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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Florida Drought

Air Date: Week of

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CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. In recent years wildfires have plagued Florida, a visible sign of drought. This year an exceedingly dry spell is shaping up as one of the worst droughts in Florida's history, and there have already been plenty of fires. Governor Jeb Bush is comparing the growing water crunch to California's energy crisis. Recently, he called a special meeting of state officials to address the problem. Neil Santaniello covers water issues for the South Florida Sun Sentinel. He says Governor Bush and his cabinet were somber as they stood up one after the other to describe the severity of the problem.

SANTANIELLO: They talked about houses cracking because of the soil underneath them drying and shrinking. They told of rivers with their flow capacities dwindling so much that some parts of the rivers are now dry. They talk about farmers whose grassy pasture lands have withered so badly that they're importing hay to feed their animals. They also talked about one of the most serious concerns of the whole drought situation: the threat of saltwater creeping into the freshwater vacuum around municipal wells and ruining those wells.

CURWOOD: What did officials say about the history of Florida with water and drought and what guide that might be for action now?

SANTANIELLO: Officials said that in the 50s and 60s and 70s, that Florida had not had as many frequent bouts of serious drought. But then in the 80s and 90s we seem to have these tighter cycles of drought starting to return. One of the worst ones we ever had in modern history was in 1981. We saw the last one in 1989-1990. Now a decade later, almost on cue, we're seeing another drought kick in, one that could last for two years, maybe three years. And that doesn't bode well for South Florida or the rest of Florida right now because the population has increased about 17 percent from 1990 to 1999. We went from some 13 million people to nearly 60 million people right now. That's exacerbating the drought because the water supply we had ten years ago has that many more straws dipped into it.

CURWOOD: The governor unveiled a sort of drought action plan. What's it look like?

SANTANIELLO: In general, the plan says up front that the best way to get us through this situation is to encourage people to conserve water more. But the plan includes some interesting measures. One proposal, for instance, would be to give state water managers, state agencies, more authority to require utilities to use recycled wastewater or gray water to sprinkle lawns and landscapes. Medium-term, the program calls for maybe restructuring water rates to reflect market conditions, which means essentially that maybe water rates should be more expensive, which would encourage people to use less water in Florida.

CURWOOD: You're based in South Florida.

SANTANIELLO: That's right.

CURWOOD: What kind of impact has the drought had on daily life there?

SANTANIELLO: People are feeling this in the sense that they're seeing their lawns turn brown. Water restrictions were first declared in December, and then they were tightened, stepped up, in January. We're under what's called Phase II restrictions. Essentially, the average person can only water their lawn twice a week, can only wash the car twice a week. More than 50 percent of the water consumption in South Florida goes to its landscapes, and that's why the focus is there.

CURWOOD: Where will South Florida look for more water if the drought continues as expected?

SANTANIELLO: Well, that's going to be difficult. South Florida generally gets most of its water from underground. It's pulled out of subterranean reservoirs called aquifers. Those are recharged by rainfall. When that water runs low, South Florida taps the Everglades. The Everglades basically were modified years ago with levees and canals to become these huge sort of bathtubs. When that starts to fall, then South Florida can reach out to Lake Okeechobee, 730 square miles, a vast, flat pan of water. Unfortunately right now, water tables are low, the Everglades are starting to fall to their floor, which in the parlance of water managers means if we take water out of them, we're going to hurt the Everglades. Water can only be taken out when that happens if water's brought into the Everglades from Lake Okeechobee. Well, Lake Okeechobee is at a record low level, and water managers are expecting it to drop lower than it has ever been in modern history some time shortly. When the lake gets down to nine feet, which there's no doubt it's going to get to, they can no longer gravity-flow water out of the lake. At that point, they're going to set up a series of temporary pumps to suck water out of the lake. They can take two more feet of water off the lake until it gets down to seven feet. At that point, those temporary pumps run dry and begin siphoning out air. No one is quite sure what happens after that.

CURWOOD: As all this is going on, of course, I'm thinking of the long-term Everglades restoration plan and it's kicking into full gear. How will the increased pumping fit into that plan?

SANTANIELLO: The Everglades restoration plan is the long-term solution that is mentioned in the governor's chart response plan. All eyes are upon the restoration as an attempt to restore the Everglades, but it also doubles as a water supply plan. And that was partly how it was sold to the federal government which approved it. Basically, the Army Corps of Engineers, which is behind this plan with South Florida water managers, said "Listen, we can't restore the Everglades, we can't give the Everglades water, without giving water to farmers and developers. To restore the Everglades, we still have to feed the beast of urban development." And so, what this plan does is it takes away things in the Everglades, mechanisms, canals, levees, that compartmentalized the Everglades and damaged it, but at the same time it's going to capture huge volumes of water that are now flushed into the ocean, that are lost to tide. Essentially, the flood control system that we strapped across the southern part of the peninsula does such a great job, it is so efficient at draining the landscape, that it just ejects all this wonderful storm water that we get from our 60 inches of rain, just whisks it out to the sea permanently, for good.

CURWOOD: How soon will people in South Florida be able to see water from this Everglades restoration plan?

SANTANIELLO: We're expecting to see some early results by 2010, in about ten years from now. And the entire plan won't be done until 2038 to 2040. So we're not going to get relief any time soon from it. But, in the long run, this idea of creating reservoirs and water storage areas underground is the best hope that South Florida has for solving part of its water supply crunch.

CURWOOD: Neil Santaniello is a reporter with the South Florida Sun Sentinel. Thanks for joining us, Neil.

SANTANIELLO: Thank you, Steve.



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