Tuesday May 15, 2007
[Last week I disagreed with Carl Hiaasen’s handling of the compensation for wrongful conviction issue, arguing that he should have tackled the general case, not a particular instance. An interesting conversation about the issue ensued: one which could have existed on a much larger scale. Different week, same stink: On Sunday, Hiaasen again missed the point.]
South Florida is experiencing a serious drought. The gap between our fresh groundwater and salty water is tight, and the current Phase II and III restrictions are almost draconian: sub-78° indoor temperatures are banned, farms are restrictions in their crop irrigation, lawns can be watered and cars washed only four hours per week . . . wait a second. We’re close to having dire harm to our water supply (Phase IV = “Permanent or irreversible damage to the water resource,” in case you were wondering) and we’re letting people wash their cars and water their lawns? What’s going on here?
Well, so Carl Hiaasen figured out a solution for us. Too bad that, once again, Hiaasen is wrong all over the place. His solution? Let’s ban building!
One way to gird for the future — and protect families who already live here — would be to impose building moratoriums in those counties where the water shortage is most acute.
This is way too simple and sensible. Moratoriums can’t be enacted unless local leaders are willing to stand up to developers, a rare occurrence indeed. The state is requiring counties to recycle water for nonpotable uses, but that doesn’t curb the liquid appetite of sprawl.
Well, that may work for some message board crank, but when we hear it from a major newspaper’s columnist I feel obligated to point out some flaws in the plan (and make no mistake, “one way to grid the future” aside, this one idea is all he’s got). For starters, Hiaasen appears to have missed the hundreds of condo buildings that are currently and already under construction in Miami. (But that’s probably because he lives 150 miles away, in Vero.) More to the point, what does he have in mind, a border fence of some sort? Sorry, but you can’t stop people from moving where they want to live. It’s proved impossible to prevent people from crossing even national borders when they really want to, and for all the Conch Republic fantasies of Hiaasen’s former life, Florida is not a sovereign nation.
But the hypothesis that overpopulation is the cause of the water shortages has more fundamental flaws. If it were the case, we would expect that the drought would be the worst where population is densest. It’s not. See the South Florida Water Management District’s map (converted to a jpg for your convenience). Note that Broward and Palm Beach currently have Phase III restrictions, while Miami is under Phase II (what’s up with the roman numerals, SFWMD?).
OK, so what’s really going on here? Well, the SFWMD district spells it out pretty clearly: “Too Little Rain = Water Shortages.” You see, the groundwater is part of a cycle. It’s like an underground river. The levels are low because of the lack rain, And while the problem right now is exacerbated by the human population, future water levels will be determined by our future rain, not by our current use, because the groundwater is part of a natural global cycle. I can’t emphasize this point enough, and I ask you to look at the diagram at that link. You saw it in a book when you were a kid, but look at it again.
We’ve had problems with the ground water before, as these data clearly show (but warning, the page loads slowly), and we’ll have them again.* The solution is not to try to ban new people from moving to Florida. The trick is to plan for the shortages better, and take effective steps to lower our water consumption during the crunch. What’s the most effective way to handle that? Some barely enforced restrictions on lawn watering? Give me a break.
All we have to do is get serious about getting the word out. First of all, we should ban all lawn watering. It’s the dry season in the tropics, and grasses are supposed to dry out — it’s the way of nature! Don’t worry, they’ll come back when it starts to rain. Next, put out a serious media campaign to get people saving water. This has been done before, but this time it seems pretty feeble. Tell people to stop running their dish washers half-full, stop taking baths, and stop leaving the water running. If that doesn’t work, how about shutting the water off for an hour or two once a week? Not only will that save some water, but it’ll make these idiots realize that this is serious. Oh, and fixing the @!$% pipes wouldn’t be a bad idea.
Of course a building ban will never happen, so calling for it is so much pissing in the wind. Restricting where development can happen is of course very important, and so far the UDB has been more or less enforced. That means more condos and fewer houses being built, and an increase in density. This is good not just because high-rise dwellers use less water then homeowners, but because of the commensurate improvements in energy use, vehicle use, paved surface area, etc. We can’t keep them out, but we can force them to live smarter. Let’s put aside the foolishness and get to the real answers.
Update: John S. has a great suggestion in the comments: a sliding scale where the price of water for residences roughly doubles for every hundred cubic feet of water used.
* Heck yeah, I went all into the DBHYDRO to pull that stuff up.comments powered by Disqus