For Florida's Water Supply, There's Less Than Meets the Eye

7 Rivers Water Festival brings Florida’s water-supply issues to light with a range of displays, games and presentations for all ages.
For Florida's Water Supply, There's Less Than Meets the Eye
Kids at the 7 Rivers Water Festival get an up-close look at wildlife, courtesy of the National Audubon Society’s local chapter and the Florida Department of Natural Resources.

Florida is running out of water — seriously. To understand that, you have to look beneath the surface.

Nearly 19 percent of Florida’s surface is water — but much of that is unusable. “Florida has had water issues for quite a while,” says Jacqueline Hollister, an environmental specialist with Polk County Utilities. “You don’t see national coverage of it because we aren’t dealing with the droughts you see in the west.”

Fun with a purpose

Water conservation is an important, if under-appreciated, idea in Florida. Hollister hopes the subject moves to the forefront soon. It’s one of the main drivers behind the 7 Rivers Water Festival, an annual May event that brings together community and conservation organizations in a fun and educational environment.

The family outdoor celebration offers games, prizes, demonstrations, food and exhibits. Speakers and displays show the community ways to protect and enjoy the county’s numerous lakes and wetlands, and emphasize how conservation can slow the rise of utility costs.

Polk County is an ideal location for the event. According to the U.S. EPA, it is home to seven river basins and is an important feeding area for a large share of the state’s clean water reserves. “Our water affects much of the state, so it’s important that our residents understand that their actions matter,” Hollister says.

The event demonstrates cooperation between conservation groups and the public, addressing subjects that affect current and future water supplies. Presentations on fish and wildlife, lake water quality, natural resources, utility services and water supply issues encourage personal responsibility and public involvement.

An important message is to understand that diverse water issues are actually interrelated.

“Our top aim is to educate families and young children in Polk County, but as everyone knows, Florida is filled with transplants as well,” Hollister says. “Those people may have come from areas where water supply isn’t an issue, and they may not realize it’s an issue here.”

Reaching transplants

Over-irrigation is a major and easily preventable problem in the county. Hollister notes that the average resident uses about 50 gallons of freshwater per day, but those who overwater use more than twice as much.

“Florida gets 52 inches of rainfall a year, which isn’t a whole lot to replenish our clean water reserves, especially if they are being taxed by too much irrigating,” she says. “A lot of our transplants choose plants that aren’t right for Florida’s climate, so they need to overwater them just to keep them alive. At the festival, we have booths from horticulturists and landscapers who discuss the right kinds of plants to grow here.”

Excessive irrigation water also runs off into one of the seven river basins. “The runoff carries fertilizers and pesticides into the waterways,” says Hollister. “It ends up being one big circle and is doubly bad for our water reserves.”

Attractions for all

Festival attendees can make a lasting impression by voting for the finalists in the county’s annual water conservation art contest. Every K-12 school student in the county can submit a poster, with first-, second- and third-place finishers adorning the county’s conservation-themed calendar. “Having their art on display is a big deal to the kids,” says Hollister. “I think the attendees enjoy the chance to see conservation through children’s eyes.”

Attendees can also take part in a cardboard boat challenge and get an up-close look at area wildlife, while their parents can learn ways to reduce their water bills. “We want attractions that appeal to everyone,” says Hollister. “The key is to bring in more diverse organizations and get more of them on board with what we’re doing.

“Many people don’t realize that we’re literally running out of potable water here. Instead of making it sound threatening, it’s best to present the idea in a fun and friendly way.”


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