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What wet and wild Florida could learn from the arid West
By CYNTHIA BARNETT Special to the Times
Published July 8, 2007
In 1876, John Wesley Powell, the adventuresome major who headed the U.S. Geological Survey, declared that a longitudinal line along the 100th meridian divided a moist East from an arid West. To the west of the line down the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, a lack of rainfall would require cooperative irrigation and an equitable system of water rights to ensure scarce water would be used for the greatest good. East of it, more than 20 inches of rainfall a year meant people could settle and grow - without irrigation - any crop that could take the heat.
Powell, the first American to explore the wild Colorado River, likely would be shocked by its modern-day taming, and the hardly equitable system that greens 1.7-million acres of desert and supplies water to 25-million people in seven states.
But he might be all the more surprised by the water crisis lapping at the other side of the country. This year's drought, the worst to hit the Southeast since record-keeping began in 1895, is only the most visible sign of the water woes now permanent in the East.
Traditionally wet Eastern states have drained themselves dry to make way for sprawling development and rapid population growth. In northeastern Massachusetts, parts of the Ipswich River dry up each summer - when Boston suburbanites turn on their sprinklers. In New Jersey, the Potomac-Raritan-Magothy Aquifer, the state's largest source of drinking water, has dipped 100 feet due to groundwater pumping that threatens saltwater intrusion.
Nowhere in the country are water shortages more puzzling and prophetic than in Florida - with an annual average 55 inches of rainfall and a regular guest on the Weather Channel thanks to its hurricanes and floods. The wildfire burning on Lake Okeechobee's parched bed last month made for dramatic TV, as the lake dropped to its lowest level ever. But just as worrisome is the vanishing water in our aquifers - water supply for 90 percent of Floridians.
This spring, the USGS reported South Florida's groundwater "reached the lowest levels ever recorded for this time of year." While drought is part of the natural cycle, USGS also blamed "increasing public demand on aquifer resources, " with a 25 percent population jump between 1995 and 2005.
Water scarcity in America, once confined to the arid West, is the new reality of the East. At the University of Nebraska's National Drought Mitigation Center, director Don Wilhite told me that researchers who for years worked on the water problems of the West now are being called upon to help cities and farmers in the East. "We're seeing that the number of basins or watersheds at the point of being overappropriated is increasing, " Wilhite said.
The problem is not that we don't have enough water. It's that we squander too much. Florida, more than half submerged when it entered the union in 1845, has ditched, drained and paved itself into permanent scarcity.
When we destroy wetlands, we destroy a key cog in our drinking-water supply system, since wetlands absorb water during rainy times and release it in dry. Meanwhile, Florida's water managers have overpermitted groundwater resources. Their generosity means farmers, our heaviest water users, have little incentive to stop inefficient flood irrigation still used on nearly half of Florida's crops. It means community developers can get away with not only requiring sod - but demanding residents keep it the right shade of green.
Water spending, too, has moved from west to east. The New York Times recently noted some $2.5-billion in water projects planned or under way in four Western states, "the biggest expansion in the West's quest for water in decades." But states east of the 100th meridian are building far costlier projects, including those associated with the now-$20-billion plan to restore the Everglades, as well as an orgy of reservoirs, desalination plants and other expensive alternatives.
Tampa Bay Water has built the largest seawater desalination plant in North America. It's $40-million over budget, five years late and still hasn't passed crucial compliance tests. The cost of water, first advertised at $1.71 per 1, 000 gallons, is now estimated at $3.19. The most interesting part of the story: In the years the plant's troubles dragged on, Tampa Bay Water reduced overall groundwater pumping in the region from 192-million to 121-million gallons a day despite population growth - and without a drop of the desalted water officials once insisted they needed to meet that goal.
Floridians don't yet understand that population growth and economic prosperity need not equal increased water consumption. Nationally, water use stopped rising in the '80s, yet population as well as gross domestic product have grown steadily ever since.
Just as screwing in compact fluorescents won't stop global warming, the year-round, three-day-a-week watering restrictions proposed in South Florida won't get us out of this crisis. A revolutionary change in the way we think about water might. Do farmers really need to flood their fields? Do we really need to flush toilets with water treated to meet EPA drinking-water standards?
In 2001, after Florida's last drought, the Department of Environmental Protection led a major study on how to stop wasteful and uneconomical water use. None of its 51 final recommendations became state law with real enforcement. Why wouldn't we make a serious, statewide effort to tackle inefficiency before building some of the most expensive, and riskiest, water projects in the nation?
Real efficiency also would reduce the need for contentious water diversions from rivers such as the Suwannee. For the water wars, too, have moved east. Eastern rivers being fought over in recent years include the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint basin shared among Florida, Georgia and Alabama; the Potomac; the Roanoke; and others. South Carolina's attorney general just appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court to block North Carolina's plan to take water from its Catawba River.
At Florida State University, law professor J.B. Ruhl believes this side of the country is lucky it is only now engaging in the conflicts and legal compacts that build up what's known as the "Law of the River." In the West, most interstate compacts, federal legislation and Supreme Court cases dividing up rivers predated environmental laws. New agreements in the East, Ruhl says, could ensure water for nature and people.
At the University of Florida, fisheries professor Bill Pine, who studies fish here and in the Colorado River, believes just the opposite. Pine sees the environmental commitment of citizens as much better established in the West, and believes the Southeast doesn't have the conservation ethic needed for real change. California last month shut down pumps that supply water to 25-million people to protect the endangered Delta smelt. Contrast that with the South Florida Water Management District's recent request to Washington for permission to tap Everglades conservation-area water to restock public supplies.
On the other side of Florida, Swiftmud has approved a new permit for The Villages that will let the sod-carpeted retirement community slurp 9-million more gallons of groundwater a day from the stressed aquifer - despite residents' consumption being some of the most wasteful in the state: 240 gallons per person per day. (The statewide average is 174.) It's the Eastern version of using precious Colorado River water to fill Las Vegas fountains and green lawns in the Arizona desert. It makes no more sense in the East than in the West.
Cynthia Barnett is a longtime reporter for Florida Trend magazine and the author of a new book, Mirage: Florida and the Vanishing Water of the Eastern U.S. For more information: www.cynthiabarnett.net.