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.

The miners' essential motivation was to keep state environmental regulators off their backs. They offered to turn over about 40 square miles of mines to help create an 84-square-mile string of lakes that would function as a water supply, an environmental buffer between the Everglades and urban development, and a recreation area. In return the miners wanted to be able to continue mining until the year 2050 without the hassle of state regulators. (Two layers of environmental regulation -- county and federal -- already cover mining activities in Dade.) The legislature created the committee and essentially decreed that the system be implemented, even though the concept was merely speculative at that point. Water regulators winced. "We didn't have the data in hand to say whether it was viable or not," recalls a state water manager who requested anonymity. "Any time you start digging large lakes, how's it going to impact the restoration efforts of the Everglades ecosystem?"

Fortunately for the hasty politicians, the idea has so far won more supporters than detractors, including Joe Podgor, executive director of Friends of the Everglades and a member of the Lake Belt committee. "It's a big brick wall that keeps the 'Glades on its side and keeps the people on the other," says Podgor, rummaging through an overstuffed filing cabinet in the cluttered and windowless office of Friends of the Everglades in Miami Springs. Somewhere beneath the stacks of documents, file boxes, and mail are a couple of old desks and a phone.

"My Lake Belt file!" Podgor says finally, holding aloft a thick manila folder. Podgor is widely recognized as the man who came up with the idea of a "lake belt" fifteen years ago, but at the time everybody just smiled. "They thought I was nuts," he says. "There was the feeling that there was no end to the water that we had. Everyone thought the only remedy we needed for water problems was money, not planning." When the miners revived the concept, suggesting that old mines be used, Podgor gave them his support.

While he cautions that he's "reserving the right to forget the whole idea," Podgor says the hydrology and other scientific studies so far suggest the plan will achieve its intended goals. But how does one of Dade's long-time environmental activists explain his advocacy for decidedly un-Everglades-like craters full of water? The miners, he points out, were going to dig their holes no matter what: They own the land and they are an incredibly powerful lobby. "The lake plan says we're able to get the use of the land after the miners are through," he says. "And the fact of the matter is we're running out of water and something needs to be done quick. The next thing we'd see was a direct pipeline to the Everglades and to Lake Okeechobee. It was a race against the clock."

The Lake Belt, Podgor concludes, is an opportunity to help restore the wetlands, keep urban and agricultural development away from the Everglades, and create "a recognizable, understandable, indisputable drinking-water source that people would consider sacred. It's either that or the whole shebang collapses -- the 'Glades are gonna go."

As grand as they may be, these long-range visions aren't going to solve all of our water-supply problems. In general, warns the Wilderness Society's Jim Webb, it's misguided to think in terms of an ultimate solution. "I would like to see a refutation of the notion that there is a fixed bunch of shit that you've gotta do out there that will solve the problem," says Webb. "All we're doing is fixing tools to allow the succeeding generations to solve their problems more easily. That's a very uncozy thing for public officials to get their arms around. They want to wrap up the problem. When you take over human domination of a great natural system like this, you're riding the tiger. You don't get off."

Amid all the schemes for regional health and harmony, it's also tempting to forget one vital fact: Dade is running out of available water. Now. At the same time, Metro's ability to use existing hardware to get more water out of the aquifer is dubious, and potentially hazardous to the environment and public health.

At best, the pending Hialeah-Preston permit request represents a potential stopgap. In June the Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Department (WASD) filed the request to modify its existing state permit, which allows the county to pump and treat 164.93 mgd. WASD is seeking an increase to 201 mgd.

As a standard part of the permitting procedure, the Water Management District has responded to the request by seeking additional information. Among the things they want to know is what source Metro plans to tap, and what, if any, impact the pumping will have. Dade water officials have until the end of November to respond to the questions.

WASD director Anthony Clemente says he hasn't yet designated his intended water source: Wellfield pumping, he observes, is a "flexible" science; the county can "flipflop the pumpage" from wellfield to wellfield under a single permit. The director says he would prefer to draw all the water from the Miami Springs complex because the color of that water is lighter. A few years ago water officials decreased their pumping rate at the Northwest Wellfield and shifted to Miami Springs because the ground water in the northwest was turning brown, owing to leaching tannin from decaying vegetation in the Everglades. Julie Baker, an environmental planner for the Metro-Dade Department of Environmental Regulation, says the darker water doesn't present a health hazard but is a violation of a state aesthetic standard. "When people receive water that looks like weakened tea, they don't like it," explains Baker.

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