Water Conservation in Central Florida

Even with a long history of water conservation, Stetson University is poised to make its biggest splash through the use of research, teaching and a new institute.

The lush, green, postcard-perfect campus of Stetson University in DeLand is hiding something. For many years, the luxuriant landscape of subtropical flowers, fronds and turf that surrounds stately residence halls and classroom buildings marked a community rich with generally imperceptible yet ardent water conservation initiatives. Millions of gallons of water are saved each year through widespread use of drought-tolerant plants, rainwater harvesting, efficient plumbing and energy-saving water systems. Native trees, flowers, shrubs and ground covers need little or no irrigation and if they do, recycled water is used. Almost 100 percent of the campus is irrigated with reclaimed wastewater, which after hydrating the vegetation seeps through the sand to replenish the Florida aquifer, the state’s largest source of fresh water. And responsible stewardship of Florida’s water isn’t restricted to two campuses and two centers along the Interstate 4 corridor. The health of Central Florida wetlands and the springs that flow from the aquifer are improved by students, faculty and staff in projects that remove invasive plants, restore native aquatics, and work to change and improve laws that harm the state’s fragile ecosystems that depend on water. Now, however, a more obvious and concerted initiative is taking shape that goes far beyond the university’s previous efforts. Stetson is moving out from behind the shade trees—and the timing couldn’t be better. Some experts flatly say Florida’s primary aquifer is endangered and, with it, life in Florida as we know it. “We have already damaged the aquifer,” says Clay Henderson, a Stetson alumnus and Orlando area environmental attorney. Springs are a window into our aquifer, he notes, adding they show signs of degradation in both flow and purity: “We have less water and it’s less pure.” Florida’s growing population is using more water than its abundant rainfall can replenish, cites Henderson, a member of the St. Johns River Alliance, a coalition of leaders within the river’s watershed. “This is simply not sustainable,” he asserts. Few disagree. Solutions and preventive measures have been debated for decades, sometimes on Stetson’s campuses. Now, the District proposes to relieve pressure on the aquifer by pumping 150 million gallons a day from the river when needed, a course some say would spell disaster for what is called Florida’s American Heritage River. Enter a new initiative that promises to be Stetson’s most significant water initiative ever. Last fall, Stetson’s leaders looked seriously into the water crisis and concluded the university should—and will—step into the vanguard of its region’s water predicament and create an environmental institute to focus on water sustainability through research, interdisciplinary teaching and community engagement. A national search is underway to expand faculty expertise with specialists who will join the conversation to help sculpt the institute. Stetson’s location is uniquely suited for the study of water issues, according to Karen Ryan, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. She points to several nearby freshwater springs, the neighboring Atlantic shore and the St. Johns River, not to mention more than 1,500 square miles of conservation lands. Her hope is the institute will quickly develop into a distinctive center for interdisciplinary learning and research related to water-related issues: “It should advance policy development at the forefront of research, develop leadership for solving challenging environmental problems and demonstrate sustainability as a core university value.”