Friday, May 08, 2009

On regional water shortage: NOW you tell me again and again ... by gimleteye

Tom Friedman calls is "global weirding": the changes in weather around the globe that add up to global warming signals. Being dry as a bone in south Florida is one of them. This is no ordinary drought; it is the third year of abnormally dry, dry weather. The Miami Herald reports on the drastic effects for the Florida Keys, today. Exactly two years ago (please click, 'read more', for a ripe EOM blast from the past) I described this signal of global warming as the loss of elasticity in water supply available thorugh our sole source of drinking water-- the Biscayne aquifer.

The concept of elasticity in drinking water supply is simple: in wet seasons, the supply underground expands, in dry seasons it contracts. Just like a rubber band. Urban population growth, abetted by development and permitting decisions, combined with serial drought years has sharply diminished the overall recharge of the Biscayne aquifer at depth. Radically more dry than wet means the rubber band elasticity is brittle. After brittle comes broken.

In rainy season-- and it will rain-- our land floods. Everything seems normal, for those months. But we are in a new danger zone, and worse now arguably than I wrote about two years ago exactly. It had better rain in the next four weeks, because water managers are very concerned that the wellfields serving the Florida Keys could be ruined. Why? Once salt water invades a fresh water aquifer layer it is exceedingly difficult to drive the salt water out.

The Keys are in desperate shape because they are served by a single Homestead, Florida wellfield that is at the tail end of the Biscayne aquifer recharge. Water managers are calling the current crisis the worst since records began to be kept in the 1930's. I am reminded on an early account, around 1910, of a Homestead settler who said that if you dredged rock for fill, that the hole would instantly fill with pure water clear as crystal. Well, no longer.

Although there is some reverse osmosis capacity in the Keys, using massive amounts of electricity to make expensive fresh water from salt water, and more capacity is scheduled to come on line by the end of the summer, there is no backup between now and then if the Homestead wellfield starts to draw salt water. And even when RO capacity is added, it amounts to less than half current usage.

That is bad news. And still developers are urgently seeking building permits and zoning changes to allow more expansion: even in the teeth of the worst real estate market in modern history. Can't say, we didn't see it coming from a long, long way.

As a final note, I want to heap a heavy dose of scorn on Florida water managers and planners who--when I started observing the dance of local and state politics with developers in South Florida, fifteen years ago-- ridiculed conservationists and their technical experts who warned about the porosity of Florida's underlying geology. Today, those managers openly talk about "straws" and "holes" in the aquifer as convection routes for salt water and, also, for pollution. The claim that science wasn't available, back then, to substantiate reasons to limit growth or development is pure nonsense. What wasn't available was common sense. Certainly the driving force of so much overdevelopment in Miami-Dade and elsewhere in Florida was a certainty that local and state politicians would not suffer consequences at the voting booth because they told and accepted lies about the fragility of our water supply and Everglades wetlands. Just the other day, FPL Steve Scroggs testified before the M-D Planning and Zoning Board that his company's plans to mine 10 million cubic yards of fossilized coral from the Biscayne Aquifer (for a 20 foot fill pad, over 300 acres, to elevate two new nuclear reactors costing more than $20 billion) could "protect" from underlying salt water intrusion and "if it doesn't work for Everglades restoration, it doesn't work." Well common sense says, right now, it doesn't work. That's not stopping FPL and the unreformable majority of the county commission from doing just what it has always done. So... here's the promised blast from the past:

THURSDAY, MAY 10, 2007

NOW you tell me? by gimleteye

How seriously local and state water managers view the drought in Florida can be glimpsed through today's Miami Herald story about the lens of salt water pushing into drinking water wells along the coast.

South Florida's shallow water aquifer, under hydraulic pressure from the vast expanse of Everglades, holds back the intrusion of salt water through Florida's porous limestone. As the Everglades and the aquifers dry out, salt water seeps in, a phenomenon that began with the draining of the Everglades and is now rapidly accelerating.

Developers have been driven to flights of fancy through the biggest construction boom in Florida history. They scoff at the notion that construction should be curtailed. What would bring about such a catastrophe? Not enough water.

There is a connection between the drought, planning initiatives that are throttled by the building lobby (like the South Miami-Dade Watershed Study), and the constant pressure to change zoning and speed permits by such powerful downtown law firms like Greenberg Traurig.

Florida is burning and its aquifers are draining. And, in the midst of the biggest housing market crash since 1926, the development lobby is still pressing forward in the only way it knows how to: more zoning changes and more building permits.

As we have frequently noted, overdevelopment of South Florida has stripped the elasticity from supply and demand of fresh water to millions of Floridians—supply from the Everglades and Lake Okeechobee and demand from big agriculture and cities.

Restoring the elasticity means providing more surface water storage. That’s the ‘service’ nature used to provide in the Everglades until water managers ditched and diked it, decades ago, and allowed massive fresh water withdrawals whose consequence is severe drought in a region that averages more than fifty inches of rain a year.

In Miami-Dade County, it would seem obvious that it is a very bad time for the development lobby to be yammering for more zoning changes and more permits for large scale developments in farmland, especially land outside the Urban Development Boundary.

But building in farmland is the model that drives county government--here, and in the rest of Florida--, the same way that building condominiums drives the city of Miami.

On May 4th Goldman Sachs released a report, “Florida—The Epicenter of the US Housing Bust”.

“Although the housing downturn has long featured prominently in our call for US economic weakness, we do not expect it to cause an outright recession. But there is at least one state—namely Florida—where the housing downturn is likely to cause an outright recession.”

The irony of high rise condos topping off the Miami skyline, funded by speculators likely to run away from their deposits, at the very same moment water is running out is biblical.

“Our analysis implies that businesses with significant sales in Florida could encounter problems for an extended period of time. Moreover, Florida could be a ‘canary in the coal mine’ for other regions of the world economy that have recently seen runaway housing and construction booms.”

On Monday at the county commission, there was not a hint—not even a scent—that local elected officials were taking into account the drought, or, crashing housing markets.

A majority of Miami-Dade county commissioners, led by Natacha Seijas, had been poised to kill the study meant to insure that there would be enough water, in the future, to accommodate growth and protect Biscayne Bay.

The county commission is supporting more than a billion dollars of public investment in new drinking water infrastructure that taps into the Floridan—a much deeper aquifer than the fresh-water bearing Biscayne Aquifer, replenished by the Everglades and Lake Okeechobee. (Floridians will rue the day that the federal government, through the US EPA, delegated authority for managing the Biscayne Aquifer to the State of Florida.)

But destroying the aquifer that you can see and measure above ground (that would be the sole source Biscayne Aquifer), in favor of a deep, underground aquifer that may or may not be plentiful enough for future needs—is idiocy on a grand scale.

The Floridan may contain vast quantities of brackish, prehistoric water (it is also the layer where trillions of gallons of municipal and county wastewater is leaking, but that’s another story). But exploiting the Floridan could turn out to be a very expensive pipe dream. It will take years to fund and build adequate infrastructure.

In the meantime, pray for rain. Pray that sanity rushes in, and not salt water.

Goldman Sachs writes: “Florida has the largest amount of excess housing supply in America. … the reason for the record supply-demand imbalance is that housing starts in Florida have been far in excess of underlying demographic demand for several years. As of 2006, we estimate that the housing stock was growing roughly twice as fast as the population.”

Of course, in Miami-Dade County we know first-hand that what Goldman Sachs prints is true. All we have to do is go outside and look around: we have watched the scamming for decades. The Miami mayor, city commission, and the majority of the county commission justify one zoning change after another in favor of developer/campaign contributors like addicts rationalizing whatever they need for their next fix.

And don't forget the Florida legislature in Tallahassee, an extension of the farmer/builder lobby that has spent the past eight years insulating the Florida constitution from citizens, creating a virtual fortress to protect the prerogatives of suburban sprawl.

Here in Miami, consultants and engineers, with maps showing demographic surges, shortage of land, various obstructions to building densities in areas already served by municipal services—are no different from lobbyists for the tobacco industry that persuaded the states and Congress that cigarette smoking was not harmful to public health.

The ownership of a platted subdivision or a condominium in downtown Miami can go through receivership, or not, can be sold or re-sold, can be purchased by a hedge fund, a vulture fund, or money launderers. Some builders can get rich or lose their fortunes.

Once the concrete pad is poured, the landscape is permanently altered.

Once the cement hardens, every argument about 'mitigation' is moot. In the absence of precaution, wisdom, or caring for the public good, what happens next is almost as certain as death and taxes.

And here is the consequence in Florida: “The potential for large house price declines is also greater in Florida than just about anywhere else in the country. Prices in the major metropolitan areas have risen further than anywhere else since 2000, even compared with erstwhile boom cities such as Los Angeles or Las Vegas.”

“… house prices would have to fall by over 40 percent to get back to fair value immediately.”

“… businesses with significant sales in Florida could see problems for an extended period of time. This is most obvious for the homebuilding industry but is likely to extend to retailers and other businesses that rely significantly on state demand. … Florida may be the ‘canary in the coal mine’ for other regions that have recently seen runaway housing booms.”

Goldman Sachs also writes, “At this point, a Florida recession is still a forecast, not a fact.” The investment bank expects indexes to turn negative before the end of 2007.

We estimate that the county commission will begin talking about rescuing the building industry with incentives and more streamlined permitting around the same time.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Monthly water bills will look like car payments. RO is inevitable.