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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.


Monday May 7, 2007

Carl Hiaasen has a column about Alan Crotzer, who spent 8 years in prison after being wrongly convicted of rape. He reprehends the Florida state legislature for not compensating him with money ($50,000 per year). My problem Hiaasen with this is that he never generalizes the argument — if he’s going to write about compensation for wrongful conviction, why not argue it should be automatically awarded to everyone?


Monday April 16, 2007

This is rich: Carl Hiaasen serves up a stale summary of the Don Imus story, taking time out to call Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson “hypocrites and phonies.”


Tuesday March 6, 2007

It's all the readers' fault

Carl Hiaasen says and Bob Norman agrees. That the Anna Nicole Smith incident is revealing some sort of new low in our culture. “But this is the new New Journalism, which is steered by a core belief that people would rather be smothered by seedy gossip about dead ex-Playmate junkies than be bothered with the details of North Korea’s nuclear program.”

I call bullshit. That people are more interested in trivial gossip than weighty news is as old as humanity. I see no evidence that the internet is intensifying this whatsoever — 30 million people mentioned Anna Nicole Smith. Big deal — most of those hits were probably from blogs mentioning her in passing (like I just did). She’s an interesting celebrity, and she just died — what does Hiaasen expect?

This is just a newspaper guy frustrated by the fact that his industry is dying and blaming it on readers’ alleged preferences. The truth is that readers skim the Smith article and then they skim the North Korea article, and they know the difference. The real problem is the newspapers. I picked one up yesterday (the NYTimes, actually), and boy was it a disaster. The content is great, but the delivery system stinks. A big heavy clump of wood pulp gets dropped on your lawn every morning, and you’re expected to flip through hundreds of huge flimsy pages, skimming articles to try to find what’s of interest to you. Stories jump around from page to page, making you unfold, flip, refold, and generally wrestle with the stupid thing.

And newspapers’ web sites are no better — the Herald’s front page gives you a hint of what’s behind the link for exactly two stories. For anything else you have to navigate to sub-pages or guess from short cryptic headlines. Navigable archive pages are non-existent, searching is rudimentary, and all articles disappear behind a paywall after a few months. The Herald has a mess of blogs that don’t integrate with its regular site, and many are on Blogspot. I’ve repetedly implored the Herald to look for new ways to use the internet, and it’s just not happening. The NY Times has a new state-of-th-art website, but it’s chosen to put its columnists behind a paywall, so I’m not sure how much of a leader they’ll be.

Look, there’ll always be a demand for serious news, and there’ll always be news organizations to meet the demand. The only question is whether today’s newspapers are smart enough to make the changes to become those organizations. But their blaming their audience for their troubles suggests they are not.

Update: In the comments, Dan Sweeney just proved that Hiaasen isn’t just wrong about his conclusion, he’s wrong about his facts, too. Herewith, a series of graphs demonstrating that Anna Nicole Smith wasn’t the biggest news story the week she died by a long shot.


Monday February 26, 2007

“Republican leaders in the new Legislature have enthusiastically exhumed the oft-snuffed plan to throw away $60 million of public funds on a Major League Baseball park in South Florida.” Hiaasen lets us know how he feels about it.


Monday October 23, 2006

Carl Hiaasen taunts Republicans about the Foley/Negron ballot fubar, and doesn’t quite have the guts to say how tactless and transparently partisan it is for the Democrats to fight having a sign put up announcing the switch.


Thursday October 12, 2006

Some last thoughts about the Jesús Díaz thing

Jesús Díaz, Jr. Some last thoughts about the Jesús Díaz thing. About a week ago it came out that a certain column by Carl Hiaasen actually played a large role in Díaz’s quitting. The column is a fairly uninspired summary of the Radio Martí fiasco, written in a sarcastic “this is great” mode. The headline is “Finally, someone appreciates journalists’ work.” You get the picture.

Well, this was around the time that the whole fiasco was still blowing up, and apparently Díaz didn’t think it was a good idea to be throwing gasoline on it, so he ordered the column not run. Well, great. But Hiassen is a best-selling author, and lots of people even enjoy his column, so he’s got a certain amount of pull. He threatened to quit, and make a really big stink, first to Díaz and then to the senior management at McClatchy. Reportedly, all it took was a phone call from Howard Weaver, McClatchy’s senior newspaper guy, in which he told Díaz that “we believe in strong columnists.” I think the phone call probably went a little different then all that, with a little back-and-forth in raised tones. Regardless, Díaz that very day; the 16 days until it was made public was because he agreed to give them a chance to find a replacement before making the announcement.

The word “reportedly,” above, links to the Miami Herald article about this whole incident, which is what I find probably most remarkable. Here’s a newspaper reporting on some fairly significant struggles for power within its own walls. And while the article doesn’t say so (and nobody can know for shure), it’s likely that this incident did more to piss Díaz off, and push him out, then the re-hiring of the journalists he fired. Rebecca Wakefield has about as good a summary of this whole saga as you’ll find, and she comes a little closer to saying just that, though.

In the end, the Díaz story is about how different orders of human existence can pull something in different directions, and it has an air of inevitability to it. He had to fire those guys when he did, and he had to take them back, for reasons that were just as strong, though completely different. Rebecca does a great job of teasing out all the separate issues, but really, this is just how things are with human beings: messy.


Sunday June 11, 2006

Carl Hiaasen on the removal of manatees from the endangered species list. “Last year, 396 manatees — more than 10 percent of the estimated population — died. Of those, only 81 fatalities were classified as natural.”