The cost of Florida water

A recent national report (p. 13) looked at monthly water bills in 27 American cities and concluded that Jacksonville was the cheapest in the group:


A more detailed look at Florida water and wastewater rates found significant variation (p. 6) across five regions in the state:


By way of comparison, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports (p. 2) the following average monthly household expenditures:

  • Alcohol: $38
  • Entertainment: $217
  • Food away from home: $223
  • Gasoline: $230

In context, water doesn’t seem very expensive.

Real journalism?

What I write on this blog often resembles journalism:



Unfortunately, newspaper journalism on environmental topics has suffered from recent declines in revenues and subscriptions. We are lucky that Florida still has as many informed and dedicated environmental reporters as it does. They understand, as the Pew Research Center project on journalism concluded, that “Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth.” That’s my goal here, too, but perhaps with an unusually direct approach to political power and the fundamental causes of water management problems. Let’s imagine some story headlines if professional journalists adopted a similar approach:

Water utility may have water supply problems if users don’t become more efficient

Water utility happy to accept dollars from Legislature collected in other regions rather than charge their own customers for expanding supplies

Gubernatorial candidates use HOW much water?

Interest groups responsible for the most water pollution oppose new EPA pollution control regulations

Another conservative older white guy is appointed to the governing board of a water management district

Business interests on WMD governing board oppose raising application fees for businesses

Commissioner of Agriculture delighted at new subsidies for Florida agriculture

Researchers find that some home landscapes look good even without added fertilizer

Septic tank owners polluting a spring want free money or they won’t help fix the problem

I would love to read that kind of real journalism stories.

The Charlie Crist-Rick Scott Debates and Harry Frankfurt

I watched the final Crist-Scott “debate” last night so you didn’t have to. For context, look first to a dispute in the final 2010 Alex Sink-Rick Scott debate. At one point, Sink burst out in frustration: “Well, my opponent has said that he would do away with the Department of Community Affairs.” Scott denied it, claiming that he wanted only to “go back to the original purpose of DCA.” True or not? The next day, Politifact Florida called Sink’s statement “False.” It turned out to be “false” only in the sense that Scott couldn’t be pinned down by Politifact. He killed DCA immediately after being put in office.

There were no questions last night about water or the environment, with one exception. Scott was asked why he refused to go along with the vast consensus of climate scientists on the reality of climate change. As he has before, Scott avoided answering. Instead, he recited his memorized lines about dollars spent on various projects, almost none of which related to climate change.

Both candidates shaded the truth at times but Scott went far over the line much more often. Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt explained this tendency in some people. Frankfurt would deny that Scott was “lying” about the Department of Community Affairs in 2010 or climate change in 2014. It was something different:

It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describes reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose. (p. 14)

I am sure that some excellent fact check stories will be written. Nonetheless, it is hard for journalists, let alone voters, to see the truth when so many dump loads are being thrown into the air. We have to wait until November 4 to learn whether Scott will “get away with it.” Florida water resources will bear the consequences.

Water 4.0?

Water4coverDavid L. Sedlak, Engineering Professor at Berkeley, Deputy Director of the Berkeley Water Center, and 2014 winner of the Clarke Prize for excellence in water research, has written a book about water issues: Water 4.0. He rejects the usual structure of this kind of book:

About twenty years ago, when I started getting interested in these issues, I encountered a problem: the books on water intended for a general audience were too general, with large sections dedicated to disparate issues like wasteful agricultural water use, destruction of aquatic habitat, and the water and sanitation needs in the developing world.

Whether you like Water 4.0 may depend on whether you agree those topics should be minimized. The omissions do at least leave room for major sections on the history of water management: Roman aqueducts (Water 1.0), medieval “buckets” (2.0), and modern drinking water and sewage infrastructure (3.0). (You gotta give Sedlak credit for expecting a “general audience” to read technical sections on biofilms, alum precipitates, Imhoff tanks, combined sewer overflows, sanitary sewer overflows, chlorination byproducts, activated carbon, EPA standards for trihalomethanes, ozonation, and the Streeter-Phelps dissolved oxygen sag curve.)

Water 4.0 argues that the current centralized system of water supply and wastewater treatment is breaking down. It is not meeting user needs, is becoming too costly, and may not be providing safe drinking water. Sedlak proposes specific solutions to these problems. His overall goal:

To wean cities from centralized water systems and all of their associated problems, we might simply have to find a way to make decentralized water supply and treatment practical at higher population densities. It’s quite likely that we’ll never break free of centralized water and sewer systems in the middle of our most densely populated cities, but a society equipped with the latest innovations in information technology, biotechnology, and materials science should be able to improve on the groundwater wells, septic tanks, and unlined ditches that served our rural communities so well during the twentieth century.

Cost is a problem, though:

Under these circumstances, decentralized water reuse can be achieved by building a network of tiny wastewater treatment plants in the basements of homes and apartment buildings. Running a network of distributed membrane bioreactors would cost around $3.40 per thousand liters ($13 per thousand gallons) of water produced. That’s about five times more than the current cost of water reuse or desalination.

That cost per thousand gallons might come down with better technology. Wastewater reuse, gray water utilization, drastically cutting lawn irrigation, and decentralized water alternatives “might reduce a city’s potable water consumption by as much as 50 to 75 percent.” Big reductions in water use too should reduce the total cost of water services. (Also true for central systems, though.)

Changing to Water 4.0 would mean many transitions, perhaps not all desirable. This is where the tight focus of the book prevents full understanding of other compelling issues. How does one persuade people to give up residential irrigation? Do mortgage interest and agricultural subsidies stand in the way of the transition? What are the implications for environmental justice? Would lakes, rivers, and springs have as much water flowing to them and would they be cleaner or dirtier in Water 4.0? Would the emission of greenhouse gases in a decentralized system be larger or smaller? Would the new group of decentralized water home gurus tend to be only those with extra money lying around? Would these homeowners lose their interest in centrally provided services for others less fortunate or less interested in advanced technology?

There may be particular relevance to Florida. Keeping more water onsite is usually good for water quality in this state. If you can catch some water and reuse it in the home or on the landscape, so much the better. However, the state Legislature will not even require septic tanks to be regularly inspected, so it is hard to have confidence in proper management of a multiplicity of more complex wastewater systems. I also wonder, in light of how many Floridians install home water filters and buy bottled water for supposed “health” reasons, whether many people are willing to drink water coming off their roof.

Nonetheless, Water 4.0 is a creative and thought-provoking example of approaches to water consistent with the ideas of another recent book, “A Twenty-First Century U.S. Water Policy.” Some community in Florida should give water decentralization a big push and see how successful it turns out to be.

Florida water meanings

One reason that thinking about water is so difficult is that it attracts so many interpretations and meanings. Two examples:

We have to thank the Springs Eternal Project for a mesmerizing 12-minute video that is a “joyful, humorous and deeply affectionate underwater tour through some of the splendid flora and fauna of Florida’s marvelous springs”:

SWIMMING THROUGH AIR from Lesley Gamble on Vimeo.

Florida water cologne-2A different perspective, but somehow related, is the history and marketing of “Florida Water.” This inexpensive cologne dates back to 1808, was used by both men and women, and originally drew upon the myth of a Florida Fountain of Youth. Still sold today, it has been used in “rituals of home protection and spiritual cleaning” including religious practices in Santeria. Another use is in cold towels for cooling down after athletic events.

These two examples show how one person’s internal collection of mental symbols of Florida water can be strikingly different from that of another person. The language of Florida Water has many dialects.