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I have a friend in south Florida who is a lawyer who is starting the conversation about farmland for sale.  Ok, in south Florida is might be about 40 years too late, but he has a great argument to make, even here, now.  Developers have paid handsomely for agricultural land near urban areas, especially in areas with nice weather (see Florida).  The problem is that many of those lands have been productive and because they are close to urban areas, convenient for the movement or produce to feed those communities or export the food to other areas.  It would seem obvious that buying food locally would be preferred to buying food from far away, unless you are an Agribusiness or developer that is.  And most family farms have been handed down to generations that, well, just don’t want to work farms, given the amount of money that the land can be sold for.  So it is an easy economic argument to make – sell your farm to developers and live happily ever after.  Except that means farmland that is no longer producing.  And as my friend notes, there is a finite amount of farmland out there and we are decreasing that acreage in the US every year.

Now true, some will argue than development is less water intensive than farms, but much of that argument is due to the traditional practices used for farm watering, as opposed to newer, less wasteful means.  So they argue, development is preferable to farming, but that argument may be limited to areas that are a) water poor  b) bring water in from elsewhere, c) extensively use groundwater which may not recharge, or d) should probably have neither farming or development.  But is Florida, we see fewer oranges, fewer row crops and less ranching than 20 or 40 years ago.  All that land is condos and houses, and our food gets trucked or shipped in from many places, a lot of them not Florida and few local.  He suggests that might not be a good thing for the long term.

Of course Florida is going to be faced with another of these land dilemmas.  When Crist was governor, he negotiated a deal to buy land from US Sugar to help restore water from Lake Okeechobee to the Everglades.  Now the powers say they can’t afford to maintain the land, so US Sugar can keep it.  Of course US Sugar has plans for 100,000 houses in the Everglades Agricultural Area, or more, once farming stops.  I see my friend cringing.  That land, while not beneficial as farmland, surely would be less beneficial and farm more vulnerable as development.  Maybe we should rethink that land purchase?  Worth thinking about anyway.


This month’s Journal for AWWA has several articles devoted to direct potable reuse (DPR).  Total Water Solutions is the moniker that AWWA has tapped lately as the organization has moved to the message that water sources cannot be separated.  California believes that 40% of its urban water use can be recycled to direct potable reuse, which can address a lot of the drought concerns for urban users (11% of California’s water use).  The technology is available to make DPR a reality.  The concerns involve insuring system reliability (i.e. redundancy in processes), and public perception of DPR.  As I noted in a prior blog, there are two cities in Texas already doing DPR.  There are several places in California doing indirect potable reuse (IPR) which basically involves injected the water into an aquifer or releasing it in an upstream reservoir.  The treatment is basically the same for both but the separation is creates a different public opinion. One that is not so different than discharging wastewater to rivers that serve as water supplies downstream.  Both IPR and DPR were unheard of as ideas outside southern California until more recently.  But in the past several years, both have seen a significant change in Texas, California and Florida.  Water-logged south Florida has looked at 5 IPR projects in the past 7 years, and has a couple reuse ASR systems.  Should drought conditions return, these projects may not be so far-out (note we are at 25% normal rainfall in southeast Florida – but water use is 10% below 2005 levels).


There is an interesting ethical issues that arises in this discussion also. Engineers are entrusted to protect the public health, safety and welfare. When there were few people, projects did not impact many so little thought was given to the “what could possible happen” question. We are still paying for that. When bad things happen, the precedent has unfortunately been set that somehow “the government” will resolve this. An old 1950s BOR director said he thought he was “a hero because he helped create more room for people” in the west with dams and water projects. He did accomplish that, except that while there were more people coming, the resources were never analyzed for sustainability, nor the impact it might have on the existing or potential future economic resources. But once the well runs dry, I think we just assumed that another solution would resolve any issue. But what is if doesn’t?

There are many water supply examples, where we have engineered solutions that have brought water or treated water to allow development. South Florida is a great example – we drained half a state. But no one asked if that development was good or appropriate – we drained off a lot of our water supply in the process and messed up the ecological system that provided a lot of the recharge. No one asked in the 1930 if this was a good idea.

Designing/building cities in the desert, designing systems that pump groundwater that does not recharge, or design systems that cannot be paid for by the community – we know what will happen at some point. Now that there are more people, conflicts become more likely and more frequent. Most times engineers are not asked to evaluate the unintended consequences of the projects they build. Only to build them to protect the public health safety and welfare while doing so, but from a specific vantage point.

So if you know a project will create a long-term consequence, what action should you take? So the question is whether there is a conflict between engineers meeting their obligations to the public and economic interests in such cases?  Or should we just build, build, build, with no consideration of the consequences?


We are all aware of the major drought issues in California this year – it has been building for a couple years.  The situation is difficult and of course the hope is rain, but California was a desert before the big water projects on the 1920s and 30s. Los Angeles gets 12 inches of rain, seasonally, so could never support 20 million people without those projects.  The central valley floor has fallen over 8 feet in places due to groundwater withdrawals. Those will never come back to levels of 100 years ago because the change in land surface has collapsed the aquifer. But the warm weather and groundwater has permitted us to develop the Central Valley to feed the nation and world with produce grown in the desert.  The development in the desert reminds me of a comment I saw in an interview with Floyd Dominy (I think), BOR Commissioner who said his vision was to open the west for more people and farming, and oversaw lots of projects to bring water to where there was none (Arizona, Utah). The problem is that the west never head much agriculture or population because it was hot, dry and unpredictable – hence periodic droughts should be no surprise – the reason they are a surprise is that we have developed the deserts far beyond their capacity through imported water and groundwater.  Neither may be reliable in the long run and disruptions are, well, disruptive.  Archaeologist Bryan Fagan traced the fall of Native American tribes in Arizona to water deficits 1000 years ago.

Yet policymakers have realized that civil engineers have the ability to change the course of nature, at least temporarily, as we have in the west, south, Florida. I often say that the 8th and 9th wonders of the world are getting water to LA over the mountains and draining the southern half the state of Florida. I have lived in S. Florida for 25+ years and am very familiar with our system. The difference though is that we have the surficial Biscayne aquifer and a rainy season that dumps 40 inches of rain on us and LA doesn’t (as a note of caution, for the moment we are 14 inches below normal in South Florida – expect the next drought discussion to ensue down here in the fall). The biggest problems with the Everglades re-plumbing are that 1) no one asked about unintended consequences – the assumption was all swamps are bad, neglecting impacts of the ecosystem, water storage, water purification in the swamp, control of feedwater to Florida Bay fisheries, ….. 2) one of those unintended consequences is that the recharge area for the Biscayne aquifer is the Everglades. So less water out there = less water supply along the coast for 6 million people 3) we lowered the aquifer 4-6 ft along the coastal ridge, meaning we let saltwater migrate inland and contaminate coastal wellfields 4) we still have not figured out how to store any of that clean water – billions o gallons go offshore every day because managing Lake Okeechobee and the upper Everglades was made much more difficult when the Everglades Agricultural Area was established on the south side of Lake Okeechobee, which means lots of nutrients in the upper Everglades, and a lack of place for the lake to overflow, which meant dikes, more canals, etc. to deal with lake levels.

The good news is that people only use 11% of the water in California and Florida, and that Orange County, CA and others have shown a path to some degree of sustainability (minus desal), but the real problem is water for crops and the belief that communities need to grow. When we do water intensive activities like agriculture or housing, in places where it should not be, it should be obvious that we are at risk. Ultimately the big issue it this – no policy makers are willing to say there is “no more water. You cannot grow anymore and we are not going to send all that water to Ag.”  Otherwise, the temporary part of changing nature will come back to haunt us.


After my last post, I was asked about sea level rise and how to get started with the issue in a very “red” area as it was characterized.  I have come to the conclusion that the insurance industry will make sea level rise real for politicians in those places where it is impermissible for bureaucrats to discuss it.  Here’s why.  Say you have a house in a low lying area that is vulnerable to sea level rise and/or storm surge.  One is permanent, the other temporal, but in both cases are potentially catastrophic if you live in this house.  You bought the house, got a loan for 80 or 90% of its value and then got insurance for it.  Now the insurance is there to insure that if your house gets swept away or damaged, there will be enough money to pay off your loan.  That’ s what many people miss.  Insurance is for the bank, no you, which is why your loan documents require that you get and hold insurance while you have the house.  After your loan is paid off, there is no such requirement.

Now let’s say we are out 20 years.   You have enjoyed your house but have decided to sell it.  Now the banks will value it and are willing to loan say 80% of its value.  They of course assume that the house will increase in value with time so even if you make no improvements, if they have to foreclose on it they will get their money back (a major part of the problem with the financial crisis of 2008 was they banks could not get their money out of the properties).   Even if it doesn’t, as your loan is paid down, their risk decreases.   The loan documents require that you get insurance to cover your costs.

So far so good, but what happens when the insurers will not give you insurance for the full value of the property?  In Florida the State creates Citizen’s to deal with the fact that private, commercial insurers saw too much risk in coastal areas and refused to issue policies.  Now the State and Citizen’s have the risk.  Fine, but that isn’t dealing with the same issue – if the insurer think the value of the property will decrease, or the risk increases a lot, they will not issue policies. Or they will revise policies to say they will pay once – but will not insure you for rebuilding.  You may think this will not happen, but Citizen’s is already discussing this option.  Hence if you lose your house, they will pay you (so you can pay the bank, and then you are on your own.  Now the bank may be willing to offer you a distressed property as an options (Welcome to Detroit), but that won’t be in the same risk zone.

Take this further, let’s say Citizen’s for example says we will pay full value if you lose the house but will not insure a rebuild?  That means they probably will not give insurance to the guy who wants to buy our house in 20 years.  How much is your house worth now?  Probably nothing, which means now the bank will be looking at your insurance coverage and say – whoa – if the house is not worth anything on a resale, that means they may not get paid when you sell your house if you sell if before it is paid off (the norm)!!  That is an unacceptable risk, and they need a solution.  Of course if your house suddenly has no value, it means local governments get no revenue for taxes (good for you, but bad for providing essential services like storm water.  You may not believe this discussion is happening, but it is.

So here’s what I think happens.  I think the banks figure this out and start looking at vulnerability as a part of loans.  I think they start thinking about what the value in 20 or 30 years might be and if they can get their loan monies back out of property.  That will slow property values.  I think the insurance industry does the same, and working with banks will further set the prices acceptable for vulnerable property.  They are not good investments. If you own such property, you may get insurance in the short-term, but long-term your house value may decrease.  At some point, your house will have no resale value, unless……

BUT there iis a big caveat to all this.  Coastal areas are high value markets.  Lots of activity and lots of investment opportunities.  It all depends on what is being done to protect those properties, and depending on the federal governments to bail out private property is unrealistic.  It is a local issues, so I also think the banks and insurance industry will start looking at what local governments are doing to protect investments in private property.  Do they have a sea level rise adaptation plan?  Are the storm water systems updated/upgrades/maintained?  Are roads, water supplies and sewer systems capable of functioning under the changed condition?   Is there a 50 or 100 year vision on how the community adapt to nature?  If yes, there is comfort that investments are protected.  If everyone’s head is buried in denial…..Detroit’s calling.  U-haul anyone?

PS  No disrespect to Detroit, my father’s hometown and the home to many of my current and departed family.  For those who do not know, Detroit is high, has access to lots of water, sewer, roads, power and lots of land at reasonable cost, along with a jobs and manufacturing history.  Perfect opportunity, one not lost on our ancestors.

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