Conservative water policy hints

The candidates running for the Republican Presidential nomination haven’t talked much about water so we must extrapolate from their other statements. We can expect policies like the following to appear on their websites soon:

Never forget that the Second Amendment protects our right to open carry of water cannons.

Everything in the world is terrifying so we must have a crash program to conceal pants-wetting.

We must cut water charges for the highest water users. That will grow jobs, jobs, jobs. 

We must get the federal government out of the way of state action in restoring the Everglades.

Fracking and offshore oil drilling all around Florida, baby!

We must stop the import of non-native water. Also the flow of foreign rivers into Florida from Georgia and Alabama. Perhaps by a giant wall.

Barack Obama regularly drinks water and he wants you to do the same!

Hurricanes no longer respect America. We must disregard political correctness and take them down.

Water disinfection comes from the same liberals and so-called scientists that dreamed up evolution, disease vaccination, and climate change. Disinfection will cease on day one of the next Presidency. 

At least, that is what I read between the lines.

Taking your chances with the “100-year” flood?

Why would Floridians knowingly put structures on a river bank or seashore right in the path of a “100-year” flood? For many people, the statistical odds of disaster might be acceptable. How so?

The hundred-year flood is estimated to occur, at least statistically, in 1% of years. Put differently, 99% of years are estimated to not have a flood of that magnitude. If a person’s time horizon of flooding concern is 50 years, the chances of not going over the 99% event for the next 50 years are 0.99 to the 50th power: 0.605. That means a 60.5% chance of not seeing a 100-year flood at an individual site in the next half-century. (Or, a 39.5% likelihood of experiencing the 100-year flood one or more times over that same period.)

Yes, estimates of flood frequency are not exact. Yes, rainfall and flood patterns may be changing. Yes, floods of less than 100-year severity can be quite damaging. Yes, the statistical likelihood for regional and state flooding is greater than for an individual. Yes, people are not good intuitive risk assessors.

Still, I suspect that many people feel that they can luck out. A 60.5% chance of a 100-year flood over 50 years doesn’t intimidate them. This is even more true if subsidized flood insurance is available or if they hope to receive emergency disaster assistance after the big flood.

The next governor’s water policy?

Rick Scott’s restless ambition likely will cause him to run for U.S. Senator in 2016 or 2018. Regardless, his term as governor will end with the inauguration of a new governor in January 2019. If Adam Putnam, the current Commissioner of Agriculture, runs for governor as predicted–and wins–what would be his key water policies?

To his credit, Putnam frequently includes in his speeches a section on the importance of effective water policies. Last Friday, for example, he repeated his call for a “unifed” set of water policies and promised that with the right policies, Florida can have “lush lawns and great golf courses and conserve water.” We can have it all.

He appears not to have objected to Scott’s assaults on the water management districts. Five years ago, Putnam was forecasting a shortfall of two billion gallons of water a day by 2025. Nowadays, he thinks it will be more like a billion gallons a day by 2030. This dramatic reduction in the water supply problem seems not to have affected his speeches.

In regard to water quality, Putnam was a strong opponent of EPA pressuring Florida to adopt numeric nutrient criteria for water.  He also joined the chorus of opposition to the EPA “Waters of the United States” rule. He proposes to divert Land and Water amendment money to buy vehicles and for state forest road repairs.

Although the Commissioner routinely calls for far-sighted water planning, his own Department of Agriculture’s “Strategic Plan” summary is out-of-date and lacks any specific deadlines for task accomplishments. His “Office of Energy” Annual Report somehow fails to include the words “climate change,” “global warming,” “Deepwater Horizon,” and “offshore.” That report also refers to “growing” demand for energy in Florida but includes no statistics in support of such a trend. According to the Energy Information Administration, fossil fuel use in Florida actually was about the same in 2014 as in 2000.

It is too early to predict what kind of a “water policy” governor that Commissioner Putnam might be. On the evidence to date, he might not be all that different from the current governor.

FDEP “Performance Dashboard” and WMD “Water Management Performance Measures”

It is more than odd that the Florida Department of Environmental Protection highlights on its home page a “Performance Dashboard” with not a single measure corresponding to key “Water Management Performance Measures” used by the five water management districts. The WMDs report on fundamental performance measures that FDEP does not utilize on a statewide basis, including:

  • Per capita water use
  • Residential per capita water use
  • Percentage of surface waters with healthy nutrient levels
  • Percentage  of surface waters with healthy biological condition
  • Improving, degrading and stable trends in nitrate concentrations in springs
  • Total acres of wetlands or other surface waters authorized by Environmental Resource Permit (ERP) to be impacted and the number of acres required to be created, enhanced, restored and preserved

Instead, the FDEP “Dashboard” reports mostly on secondary and administrative measures, like the amount of money loaned, permit process times, insurance premiums, “customer surveys,” etc. That doesn’t tell us whether Florida’s water environment is getting better or worse.

“A Ditch in Time” (Denver Water)

Patricia Nelson Limerick‘s 2012 book on Denver water supply holds fascination, even for the Florida experience. A Ditch in Time goes deeply into Denver water issues (like the precedent-setting demise of the proposed Two Forks dam) but also provides many general lessons.

The book disputes some dominant generalizations about Western water management, whose influence reaches into Florida water discussions. Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert, for example, is a great book but the notion of a centralized “hydraulic empire” was overstated in the book when published in 1987 and is even less true today (due in part to Reisner’s influence!). Another example: Modern scholarship provides an alternative to the traditional stories of corrupt Western water deals portrayed in the movie Chinatown.

Perhaps of most Florida interest is the final chapter, “Turning Hindsight into Foresight: Denver Water as a Parable.” Five “Mistaken Assumptions” and “Better Assumptions” are offered for consideration. Each of them is explained carefully and could stir thinking for analogous Florida circumstances. Two excerpts:

Mistaken Assumption Number 1: The supply of water and the rate of population growth and residential development are inherently and inevitably intertwined. To increase population growth and residential land development, add water. To limit population growth and residential land development, stop adding water. Thus, agencies like Denver Water could control growth if their leaders would face up to their responsibilities.

Better Assumption Number 1: Water is only one factor in population growth and not always the most important one. Controlling water does not necessarily translate into authority over growth.

Mistaken Assumption Number 3: In opinions on and judgments of competing demands for water, use for farms and ranches carries a greater ethical integrity and is more justifiable than the use of water for environmentally parasitic cities and suburbs.

Better Assumption Number 3: There are many good reasons to reject old appraisals of the distribution of virtue and the corresponding allocation of water between rural and urban areas and to search instead for the ties that link the well-being of both domains.

Worth thinking about. After all, there is a Florida River in Colorado.