joint meeting called by the county commissioners of Columbia, Hamilton and Suwannee counties to air concerns and anger that groundwater pumping in the Jacksonville area had sucked down the levels of springs, rivers and lakes in what was once water rich rural North Florida.

The St. Johns River Water Management District approval some six months earlier of a permit for Jacksonville’s utility to withdraw some 155 million gallon per day water reignited those feelings.

That evening, the gathered elected officials who called the meeting found that too much time had passed since the approval of that permit, which actually consolidated 27 separate existing permits, to mount a legal challenge against it.

Elected officials from several rural counties and municipalities and environmental group representatives did decide, however, to come together in an effort to speak with one voice on water issues at a tine when White Sulphur Springs has run dry, the flow in Ichetucknee Springs and the Suwannee and Santa Fe rivers is are down to record lows in some areas and the groundwater area feeding the Suwannee district had shrank significantly.

Now, after two subsequent organizational meetings, a proposal is on the table to form a regional joint government agency focused on the issue of water.

It would have no axing authority – with individual local government members contributing funding- but would have other government powers.

At this point, Alachua County commissioners are hesitant about joining, citing

uncertainty over the county’s financial obligation and what the future path of the group will be

“I’m not sure what the ultimate goal is,” said Commissioner Lee Pinkoson, who has attended the group’s meetings. “It would be nice to know what the plan of action is. We’re not to that point yet.”

During a discussion at Tuesday’s County Commission meeting, County Attorney Dave Wagner said one power the group would have is the legal authority to file lawsuits challenging future water permit approvals.

While the board could have representatives from community and environmental groups, the majority would have to be elected officials from member local governments.

To this point, Columbia County officials have taken a lead role with the group and made a funding pledge of $250,000.

Columbia County Manager Dale Williams could not be reached for comment Friday afternoon.

The FLOW group held its most recent monthly meeting in Lake City on Monday. The next day, Suwannee River Water Management District Executive Director David Still told members of a Florida Senate committee about the frustration and anger expressed at that meeting over springs and rivers drying up as water management districts continue to approve withdrawal permits.

“They’re scared to death,” Still said, “and they’re scared what the future of Florida looks like with our water resources the way they are. … They’re organized and they’re mad as hell, and they’re going to get some revenge, and they’re getting it on us. They’re getting it on the water management districts.”

Still said state water policy has to put a greater focus on conservation and, when possible, alternative sources such as reclaimed water.

Meanwhile, amid the longstanding concerns that groundwater pumping in the Jacksonville area is contributing to the continued degradation of water bodies in rural north Florida, the St. Johns and Suwannee districts now have an agreement to work more closely on regional water supply and permitting issues.

The St Johns district also released a study last week that concluded about 155 million gallons per day could be pumped out of the St. Johns River without environmental harm.

“It does show the river can help meet the growing need for sources,” said Ed Lowe, with the St. Johns district’s Bureau of Environmental Sciences.

Pumping water from the river could take some pressure off the region’s groundwater supplies.

Still, there is no mandate or authorization for Jacksonville’s utility — or any other — to go to the river.

Harold Wilkening, the St. Johns district’s director of the Division of Water Resources, said utilities eventually could decide on their own to use river water — or an alternative source — if the water management district does not allow additional groundwater withdrawals.

“If people go to the river, it will be because you can’t pump any more out of the ground because of impacts on the lakes,” Wilkening said.

Contact Christopher Curry at 374-5088 or [email protected]