Tuesday May 15, 2007

What's up with the water?

link to water management map

[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.

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  1. skipvancel    Tue May 15, 08:55 AM #  

    Never say never. I distinctly remember a time in the 70’s (what year I don’t know) that a building moratorium was imposed due to water and/or drought conditions. As a matter of fact I have commented to friends that I was surprised no one had broached this idea in response to our recent drought conditions. After having lived 43 years in Miami I have seen my share of drought conditions before. However, I was shocked at how quickly we moved from phase 1 restrictions to phase 2 restrictions which I assume demonstrates how much faster our area is sucking up water than it has in the past.

  2. Richard    Tue May 15, 09:46 AM #  

    “Of course a building ban will never happen, so calling for it is so much pissing in the wind.”

    Similar views were held about ending slavery, ending segregation, giving women the vote, etc.

    While it’s improbable, because corruption runs so deep in this state, it’s not actually impossible.

    But fine, let’s talk about baby steps. Make people drain their pools, ban sprinklers and washing cars in driveways, and that’s a good start, but I’ll wager you’ll get as far with these token measures as you would with a ban on assault weapons.

    The fact of the matter is that we’re living beyond our means, and not just in Florida. Adding more people only makes the problem worse. Personally, I’d be fine with a fence like they’re building in Arizona. We could institute a new Florida lottery, one where if you win, you get to move here.

    It’s either that or start feeding tourists to the alligators. Come to think of it, maybe we should do that anyway… ;-)

  3. John S.    Tue May 15, 10:22 AM #  

    Water is just especially inexpensive. My “Miami-Dade Water and Sewer” bill for three months was $72… and dissecting the statement I find of that only $16.70 was for water – the rest was sewer , hydrant, and service fees. That works out to ~$5 per month!

    Anyhow, check out the water rate structure in Monterey, California: http://www.amwater.com/awpr1/caaw/pdf/Rates_MO-1_combined.pdf

    For residential customers:
    The first hundred Ccf cost $1.68/Ccf
    The second hundred Ccf cost $3.36/Ccf
    the third hundred Ccf cost $5.04/Ccf
    the fourth hundred Ccf cost $6.72/Ccf
    above five hundred Ccf cost $13.44/Ccf

    It is structured so that a normal family can do normal stuff and stay at the lowest rate, but woe to water wasters!

    Economic incentives are better than relying on neighbors ratting out neighbors.

    —John S.

  4. alesh    Tue May 15, 10:28 AM #  


    Good job comparing a building ban to abolishing slavery. Except in that instance you were granting people rights, in this case you’re talking about taking rights away. Oops!

    The misunderstanding that you have, which Hiaasen is feeding into, is that the groundwater resevoir is like a pool, and we’ve sucked all the water out of it. That’s not. How. It. Works. It’s like a river, and it’s current dryness has MUCH MORE to do with the lack of water going in (rain shortage) then the water coming out.

    Go look at the diagram again, and cool out on the sensational rhetoric.

    John~ Excellent suggestion.

  5. Steve    Tue May 15, 11:04 AM #  

    Alesh: Insofar as you find even your own facts unconvincing, let’s try logic.

    1. The amount of fresh water on earth remains constant.
    2. When consumers of water are added, the amount of water consumed increases.
    3. As usage increases, supply diminishes.
    4. Therefore, limiting (or eliminating) additional users ensures at least limited supplies.

    What hiaasen correctly points out, as he has for decades, is that Florida’s irresponsible rate of growth creates more water consumers than the supply can handle. There are numerous ways to counteract the impact, everything from desalinization plants and reduction of waste to limiting development and slaughtering the first born. “Getting the word out,” as you suggest, might work on your planet, Alesh, but here in south Florida we have demonstrated for years that it’s laughably ineffective. Right about now you’re seeing exactly how.

    You’re off the mark with Richard’s comment, too. All he’s saying is, “Phenomena once thought impossible have become reality, why not this too.” It’s called: “Vision.” Nothing to do with anybody’s rights being taken away. Ooops! yourself.

  6. charck    Tue May 15, 11:11 AM #  

    Nice post, Alesh, make a claim and then back it up with facts and sources -refreshing, this is how all hot-button issues should be written about.

    In response to a post likening banning certain water-wasting activities to banning assault weapons: When I lived in Las Vegas (and although it’s is in the desert it shares several similarities with Miami – tourism economy, steady in-migration, water issues, etc.) water conservation rules went as far as placing an outright ban on home car washing and water used for decoration (fountains, etc.). Homeowners could even receive cash from the water authority if they removed grass from their lawns (replacing it with “desert friendly” landscaping) therefore eliminating the need for any lawn irrigation. And, of course, there were strictly enforced irrigation rules for the folks who still had grass.

    I’m not advocating removing lawns here in Miami; I’m mentioning this because while I lived in Las Vegas I heard very little complaining about these rules. I actually heard more people take the side of the water authority in saying that it’s silly and wasteful to have grass in the desert anyway.

    I noticed that if people are informed as to why these rules are in place and how their actions can exacerbate the problem, most would be willing to alter their behavior significantly.

    Here in Miami, we need to have a marketing campaign that has more of an impact in conveying these messages of water conservation. And I agree that the current water conservation rules may not cut deep enough.

  7. alesh    Tue May 15, 11:26 AM #  


    Logic works better when it’s not full of holes. your particular logic has at least two:

    1. If you’re talking about the global water system, then moving people from other parts of the US to Florida doesn’t actually increase the number of consumers, does it?

    2. More to the point (and here I have to insist that you go back and study the water cycle diagram), humans are NOT NOT NOT “consumers” of water — we’re but one thing the water passes through.

    Oops! Of course there’s more to it then that, but your “logic” is obviously broke.

    As for “irresponsible” growth, who do you reckon is “irresponsible,” exactly? People who move here? (aren’t you one of them?)

    “Right about now you’re seeing exactly how.”

    Once again, see what I said in #3: The drought is NOT caused by consumption. It’s caused by a rain shortage. A rain shortage. A rain shortage. A rain shortage. Got it yet??


    Exactly: there are more drastic things the government could be doing. If this is really so serious (only the experts actually know), then why not do them? Allowing people to water their lawn for four hours every week is a hell of a mixed message to be sending.

  8. Steve    Tue May 15, 11:52 AM #  

    I figured logic wouldn’t work on you, but at least now your readers see why, and in living color.

    Certainly rainfall this year is down, although not in Miami-Dade. But tell us this, hydro-head: would drought conditions be as serious now if there were NO human consumers?

  9. MiamianLawStudent    Tue May 15, 12:04 PM #  


    You have some good ideas about the current drought and the need for additional regulations. But, as usual, in going out of your way to make them an attack on Hiaasen’s arguments you’ve made yourself look like a fool.

    To add to Richard’s point, you yourself noted that “We’re close to having dire harm to our water supply” i.e., “Permanent or irreversible damage to the water resource.” Yet you’re adamantly opposed to a drastic measure like a building moratorium.


    The only reasons you suggest for opposing a moratorium seem to be:

    1) the growth is already hear it’s too late (you write Hiaasen missed the hundreds of condo buildings that are currently and already under construction in Miami)

    2a) moratoriums can’t stop population growth (you write, Sorry, but you can’t stop people from moving where they want to live)

    2b) the UDB does this already by limiting where growth occurs as opposed to whether growth occurs

    3) overpopulation isn’t to blame for the problem
    (you write, But the hypothesis that overpopulation is the cause of the water shortages has more fundamental flaws)

    These are stupid arguments and the fact that they’re on the same page as your other valid points (e.g., “lacks rainfall is a problem” and “getting the word out is important) ruins the whole post.

    Let me explain why your claims are so remarkably off. First, your overall argument is built on the faulty assumption that moratoriums and other regulations are mutually exclusive. Usually moratoriums are passed for temporary periods during which preparations like building code amendments and impact fees are developed. Hiaasen doesn’t indicate that this is the kind of mortatorium he has in mind but it is unreasonable to assume that he’s a permanent, near-permanent, or otherwise long-term moratorium in mind without some evidence.

    Second, argument number 1 against moratoriums assumes the problem can’t get worse. Sure there are buildings going up bu that doesn’t need to we need more. You argument is askin to saying, “I’m already morbidly obesse, there’s little point in drastically cutting my diet now.”

    Third, arugment 2a is simply stupid. (God only knows why you go off on border fences and national borders…what the hell are you smoking man? How did you get from “moratorium” to “border fence?”)

    Yes, Alesh, moratoriums do not directly limit population growth but BUILDING moratoriums are not designed to do so. They limit housing supply and thereby increase rents and thereby reduce the number of people who can afford to move in.

    Fourth, argument 2b is your most intelligent reason to reject a moratorium. And I’m not entirely opposed to the reasoning. Yes, the UDB does help limit growth. But your analysis seems to miss some of the point behind the UDB. It’s somewhat inaccurate to characterize the UDB as a mere zoning regulation. By banning most development outside the boundary, the UDB is intended to operates very much like a MORATORIUM. The effect of the UDB, as you describe it, has precisely the effect on the housing market that a moratorium would like have.

    Fifth, argument 3 misses is detached from reality. As Richard points out simple logic dictates that more people = less water. Additionally, relies on faulty logic. Denser population does not necessarily mean more water use or greater water shortage. Greater water use can occur independent of population density. I haven’t data to back this up but its common knowledge that the Okeechobee basin has tons of farm land especially water-intensive sugar crops. I don’t know that these farms consume as much or more than a large city would but your SFWMD map indicates that the basin is suffering from the most severe shortages. Could it be that all those farms are drinking more water than more populated areas?

    You’ve made these mistakes before when criticing Hiaasen (see the “new journalism” post) and I’ve called you out on it. You make good points but they don’t have to be diametically opposed to Hiaasen’s. You could just have well said the moratorium idea is too extreme or the moratorium idea needs to come second to getting the word out and regulating consumption without resorting to the stupid arguments above. When you do that you look just as bad as Hiaasen. Actually, to the extent that he gets paid for his nonsenese and you don’t, you look worse.

  10. MiamianLawStudent    Tue May 15, 12:07 PM #  


    In my prior post I confused Steven with Richard. I meant to incorporate Steven’s comments. In short, replace all the “Richard“s in my comment with “Steven“s.

  11. Alex    Tue May 15, 12:21 PM #  

    Hey Alesh, if we humans are NOT NOT NOT “consumers” of water, if we are only one thing that water passes through and we don’t affect water supply at all, then what makes lawns different? Water irrigated on lawns either evaporates or go down on the soil, presumably all the way to the aquifer (the subterranean river you talk about), it doesn’t even has to pass through a sewer system. So, if you believe your own argument, what’s with the jihad against grass?

    Also, your theory doesn’t adress the crux of Hiaasen’s article -*if the aquifer levels go too low, salt water intrudes.* Then it’s over, no matter how much rain you get.

  12. MiamianLawStudent    Tue May 15, 12:26 PM #  



    I just read your response to Steve. All I’ve got is “OMFG!” I mean, “OMFG!” are you ill? “OMFG” can’t you see that one point has absolutely nothing to do with the other? I mean, “OMFG!” do you forget what you’ve argued in previous sentences and posts as you’re typing the next one? Did fourth grade earth sciences teach you NOTHING?



    From Wikipedia “Overdrafting” and “Water Crisis”

    Overdrafting is the process of extracting groundwater beyond the safe yield or equilibrium yield of the aquifer. Since every groundwater basin recharges at a different rate depending upon precipitation, vegetative cover and soil conservation practises, the quantity of groundwater that can be safely pumped varies greatly among regions of the world and even within provinces. Some aquifers require a very long time to recharge and thus the process of overdrafting can have consequences of effectively drying up certain sub-surface water supplies.

    Even in many wealthy western countries the drafting of groundwater beyond sustainable yield is endangering maximum agricultural productivity. One of the false assumptions of the Green Revolution is the limitless availability of water to foster crop growth. Most regions of the world are presently faced with choices between extraction of quantities of water desired for short term satisfaction, versus limiting groundwater use to maximize future steady state agricultural yields…Even in advanced countries like the United States, there are numerous regions where striving for maximum agricultural output has placed aquifers in overdraft, producing adverse water quality and questionable sustainable yields. One of the USA’s largest groundwater basins, the Ogallala Aquifer, is in substantial overdraft, compromising the likelihood of sustainable crop yields in America’s heartland. Smaller, but important watersheds like Sonoma Valley in California have also begun to display overdraft, presently limiting the amount of otherwise arable land that can be farmed.

  13. Richard    Tue May 15, 12:30 PM #  

    No “sensationalist rhetoric” (i.e., sardonic humor) this time, just a reference to the central issue: The Limits To Growth

    Yes, reduced rainfall is a factor, but it isn’t the factor.

    Let’s do this experiment: pour some water in a cup. Now, pour the water out, put your hand over the mouth of the cup, and attempt to put some more water in the cup. Kinda difficult, huh?

    Every acre that gets scraped bare to put up yet another gated community is one less acre available for aquifer renourishment: surely you can’t dispute that.

  14. Steve    Tue May 15, 12:39 PM #  

    Take Alesh’s argument to its logical extreme, and there’s no such thing as a “consumer of water.” Not human, not agricultural, not “natural.” But then, there’s that pesky “logic” problem again.

  15. nonee moose    Tue May 15, 03:01 PM #  

    The only thing growth does is throw up more obstacles for the natural water cycle. Alesh is essentially right, outside of very few cases, like desalination or other artificial means of creating freshwater, there is essentially the same amount as there ever was. But it really is a distinction without a difference. The problem is really the recharge period for the source, be it the acquifer or lake or whatever. That period is impacted in several ways, not the least of which is overdrafting because of growing demand and/or lack of precipitation,which in some part may also be caused by growing human demand. In fact, it’s the combination of both and many other factors.

    It does remain that unfettered growth, and in the wrong places at that, has a negative effect on water supply, or rather the ready availability of that supply. And what’s more, since the amount of freshwater is essentially constant, there is less water available, per capita. The great misdirection of water conservation is that any conservation by one merely provides that supply to another. At some point, anyway.

    Alex, lawns can be understood to consume water just like people, as a logical matter. The difference is lawns take less time to put the water back in circulation, because they can pee just about anywhere.

  16. Ponce de Leon    Tue May 15, 03:23 PM #  

    So much for that fabled Fountain of Youth!

    Drought and rainy season are part of Florida’s history. That’s why there are hammocks in the Glades. Places for critters to live on dry land when there’s too much water. The hooves of panthers and deer would otherwise rot and gators need dry spots to lay eggs.

    If anything, I hope this recent drought situation will make Florida residents more appreciative and aware of our natural resources. There’s no need to be wasteful, even in the rainy season.

  17. jonathan h    Wed May 16, 09:52 AM #  

    here’s some data on the combined water & sewer bills in a number of metro areas in the u.s. notice the difference between broward and miami-dade!

  18. alesh    Thu May 17, 09:21 AM #  

    Assuming that Hiaasen was talking about temporary moratoriums (he doesn’t indicate so) on building permits, I would argue that we’re on the waning end of a massive building boom. As I’ve said over and over and over, there’s a huge oversupply of condos on the market, so people moving to South Florida HAVE places to go. You can’t impose a moratorium on construction, just on permits, and at this point, a moratorium on permits wouldn’t make more then a tiny dent in #‘s of people moving here.

    Again, we had a dry year, and now we’re having water shortages. Unless this coming season is dry — and there’s no reason to think it will be — things will be mostly back to normal in a year. It will then be up to us to use this year as an example to help drive through more sensible water use policies.

    LawStudent~ You can call me “stupid” and a “fool” all you want if you think it helps make your point. Let me address some of you actual arguments:

    Usually moratoriums are passed for temporary periods during which preparations like building code amendments and impact fees are developed.

    See above. The drought comes perfectly timed to a market-cycle based building moratorium. So let’s pass those water use policies and building code amendments (Miami21?).

    Yes, Alesh, moratoriums do not directly limit population growth but BUILDING moratoriums are not designed to do so. They limit housing supply and thereby increase rents and thereby reduce the number of people who can afford to move in.

    So what Hiaasen and his supporters want is to drive up property values and rents. Thanks for coming out and admitting this. I’d think that conserving water by making Miami a more expensive place to live would have problems that are self-evident? If not, I simply submit that enacting water conversation through more, um, DIRECT means — ie the ones I proposed and the ones some of the commenters have proposed, especially (duh) just increasing the cost of water itself — would be an obviously better way to go.

    As Richard points out simple logic dictates that more people = less water. Additionally, relies on faulty logic. Denser population does not necessarily mean more water use or greater water shortage . . . farmland . . .

    Yes farmlands consume tons of water because they’re irrigating their crops. But come on — we’re comparing living in suburbs/houses to living in condos/high-rises. In that comparison I’m not relying on logic — it’s a matter of just looking at the data.

    Yes, everything else being equal, more people = more water use (you ONLY get “more people = less water” if the water supply stays constant, which, as I seem to be unable to beat into your head, it DOES NOT). I still think there are many potential ways to reduce water use, but more to the point: we’ve demonstrated that moratoriums will work only by driving up cost of living. I consider that an unacceptable means of water conservation.

    to the extent that he gets paid for his nonsenese and you don’t, you look worse.

    Steve parroted this statement in the office the other day. I’d say it’s akin to saying that the quality of an idea is based on who its coming from, sort of the inverse of an ad-hominem attack. As for going after Hiaasen, I find it fun to take an idea and see how well it can be defended. This is what happens, say, in a debate. If I were running the SFWMD you can bet I would be choosing my words differently.

    Alex~ Of course humans are consumers of water. I was trying to reinforce the point that we are simultaneously part of a closed water cycle. It’s just as accurate to say that the water passes through us, just like it passes through the lawn. It’s a point that’s important to the discussion, but that keeps getting missed.

    Richard~ See above.

    Yes, reduced rainfall is a factor, but it isn’t the factor. . . . Every acre that gets scraped bare to put up yet another gated community is one less acre available for aquifer renourishment: surely you can’t dispute that.

    Incorrect. Reduced rainfall is the most significant factor. And water that falls on a lawn I’m pretty sure becomes part of the groundwater the same way that water that falls on an undeveloped field does. Water that falls on an urban street goes in the storm drains. Here on the beach it washes out to sea. In other places i believe it does in fact become part of the water supply (i just put in a call to SFWMD to clarify this point).

    Steve~ Keep it up. Just make sure to continue to use the word “logic” with quotation marks around it.

    nonee moose~ Essentially agree, except I don’t know what you mean by this: The great misdirection of water conservation is that any conservation by one merely provides that supply to another. At some point, anyway.

    jonathan h~ Interesting. Two possible factors there — Broward residents use more water, and/or water rates are higher in Broward. Anybody know?

  19. Alex    Thu May 17, 09:38 AM #  

    “Market-cycle building moratorium”? We must be living in two different states. Why, developers keep pushing for moving the UDB, Broward just anexed thousands of acres with the intent to make them available to build, big micro-city plans come up for approval all over the place (see Opa Locka). There may be a shift from high-rise, expensive condos to more affordable units and/or subdivisions out west. But rest assured the Lennars and Century Homes are not going to suddenly stop the concrete trucks as long aspeople keep coming, and the counties are not looking to kill the building goose that lays the property tax golden eggs.