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Excerpt: 'Mirage'


The crack crept just like ivy. It sprouted from below ground, then inched up the brick of David and Vivian Atteberry's home in an Orlando, Florida, suburb. With a thick, black marker, David Atteberry measured its journey, along with those of the cracks that had appeared in the ceilings and at the edges of almost every window in the house.

When the crack in the brick grew six inches in one day, David Atteberry called his insurance company. The adjuster came to see, and called a geologist. The geologist drilled a hole, and left in a hurry.

"Mr. Atteberry, are you sitting down?" the adjuster asked when she called.

He sat.

She told him that the ground was swallowing his house.

"It's a massive sinkhole," she said. "You should pack your family and get out of there."

Back home in Illinois, the Atteberrys had never heard of sinkholes. In Florida, they are common enough: some too small to notice, some big enough to sink a chunk of highway or a Porsche dealership, as one did in Winter Park in 1981.

Sinkholes are collapses in the limestone rock that underlies Florida. The peninsula sits atop what geologists call "karst," a pocked terrain formed over millions of years as water dissolved the limestone to create sinkholes, as well as Florida's spectacular blue springs and its mysterious underground rivers and caves.

These shifting "sinks," as they are known, are as natural to Florida as the waves that shape the state's 1,400-mile coastline. But human activity can open them up, too: highway construction, excavation of fill dirt, well drilling, and, particularly, the excessive pumping of groundwater.

In the last half century, Florida has seen extraordinary population growth—from 2.8 million people in 1950 to 17 million today. The current decade will bring about "the largest absolute population increase of any decade in Florida's history," says Stanley K. Smith, director of the University of Florida's Bureau of Economic and Business Research. Florida has a net influx of 1,060 people every single day. The math looks like this: 1,890 move in; 945 move out; births outnumber deaths by 115; total average daily population growth equals 1,060.

Among obvious consequences like traffic gridlock and crowded schools, this relentless growth causes thousands of other, more subtle problems, for one, an increase in the severity and frequency of sinkholes. To supply water to more than 90 percent of its booming population, Florida relies on groundwater pulled up from permeable aquifers underground. Almost everywhere else in the United States, water withdrawals have flattened in recent years despite population growth, thanks to conservation and greater efficiencies in water use. But the Sunshine State sucks up more and more water all the time, primarily to keep its fast-spreading lawns and golf courses green.

Today, Floridians are pumping groundwater out of their aquifers faster than the state's copious rainfall can refill them. Meanwhile each new master-planned community, shopping mall, and highway drains water in a bit of a different direction and lowers groundwater levels a little bit more. These are precisely the sorts of geologic disturbances that cause sinks, essentially funnels in the porous limestone.

In Central Florida, the sinkhole problem has become prevalent enough that the government saw fit to put out a brochure for homeowners. Called "Sinkholes," its cover shows a single-family home half-toppled into a huge crater of sand and water. The booklet pinpoints the most sinkhole-prone part of Florida, a stretch of the central west coast that draws blue-collar retirees who have cashed out of the Midwest to afford a modest home in a planned community. The most sinkhole-vulnerable county, Pasco, is also one of the one hundred fastest-growing counties in the United States.

It would be handy to come across the brochure while house hunting. In Florida, that is about as likely as finding a real estate Web site with a link to the National Hurricane Center. But soon, home buyers will learn about sinkholes: when they are denied insurance. Florida's major carriers have quit writing policies in those parts of the state where sinkhole claims are highest.

Crisis? Families like the Atteberrys would say so. But sinkholes are just one small symptom of a much greater problem facing Florida and other parts of the eastern United States for the first time since humans began living here some 12,000 years ago.

A shortage of life's most important ingredient. Water.

Until recently, people in the eastern United States enjoyed an abundance of freshwater. In fact, they thought there was far too much of it. In 1876, Major John Wesley Powell, the adventuresome one-armed explorer who then headed the U.S. Geological Survey, declared that a longitudinal line along the 100th meridian, down the middle of North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas, divided a moist East from an arid West. To the west of the line, he reported to Congress, a lack of rainfall would require cooperative irrigation and an equitable system of water rights to ensure scarce water would be used for the greatest good. To the east of the line, more than 20 inches of rainfall a year meant that people could settle and grow anything they wanted without irrigation.

Powell, the first American to explore the wild Colorado River, likely would be shocked by its modern-day taming, and by the complex, hardly equitable distribution formula that greens 1.7 million acres of desert and sends water to 20 million residents in California, Arizona, and Nevada, even as it supplies water to Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and New Mexico. The Colorado and the other major rivers of the West are so over-allocated to farmers and to cities that some have dried up completely. The mighty Rio Grande River that historically sent a steady torrent of freshwater into the Gulf of Mexico now peters out before it reaches the sea. The San Joaquin River no longer flows into San Francisco Bay but rather disappears into a giant plumbing system where it is doled out for agricultural irrigation and drinking water for California's unstoppable growth.

But Major Powell might be even more surprised by the water crisis lapping at the southeastern part of the country. After all, nature graces the South with an average rainfall of fifty inches a year, more than double the amount Powell deemed enough to grow—with no irrigation—any crop that could take the heat.

In the spring of 2004, the nation watched the West with worry as snowmelt in the Colorado, a veritable faucet for cities from Denver to Los Angeles, dropped off by half, resulting in the driest stint in a century of recorded history. By then the man-made backup for western water supply, the major's namesake Lake Powell, had lost 60 percent of its water in a stark reminder that American ingenuity has not quite tamed Mother Nature.

As the western story played out aboveground—the New York Times ran dramatic color pictures of Lake Powell's ten-story-high, salt-bleached cliffs—a quieter tale percolated below the soil in the American South. That region, too, was enduring the driest spring in one hundred years. Rainfall deficits of ten inches, near-record-low stream flows, and dried-out soils wreaked havoc on farmers and water managers from Mississippi to Florida.

Traditionally water-rich regions throughout the eastern United States have been threatened in recent years by some combination of overuse and drought. At the National Drought Mitigation Center, housed at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, director Don Wilhite says researchers who have long worked on the water problems of the West are being called upon increasingly to help cities, farmers, and others in the East.

"We're seeing that the number of basins or watersheds at the point of being overappropriated is increasing. This has long been a problem in the West, and now it's more and more of a problem in the East," Wilhite says. "And we're seeing a tremendous reliance on groundwater in cities in the East as well as the West. Florida is just one of many areas where the groundwater is not going to be able to sustain the growth."

Without the deep reservoirs of the West, many fast-growing eastern cities already were vulnerable to temporary water shortages. Intense population growth and the spread of development have made water problems perpetual. In Raleigh, a combination of overpumping and drought has nearly emptied Falls Lake, the only water supply for North Carolina's capital city. Residents tied up 911 lines trying to report their neighbors for washing cars. Some had to limit showers to four minutes.

In northeastern Massachusetts, parts of the Ipswich River so famous for its namesake clams go completely dry each summer—as soon as the Boston suburbanites who rely on the river for water turn on their sprinklers and fill up their swimming pools. In New Jersey, the Potomac-Raritan-Magothy Aquifer, the state's largest source of drinking water, dipped precipitously as population growth and development hiked groundwater pumping. Water levels dropped a hundred feet, threatening saltwater intrusion.

As water shortages flow east, so do a river of consequences—far more serious than quick showers. In Ipswich, low river flow regularly devastates fish and wildlife habitat, leading to fish kills and closing of the clam beds. During a state of water emergency in New Jersey in 2002, the government halted use of water for construction or use by any new "building, dwelling or structure" in three southern New Jersey townships.

The same year, New York City's water supply reached the most dangerously low levels in more than thirty years, resulting in a drought emergency declaration for the city and four upstate counties. More than 9 million residents were ordered to restrict water.

Today, water managers in a majority of the states believe they will see shortages within a decade, and that is without drought. But nowhere in the country are water shortages more puzzling and prophetic than in notoriously wet Florida—a regular guest on the Weather Channel thanks to its violent hurricanes, thunderstorms, and floods.

Excerpted from Mirage: Florida and the Vanishing Water of the Eastern U.S. Copyright © 2007 by Cynthia Barnett.

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Cynthia Barnett