The Problem of Salt: How can we best protect our groundwater reserves? by Will Brodner

Over one-third of Earth’s underground reservoirs are being rapidly depleted by human consumption.[1] Even worse, there is not much accurate data explaining how much water is left in these basins. Groundwater systems around the world are in danger as humans rapidly draw on their resources with no way of knowing when the waters will dry up.

One such vulnerable system is the Floridan Aquifer System (FAS). This groundwater system underlies the entire state of Florida and extends into parts of Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and South Carolina.[2] As one of the most productive aquifers in the world, it supplies critical drinking water for over 10 million people.[3] The system is separated into the Upper and Lower Floridan aquifers, with three middle composite units generally dividing the two; however, in sections where these composite units are permeable the Upper and Lower aquifers behave as one hydrogeologic system.[4]


Despite its vast resources, stress on the groundwater system has been building for some time. Withdrawals from the FAS began in 1887 in Savannah, Georgia, when the city began to use groundwater to supplement their surface water supplies from the Savannah River.[5] By 1912, extensive development of the FAS had occurred along both coasts of Florida. As the number of wells increased over time due to increased demand, finished depths increased as well. By the 1950s, all municipal, domestic, industrial water supply (aside from cooling), alongside half of the agricultural water supply had been converted to FAS groundwater.[6]

The escalating demands on this system from groundwater extraction leave it vulnerable to saltwater intrusion. In a healthy hydrogeologic system, especially coastal aquifers like the FAS, saltwater intrusion can occur naturally. Because seawater has a higher mineral content than freshwater, it is denser and has a higher water pressure, enabling it to push inland below freshwater.[7] Human activity can exacerbate this effect when demands on a groundwater system become so persistent that the system has no time to replenish itself, leaving empty space in the reservoir for seawater to fill.[8] This problem is already present in the FAS, where researchers have discovered elevated chloride concentrations in more than 70 wells tapping the Upper Floridan and upper zone of the Lower Floridan aquifer.[9]

However, there are ways to push back against these dangerous trends. By changing the rules surrounding groundwater extraction, the Florida legislature could act now to safeguard the FAS for generations to come. Here are two solutions worth considering:

Groundwater Extraction Pricing

One solution to alleviate stress on the FAS is to begin pricing groundwater extraction permits. Under the current system, the only cost incurred by corporations or private companies looking to take water from any of the state’s many groundwater-fed springs is a one-time application fee of $115.[10] This allows companies to pump millions of gallons of groundwater out of the FAS every day at no charge, which they then sell back to Florida residents to turn a profit. The Florida legislature should pass legislation to charge companies for groundwater extraction by the gallon, rather than letting them suck the aquifer dry for free.

With no cost to the extraction of groundwater from the FAS, the amount of water taken from this valuable reservoir has overtaken the natural replenishment rate. From 1950 to 2010, average spring flows in Florida declined by 32 percent, while groundwater use increased by 400 percent during the same period.[11] In August of 2019, the Florida Springs Institute reported that in order to restore average spring flows to 95 percent of historic levels, groundwater extractions need to decrease by over 50 percent. Putting a price on extraction is a common-sense solution to slow this process. Additionally, revenue from a pricing scheme could finance programs to help restore the FAS and other groundwater systems to a healthy state.

Limiting the Issuance of Extraction Permits

Another solution for the legislature to consider is limiting the overall number of extraction permits. While a groundwater pricing scheme could be effective at slowing the extraction of water from the FAS, it is possible that private companies could choose to pay the fees and continue pumping water out of the system at an alarming rate. The Swiss multinational food and drink company Nestlé currently holds a permit allowing them to extract 395,000 gallons of water per day for the next 10 years from Cypress Springs in Vernon, Florida.[12] Even if the company was forced to pay a 7-cent tax on each gallon removed – an idea proposed in 2009 by former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist that ultimately went nowhere – it is possible that the current state of the FAS cannot accommodate the level of extraction that permits like this allow.[13]

Limiting the number of extraction permits that can be issued would cap the number of gallons that can be removed daily from springs across the FAS. Coupled with a pricing scheme whose revenue could be used to fund groundwater restoration efforts, this initiative could preserve the health of Florida’s groundwater system. Rather than wait for processes like saltwater intrusion or algal blooms, exacerbated by human extraction efforts, to render the FAS unusable, Floridians should demand action to safeguard this critical public good.

[1] “Study: Third of Big Groundwater Basins in Distress.” Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, June 2015.

[2] “Floridan Aquifer System Groundwater Availability Study”. U.S. Geological Survey. Retrieved April 6, 2016.

[3] Marella, R.L., and Berndt, M.P., 2005, Water withdrawals and trends from the Floridan aquifer system in the southeastern United States, 1950-2000: U.S. Geological Survey Circular 1278, 20 p.,

[4] Williams, L.J., and Kuniansky, E.L., 2015, Revised hydrogeologic framework of the Floridan aquifer system in Florida and parts of Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina: U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 1807, 140 p., 23 pls., doi:10.3133/pp1807 (

[5] U.S. Geological Survey.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Johnson, Teddy (2007). “Battling Seawater Intrusion in the Central & West Coast Basins” (PDF). Water Replenishment District of Southern California. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2012-09-08. Retrieved 2012-10-08.

[8] Bradford, Nick. “Groundwater and the Rising Seas.” National Environmental Education Foundation. Retrieved April 8 2020.

[9] Spechler, Rick (2001). “The Relation Between Structure and Saltwater Intrusion in the Floridan Aquifer System, Northeastern Florida.” U.S. Geological Survey.

[10] “Time to end the corporate giveaway of Florida’s water.” Orlando Sentinel. August 2019.

[11] Sainto, Michael and Skojec, Chelsea. “Bottled water is sucking Florida dry.” September 2019.

[12] Moody, Haley. “Fla. gets a tiny paycheck as Nestle taps its springs.” Florida Springs Institute. January 2020.

[13] “Time to end the corporate giveaway of Florida’s water.” Orlando Sentinel.

2 thoughts on “The Problem of Salt: How can we best protect our groundwater reserves? by Will Brodner

  1. Thank you Will for writing a great post on a very important topic. Groundwater is crucial to our water supply, so it’s important that we maintain this resource. I really enjoyed learning about the Florida Aquifer System from you blog post, and it’s unfortunate that the FAS has been contaminated from saltwater intrusion.

    I think the market-based solutions that you propose are excellent ways to help solve this issue. Charging companies based off how much water they extract rather than charging them a one-time fee definitely makes more sense and helps prevent overexploitation of resources from these companies. Reducing extraction by putting a cap on the number of permits definitely will help helping prevent the groundwater from being used up too quickly. Overall, I think the ideas presented are two very good market-based approaches to solve the issue of groundwater and prevent overexploitation of this valuable resource.

  2. Saltwater intrusion appears to be an ongoing issue that’s cropped in in various regions of the United States. I know the coastal plains of North Carolina are currently threatened with alarming rates of intrusion, on top of mass nutrient loading and surface water pollution from CAFO runoff into basin areas. It seems that the issue will be further exacerbated by ocean level rise. The market-based approaches you proposed certainly get to the crux of water demand and penalize some of the heaviest industrial users. As you mentioned, the FAS spans not just Florida’s boundaries, but several other southern states as well. Permit regulations at the Florida level may not penalize detrimental extraction in Alabama, or South Carolina. Just like with surface water regulation, a larger debate on inter-state, co-operative regulation needs to develop. In more extreme cases, such as precarious status of the South West and Midwest agricultural regions ( I wonder whether it should involve federal intervention to regulate water permits by sector, overriding municipal water control. Overall, this leads us into a larger philosophical debate on how we commodify and distribute water access in the United States. Personally, I think fundamental changes in average American water consumption and attitudes need to be as heavily discussed as our carbon footprints, transportation, and waste habits. Reactionary limits to water use at the city or county level in times of drought just aren’t cutting it.

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