Seaside helps to protect water resources By Christian Wagley
Imagine being able to drink all you want of some of the purest water on the planet. That’s the case for Seaside and nearby communities, where the water flowing from the tap is so clean that one should never have to reach for bottled water.
That pure water comes courtesy of miles of undeveloped pine forests, where nature provides a beautiful system of filtering for the water we use. Our local water cycle begins as our abundant rainfall is first intercepted in the canopy of trees, where leaves and branches slow the velocity and even retain water high above.
It then falls through to be further captured by shrubs and grasses before gently trickling through layers of fallen leaves and into the ground. Any impurities are trapped and filtered by the vegetation and soil microbes, and water slowly moves deep underground through varying formations of sand, gravel and limestone.
For South Walton County, our water is drawn from the Floridan aquifer, a water-bearing formation amongst limestone that is several hundred feet beneath the surface. A collection of supply wells are clustered in the Rock Hill wellfield, in a sandhill landscape a few miles north of Freeport in central Walton County. Water is pumped from the ground here and then distributed to coastal communities through a large water line that parallels Highway 331.
Water flows so clean from the aquifer that only chlorine for disinfection is added in order to keep any pathogens at bay. Where many other communities have to further treat and filter their drinking water, that’s not the case here. Our good fortune in having such clean water is part geography and part human history.
The geography comes in having a landscape and geology that together filter and cleanse our aquifer, while also providing an overlying layer of clay that helps to confine any contaminants that might come down from above. Our history is one of a mostly rural community with only scattered small towns and settlements, meaning that the area did not have the industrial development that often contaminates water supplies in other communities.
While the quality of local drinking water is excellent, there have been issues of quantity. Our over 60 inches of annual rainfall comes throughout the year, with slightly drier periods in mid-spring and again in fall. It’s plenty of water to meet our all of our needs if we use it wisely, though that has not always been the case.
Decades ago, there were many more large water wells along the coast, where over-pumping of groundwater caused saltier waters from the Gulf of Mexico to move inland and to contaminate those water supplies as overlying layers of freshwater dropped. State officials designated South Walton County a “water resource caution area” and placed limits on further withdrawals, which resulted in the creation of new water supply wells farther inland. Nevertheless, it remains incumbent upon us to conserve and protect water supplies in all areas, which are a finite though renewable resource.
Seaside has played a historic role in protecting our water resources as the first community in the area and one of the first in the nation to embrace an ethic of landscape design in which native plants are featured on homesites and around common spaces. These indigenous landscapes need little or no supplemental water through irrigation. Water-thirsty lawns only occur in the town’s public spaces where people gather, which vastly reduces community water use in comparison with a conventional community in which each home is surrounded by turfgrass. It’s a model for responsibility that has since been replicated by other communities along the 30A corridor.
So raise a glass (or reusable water bottle) in celebration of our clean and abundant water, and drink away.
Christian Wagley is principal of Sustainable Town Concepts, working with communities to improve their environmental performance.