Foreword Reviews

Reviewer Barry Silverstein Talks Hydrology with John Dunn, Author of Drying Up: The Freshwater Crisis in Florida

Drying Up cover and author

Global warming threatens the planet in many ways, with some dangers more clear and present, while others are impossible to imagine. We don’t know what we don’t know, the climate experts say.

But we do know certain low-lying places have a bullseye on their waterfronts. Places like Shanghai, Osaka, Alexandria, Rio de Janeiro, and Miami are certain to be flooded as the sea levels rise due to the expansion of warmer waters and melting ice on the north and south poles.

Drying Up cover
One of the consequences of rising seas doesn’t receive the attention it deserves—how those salty and brackish waters stand to contaminate our sources of freshwater—and that’s a topic partially covered in this week’s interview with John Dunn, author of Drying Up: The Freshwater Crisis in Florida. In John’s words, “Sea level rise poses a very special threat to Florida. This is a flat peninsula. The sea is moving in from three sides. It’s also coming up from beneath the state. That means salt water is intruding into fresh water sources.”

Barry Silverstein reviewed Drying Up in the May/June issue of Foreword Reviews, and he tipped us off to the book’s importance. With help from the good people at the University Press of Florida, we put Barry in touch with John. If Florida’s one of fave vacation spots, we encourage you read their conversation.

Take it from here, Barry.

It is almost counterintuitive that supplying fresh water should be a problem in Florida, long known for its lakes, springs, and wetlands. What are the leading reasons water shortages are emerging in the state?

Yes, Florida is one of the wettest places in the country. In fact, Tom Singleton, a highly respected, Florida-based water consultant, has calculated that “Florida receives 55 trillion gallons of rain a year and only uses 1 trillion gallons. And yet it appears to be running out of water.” Of course, much of that rainfall evaporates or transpires through plants and drains to the seas. However, too much of the rest is mismanaged, squandered, and contaminated from the Panhandle to the Keys.

Floridians, like people everywhere, face increasing demand for fresh water thanks to non-stop urbanization and population growth. A 2017 Water Report conducted by 1000 Friends of Florida, a not-for-profit smart growth advocacy organization, along with the University of Florida, shows Floridians used about 5.27 billion gallons of water every day in 2010. This figure, however, could rise to 8.1 billion gallons per day by 2070, when the state’s population may have increased by 75 percent. That’s a 53.7 percent increase. Even if the state adopts a greener approach by using water conservation methods and more compact development practices, the situation still looks grim. That’s because there will still be a 30 percent increase in consumption over the 2010 level.

These forecasts don’t include anything about the impact of pollution, algae, and the red tide. Or the vast amounts of water needed for restoration of the Everglades or Florida’s imperiled springs. Our aging infrastructure adds to the problem. For instance, since 2009, over 23,000 sewage spills were reported to Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection. That’s enough human waste to fill 2,400 Olympic-size swimming pools.

In Florida, too much fresh water also is simply wasted. Every day Floridians use more than 50 percent of their fresh water supply to feed the state’s number one crop—grass lawns.

Perhaps the biggest problem, if not the planet’s, is the non-stop destruction of the state’s hydrology. Every time you destroy a forest, drain a swamp, fill in a trench, you wipe out not only creatures, small life forms, and ecosystems. But, you also disfigure and disrupt the natural plumbing; that is, the damage also wrecks the way water evaporates, percolates into the soil, hydrates the land, stores water in aquifers and trees and plants. In Florida, half of our wetlands are already gone and more will be destroyed, unless something blocks big development headed for the Sunshine State.

Sea level rise poses a very special threat to Florida. This is a flat peninsula. The sea is moving in from three sides. It’s also coming up from beneath the state. That means salt water is intruding into fresh water sources.

So, add all these human-made forces, as I’ve tried to do in Drying Up, and it’s not hard to conclude that if Florida barrels ahead with its business-as-usual mentality, all too soon there may not be enough clean, cheap, fresh water for the environment, wildlife, and human beings.

Florida is a high-growth state, and also one of the most popular states for tourism. How do these two populations—newcomers and tourists—stress Florida’s water resources, and how does the state expect to meet the increased demand for water?

I was born in Miami in 1949. Then about 2 million people called Florida home. Today, more than 22 million live here and another 15 million are expected to arrive in the next few decades. But such figures mask the true impact. Last year about 112 million tourists also visited Florida.

Such numbers evidently aren’t enough for Florida’s business community. They are addicted to the notion that even more tourists must be lured into the state. To make it happen, state power brokers use taxpayer money to promote tourism, year after year.

There’s still more. Anywhere from 900,000 to 1 million “snowbirds,” in addition to other tourists, also show up for a month or more every winter. Attracting new residents and tourists seems easier than finding out where “new” water supplies will come from. Orlando has already maxed out how much it can pump from the ground. That’s why officials in that city want to siphon the St. Johns River one of Florida’s most iconic waterways. Some experts say North Central Florida water managers have already permitted groundwater extractions that exceed the existing supply. Miami, Jacksonville, and Tampa are also worried where their water will come from, although they keep approving more growth all the time.

What you hear so often in Florida is the same refrain proclaimed worldwide: Growth is good! Build and they will come. Jobs! Jobs! Jobs! Such claims ignore the honest principle of “true accounting.” Which simply means including the costs of doing business. Many studies show that growth doesn’t pay for itself. Nor does growth magically grow new resources.

Too many of our economic leaders ignore the idea of living within nature’s means. Instead, they glibly call for ways to “find new water.” Plans to make the ocean potable and turning “poop water” into fresh water supplies abound. Growth is so strong here that the majority of Florida residents were born out of state. In Miami Dade county, most weren’t even born in the country. Thus, we’re a big, crowded state of strangers in a strange land. You can’t help but wonder that if most people are from somewhere else, their allegiance isn’t necessarily with Florida. Small wonder so many of them know little about the state’s history, its resources, its problems.

Former governor, Bob Graham, one of our better environmental leaders, once said that Florida for far too long has been viewed not as home, but as a “commodity.” Some see the state as a big playground, a Disney-Eden fantasy, or simply a cheap place to live. Until, this warped “sense of place” changes, Florida’s problems aren’t likely to improve.

Despite all this there’s a reason to be optimistic. Florida not too long ago somehow overcame such problems legislatively and came up with some of the nation’s best environmental laws. Maybe, Drying Up can help make that happen again.

Florida has had some issues with the pollution of drinking water, as well as water disposal problems. What is the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s strategy for dealing with these challenges?

The DEP is aware of Florida’s water problems and has developed many recovery programs, though critics say many of them are woefully inadequate. One big problem facing our professional water handlers is that they must deal with a legacy of neglect handed off to them from former governor Rick Scott and the Republican-led legislature. Together, these branches of government weakened pollution standards and growth management programs, while cutting funds and removing more than 500 top scientists and administrators from the DEP and Florida’s Five Water Management Districts.

True, there was a recession underway at the time, and many political leaders agreed it was urgent to remove obstacles to economic recovery and job creation. Nonetheless, the economic crisis proved to be an opportunity for Florida’s business-as-usual forces to impose something that Canadian author Naomi Klein calls the “Shock Doctrine.” It is the policy of striking hard and fast to get what you want while everyone else is scared and stymied during a crisis. The damage done to the DEP and the water management districts by the Scott administration will take a long time to repair.

Right now, however, there’s a faint ray of sunshine. Newly elected governor, Republican Ron Desantis, appears to be made of different stuff. He’s projecting himself as a modern Teddy Roosevelt, which comes as a surprise given how he ran as a staunch conservative in the 2018 gubernatorial race. From the very start of his tenure, he declared Florida needs to spend billions more to protect water sources, restore the Everglades, combat blue-green algae blooms and red tide, toughen up pollution standards, and beef up prosecution of polluters. It quickly became clear that he wouldn’t get all that he wanted. Within weeks, the Florida legislature was busily watering down many of the governor’s proposals and making sure water polluters wouldn’t have to pay.

Disney’s economic impact on Florida has been so substantial that it has received preferential treatment from the state. How has this affected the state’s waterways and water usage?

Disney arrived in central Florida in 1965 and turned the scrubby, swampy land into a world-class tourist destination, which is now making an estimated $18.2 billion annual impact on the Florida economy.

Disney wanted more than to just operate theme parks. It wanted a fiefdom. Early on, it got permission to become its own “drainage district.” That means it could follow in the tradition of earlier Florida business forces who were hell-bent on draining Florida of “excess water” to open up the land for farming and development. Disney could now create and control its own water system, and sell tax-exempt bonds to pay for its expenses.

Not too long afterward, a fawning state legislature let the Disney corporation legally transform into an “improvement district.” Only later did Florida lawmakers realize the legislation they had passed was largely written by Disney’s own attorneys. In so doing, they’d given the Disney organization the right to add more lands into their district, avoid paying taxes, and get tax refunds. Disney also had the authority to create two “municipalities,” Lake Buena Vista and Bay Lake, both built on the banks of reservoirs, created by damming the natural flow of water. Over the decades, Disney crews have created at least 40 miles of canals and 19 miles of levees.

Today, the corporation owns and operates its own water and sewer systems. It can also build and operate its own electric power plants. Disney, a private company, even has the right to impose eminent domain to seize property belonging to others within the district.

Disney can’t be singled out for Florida’s water problems. Everyone is culpable to varying degrees. But the company did provide a template for other copycat land developers who also want to function as private governments. Today, Florida has over 600 Community Development Districts (CDDs), or special purpose taxing and development districts. Whether Disney is a good “water steward” is a separate issue. To me, the bigger and more important issue is one of governance. That Florida allows an out-of-state, for-profit company to act on its own and to avoid being moderated by “consent of the governed” is an alarming example of the state’s political and ethical ineptitude.

Despite growing competition for water, some in the state believe there isn’t a water shortage, but rather a “water management problem.” Can water management solve Florida’s coming water crisis and if so, how?

There’s never been a water shortage. That’s because the volume of fresh water on earth doesn’t change. There’s about the same amount of water in the world now, as when dinosaurs roamed. Water does change form. It can be liquid, ice, or vapor. It becomes contaminated. It changes locations, either by natural forces or human pumping stations. But fresh water is finite.

Florida doesn’t manage water all that well. After all, a century ago, it was draining the Everglades—which is a river and a source of fresh water for South Floridians—out to sea. Today, the state is searching for new water supplies while it still drains water to the sea, allows destruction of wetlands, encourages profligate consumption of water, and polluters to operate with great impunity.

However, Florida also doesn’t manage development and growth well. Or, wetlands, or wildlife habitat. Or sea level problems. Or, transportation. Or, education, poverty, or healthcare. Or elections.

I’m not being flippant. The overwhelming response from almost everyone I talked to for my book, was that if we really want to fix our water problems, we must first fix state politics.

Consider, for example, that Florida’s water management district boards are usually packed with governor-appointed pro-development and pro-agriculture members. The water district directors are also selected by the governor. The governor also selects the judges who sit on the administrative courts. (This is where disputes over water rules are often fought.) He or she picks the members of the Florida Environmental Regulation Commission which functions as a pollution advisory board, and selects those who decide which constitutional amendments voters are allowed to consider.

It’s no secret that Florida’s Growth Machine, comprised largely of realtors, developers, bankers, and such—make up a rich and powerful political force that determines who gets elected and what laws and ordinances pass at all levels of governance. In a perfect world, the water management districts would be free of political pressure. Perhaps, then, they might be to say “no” once in a while to new consumptive water permit requests. And to make Floridians actually pay for the water they need. And maybe the districts could veer away the traditional “hard path” approach to water management. This means they’d stop simply looking at water in a utilitarian fashion and see that it is something more than an ingredient for making profits.

Here’s how hard path works now. As a landowner, you can easily get a water permit that’s valid for decades and start pumping away. You pay almost nothing for the water. Private wells usually are not monitored. Water bottling companies have a field day in Florida. They siphon water from aquifers for almost nothing and sell the water at exorbitant rates around the world. In Ocala, where I live, you can drive by Silver Springs State Park and see commercial water trucks parked across the street sucking water right out of the well that recharges Silver Springs.

Maybe one day Florida state water districts will follow an enlightened “soft path” approach to water, that’s already being practiced in places such as Sarasota and Winter Haven. Soft path, is a green, or low impact, approach that strives to treat water in a unified fashion, restore lost natural hydrological systems, implement sociological and psychological insights that help inform and inspire water users, and adopt a water ethic aimed at assuring there will be enough good fresh water for future generations of humans and the natural world. The soft path provides water based on need, not want.

Is Tampa Bay Water’s seawater desalination plant, until recently the nation’s biggest facility of its kind, suggestive of a long-term solution to supplying Florida with fresh water?

Desal plants certainly play an increasing role in Florida’s water supply, as they do around the world including countries such as Australia, Israel, China, and India. In fact, with more than 140 facilities statewide, Florida already leads the nation in water desalination in both the number of plants and gallons produced.

But making sweet water from brackish or seawater is not simple. Nor does it solve a water shortage all by itself. In fact, Tampa Bay’s Apollo Beach desal plant (located a few miles south of Tampa) is just one-third of a three-party $1 billion urban water supply system that interconnects surface, ground, and desalinated water. The entire system includes a surface water treatment plant that produces about 120 million gallons per day (mgd) and a 15.5 billion-gallon reservoir which can be tapped when needed and a pumping system capable of pumping 120 mgd of groundwater from wells on demand. Tampa Bay Water authorities like to say their three-part water supply system is a “portfolio” approach, which may be unique in the United States.

Of the three main ways to remove salt, the Tampa plant uses reverse osmosis (RO). Pressurized water is forced through a permeable membrane that leaves salt behind. However, the process is expensive and requires a lot of energy. Tampa’s plant managers also had problems with filters in the early days. They found one way, however, to help cut costs, and that was by locating the facility right next to the Big Bend Power Plant at Apollo Beach from which it borrows brackish water that was used to cool power plant towers.

Despite its drawbacks, desalination plants are becoming more important all the time. For instance, the South Florida Water Management District says the number of desalination plants in “South Florida has grown 82 percent since 2005 while the amount of desalination water produced by these plants has increased 142 percent during the same period.”

Florida also faces a different kind of water crisis: a rising sea level due to climate change that could cause widespread coastal flooding. What is the state doing to address this threat?

You would think that with about 80 percent of Florida’s population living within 20 miles of a beach, there’d be a great sense of urgency expressed about this threat. But there isn’t. Like elsewhere in the country, climate change deniers abound. There’s a price to pay in Florida politics if you don’t preach the doctrine of denial. Just ask former Florida Governor Charlie Crist who was hounded out of the Republican Party because he implemented programs designed to reduce emissions. Years later, Rick Scott was more careful. He downplayed the issue and went so far as to forbid state employees to mention the words “climate change” in their state-related work.

If attitudes are changing, it’s because it’s getting harder to deny what’s happening. Wells in South Florida are being moved farther from the coasts. Flooding grows steadily worse in Miami Beach and the barrier islands. Rising seas are altering the water quality of large estuaries and watersheds across the state. Problems are appearing from Central Florida south to Palm Beach, Miami, and the Florida Keys. On the west coast, trouble is brewing in Naples, Fort Myers, Charlotte Harbor, Tampa Bay, and Pensacola.

Some estimates predict that by 2100, sea level rise could be as high as 6.6 feet, inundating much of Miami-Dade County. If nothing is done to slow down this rise, much of South Florida may be underwater by 2200.

Nonetheless, a majority of state level politicians have been ignoring these problems. Any real movement comes not from state leaders but from those at the local level, mostly in South Florida. The county commissions of Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade, and Monroe counties, for instance, have forged a “climate change compact” which provides a mutual blueprint for cooperative ways to mitigate and resist rising seas. There are similar “working groups” in Charlotte Harbor, the Indian River Lagoon, and the cities of Satellite Beach, Sarasota, and Tampa.

Meanwhile, Florida-specific climate change research is being carried out by the Florida Climate Institute—a consortium of the University of Florida and Florida State University. The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity also has been publishing guides to help policy planners. In addition, the University of Florida, Army Corp of Engineers, NOAA, and the Nature Conservancy have developed software “tools” to assist planners in coming up with sustainable development practices. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has an action plan designed to safeguard Florida’s wildlife.

The private sector is somewhat involved, too. In Miami, Dutch engineers have been summoned to advise on how to build things such as floating homes to survive in flooded areas. Meanwhile, denial remains strong as new subdivisions, retail spaces, and roads are being built around the clock, as if there’s nothing to worry about. I hope Drying Up can serve as a “water primer” for not just Floridians, but also all others who want to fight to protect this most vital resource. It’s a big task.

Barry Silverstein

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