Whenever I travel to visit archeological sites, the guides are usually surprised when the first question I ask is, "where did the water come from and how was it disposed?" You can tell a lot about a civilization in the answer to these two questions.
In South Florida, water was never a problem so long as population levels were low, groundwater tables high, and treatment required minimal investment. The water flowing out of the Everglades, as a gift of nature, was as pure and clean as anywhere in the world. Some of my friends, now in their 70's and 80's, grew up with drinking water from dug wells in their backyards.
Today, rainfall is plentiful, but population pressure is so great that the water table can quickly be drawn down, from one season to the next, imposing drought conditions with astonishing speed. Big Agriculture, around Lake Okeechobee, dominates land use usage, obstructing the appropriate sizing of water storage and containment areas -- sharply pinching both environmental restoration of the Everglades and water supply for cities.
Assuring that water quality protects people is increasingly complex and subject to regulatory pressures. For example, Florida's industries and lobbying associations relentlessly obstruct the imposition of tough water quality standards that might protect people and the environment. Gov. Rick Scott and the radical right have succeeded in cutting science and agency resources that might otherwise expose how pollution is infiltrating public health.
Where profit is at stake, the long-term public interest is suppressed. That is case today as the Miami-Dade County Commission deliberate on how to address both existing infrastructure deficits, totaling billions of dollars, and ways to mitigate the effects of climate change and rising seas.
We wage water battles in Florida from the fortifications of a functioning economy. Most voters are immune to the issues and most leaders are unwilling to confront an entrenched status quo.
Two items in the New York Times point to risks in a do-little approach. Yesterday, Tom Friedman in a Times OPED wrote about the role of drought in sparking the civil war in Syria. Water shortages and suffering -- with the Syrian government turning a blind eye -- created the underlying conditions for war. The second article, today, details the extraordinary and predictable loss of the Ogallala aquifer in the American midwest. The harvesting of rain water in aquifers, collected over thousands of years, is finished. The tank is empty.
The relevant comparison with South Florida is how blissfully ignorant local elected officials in Kansas were, on account of pressure by special interests to maintain a status quo. The comparison with Syria requires imagination. Picture the impacts of sea level rise this way: when Miami's water infrastructure fails to meet the demands of businesses and people -- the wealthiest will simply pick up and move.
Whether they sell their investments at a discount or at a loss, they will survive. Those left behind will have to pick up the costs, and since the costs will be too high, scarcity will reign. Civil society will be under assault.
No one thought that wide areas of the American midwest could be de-populated by drought. No one thinks that Miami, with our rising real estate values and cultural optimism, could suffer the same end result. But this eventually ought to penetrate the minds of local county commissioners as they contemplate how to resolve the lawsuit brought by Biscayne Waterkeeper against the repeated and continuous violations of laws meant to protect people and the environment from contaminated water.
We have to make the right investments now, while we are wealthy enough, in anticipation of an uncertain future.