Running on Empty

A century of messing with Mother Nature has robbed the Everglades of too much water. Now we don't even have enough for ourselves.

Everything is dirty, or at least feels dirty. Metro-Dade buses, once bright white with blue and lime-green stripes, are now various shades of gray. With the reduced water pressure, it's hard to get clean under the dribble that falls from shower nozzles. Better to take a sponge bath (and there's nothing quaint about it).

Landscape irrigation is prohibited for all but an hour or two a week, rendering Dade a patchwork of amber lawns. Thousands of dollars in fines are levied on once law-abiding citizens caught watering their yards during restricted hours. A few repeat offenders are thrown into the slammer. Put off by the ugliness of Dade's golf courses, the PGA moves the Doral Ryder Open out of Miami. Coral Gables wilts.

These are merely the daily inconveniences, mild annoyances compared to the more serious consequences of Dade's newest water shortage. In Coconut Grove, careless kids playing with matches set alight a wooden bungalow. Half the block burns down before the water department manages to boost the pressure enough to allow firefighters to battle the blaze.

Tomato growers and other farmers are forced to reduce their acreage and lose millions of dollars in crops. New construction shudders to a halt. Multinationals looking to relocate their headquarters to the Magic City turn their attention elsewhere. Prozac becomes the dinner mint of choice at chamber-of-commerce functions all over town.

Images like these are keeping some public officials awake at night, but they are more than the nightmares of feverish imaginations. They could be our reality in the very near future. Unlike previous water shortages, such as the dearth that lasted from 1989 to 1991, this one isn't about a temporary drought. Indeed, the voluminous rainfalls of the past few months have saturated the earth; there's plenty of water all around. The "looming crisis," as Metro's top water official Anthony Clemente puts it, is far more profound and dire: It involves whether we can continue to get that water without destroying the environment and ourselves.

Simply put, Dade consumers are using just about as much water as state water managers will allow. Dade takes most of its water from the Biscayne Aquifer, a wedge-shape subterranean sponge of porous limestone that holds huge volumes of slow-moving ground water. A constellation of wellfields around the county sucks the water from the aquifer -- which begins just below our feet -- and powerful pumps force the water through massive pipes to treatment plants.

Most residents and businesses north of Flagler Street get their water from either the Northwest Wellfield, located off of NW 58th Street, two miles beyond Florida's Turnpike, or from a cluster of wells in the Miami Springs-Hialeah area just north of Miami International Airport. Water from these sites is treated at a nearby complex called the Hialeah-Preston Water Treatment Plants. Consumers south of Flagler depend largely on water drawn at several wellfields in South Dade and processed at the Alexander Orr, Jr., Water Treatment Plant. (Water law differs from state to state: In Florida water rights are publicly held and managed by the state.)

But demand is outracing supply. Metro-Dade is permitted by state water managers to treat an average of 164.93 million gallons per day (mgd) at its Hialeah-Preston plants. But county officials admit they're pulling an average of 167.9 mgd from the wellfields for treatment at the plants. (The numbers are slightly better down south. State permits allow Metro to send an average of 181.45 mgd to its Alexander Orr plant. Currently the plant is handling about 167 mgd.)

No extra water means no ability to handle new demand. No ability to handle new demand means no new construction. In addition no available surplus would mean disaster should a breakdown occur or a wellfield become contaminated. Metro's water officials are now scrambling to find additional supplies of water. Among their most immediate measures, they recently requested permission from the state to pump more water for treatment at the Hialeah-Preston plants.

Despite the urgency of the situation, that permission is not guaranteed. Environmental activists and environmental regulators are concerned that additional pumping at either the Northwest Wellfield or the Miami Springs wells could have disastrous consequences for the environment and jeopardize public health. "I gotta hear a lot more from my own staff whether that water's available," says Nathaniel Reed, one of the state's foremost environmentalists and a member of the South Florida Water Management District's governing board, which will eventually decide whether to approve or deny the request. "It's certainly premature for anyone to say at this time, and Dade County better start to think about conservation and [alternative water supplies] no matter what the cost."

As Metro officials are preparing other permit requests, they are also accelerating ongoing programs involving alternative (and expensive) methods of water recovery, storage, treatment, and reuse. Meanwhile the future water supply in South Florida hangs in the balance. "We're in a situation where, if certain things don't happen every day, we will definitely be in a water crisis," warns Clemente, the director of the Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Department. "Every major decision that we're facing in the next five years will either cause a water crisis to happen or perhaps delay it. By 'water crisis' I mean we're not able to supply any additional growth in Dade County."

Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
Miami Concert Tickets