A salty future? Everglades restoration is key to state’s survival

May 20, 2007

If you can see through the smoke of forest fires, consider the experiment of putting 18 million people, plus visitors, on a narrow peninsula — Florida — in the midst of an historic drought.

Soon enough, your eyes should stop itching. What should bother you more is what you can’t see: the effect of drought on shallow-water aquifers serving Floridians with drinking water.

Here is the problem for a state built on limestone: If the aquifer empties, salt water rushes in. A little home experiment can show most of what you need to know.

Fill a shallow plate with a film of water. That would be the bay, the gulf or the ocean.

Now wring a sponge dry. Call it drought.

That would be the Biscayne aquifer. The holes of the sponge are not so different from the geological formation beneath our feet, porous and filled with occlusions and voids that allow the water below ground to migrate the same way it does above ground.

If you have a good imagination, picture a straw pulling water from the sponge. That is a drinking-water well, and represents billions of dollars of pipes and pumps, serving the showers and sinks, the washers and sprinklers and farmland of one of the nation’s fastest-growing states.

The end of the experiment is simple. You put the semi-dry sponge in the plate with a little water and what happens is that the sea wicks into the aquifer.

The most serious consequence of historic drought conditions in Florida is the destruction of drinking-water wells by saltwater intrusion.

It is a really, really big problem, and if this drought goes on much longer, it will be news around the world.

If you have a freshwater swimming pool, you are probably aware that you can’t recirculate chloride in the same pool system. The pump may not be designed to handle the corrosive effects of salt.

Also, at a time when reducing energy demand is urgently needed, the cost or removing salt from municipal drinking-water wells and treatment facilities is untold, unfunded billions of dollars.

There is a further problem with saltwater intrusion, noted by environmentalists who have shouted themselves hoarse over the issue:

It is one thing to know about pollution on the surface where you can see it and take measures (one hopes) to avoid it.

It is quite another thing to wreck an underground aquifer you rely on for the only substance you can’t live without: drinking water.

Are water managers worried about that happening?

Yes.

Ever since Florida was settled, engineering skills have been applied to the draining of wetlands to make the land habitable.

Through the housing boom, elected officials pressed water managers to use more engineering and more industrial processes to wring the maximum productivity from Florida’s aquifers.

If you looked closely, you could see the effects on the ground and it made you want to cry: vast de-watered expanses of Florida, underlying water tables sucked dry by crop irrigation or municipalities.

It was only two years ago that water managers, frightened by a series of dangerous hurricanes, opened control gates to lower the water level of Lake Okeechobee and dumped billions of gallons of polluted fresh water, causing massive ecological destruction along both Florida coasts.

What does the current drought tell us, coming so quickly and so dramatically on the heels of overabundance?

One, that population pressure has removed the elasticity from demand and supply — extraordinary in a state that received more than 50 inches of average rainfall per year and wastes most of it in order for America’s most heavily subsidized crop, sugar, to be profitably grown south of Florida’s liquid heart.

Second, that restoration of the Everglades is more of a necessity than many people ever expected would arise from its benefits to nature.

There are a few critics who argue that global warming will make tens of billions of taxpayer dollars spent on the Everglades a waste.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

If we don’t take care of the interior part of the ecosystem — the Everglades — and make sure it is full of clean, fresh water at the right time of year, there won’t be drinking water at the edges.

Wherever those coastal edges are, in an age of global warming, that’s where most people will be.

Unless, of course, Florida turns into a pillar of salt.

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