Newspaper number crunching

Newspaper numbers unraveled

Wet off the press

South Florida’s water cycle and the nation’s economy are similar in one big way: both are complex beyond belief.

Neither gets unraveled in a single sitting – whether that’s in front of a book or a newspaper; and neither gets fully explained – once and for all – in a single conversation or meeting – even among the experts. It takes an on-going dialog and an engaged set of minds just to keep pace and make sense of the run-away train that is the economy, or in our case, the water cycle.

The South Florida Watershed Journal strives to contribute to that dialog.

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The St Pete Times recently featured a story on sea level rise.

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If evaporation is the invisible giant barn door in the sky – comprising half of south Florida’s annual water budget, that makes sea level rise the invisible freighter floating on the horizon. On the geologic clock, that freighter threatens to release large volumes of global water from its ballast, which in turn will reclaim vast areas of the Florida peninsula back to the sea.

I say “reclaim” because Florida is a child of the sea.

And it had a long gestation period. About four miles of limestone has accumulated under our feet in south Florida over the past 3 hundred million years. But it wasn’t until 25 million years ago that Florida’s Lilliputian mountain range – the Ocala Arch – emerged from the sea.

Florida’s famed terraces are the “tree rings” that chronicle peninsular Florida’s battle ground with the sea.

Many of those terraces are perched higher than south Florida’s highest piece of real estate. I find that more than a little unnerving.

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But even with an extra skip in its step from global warming, the geologic clock ticks slowly: I’m still able to enjoy a relaxing day at the beach. Ironically – and perhaps putting me psychologically at ease – I’m most fond of low tides, as most beach combers are.
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The speculated source of the recent acceleration is of course the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, making it hotter, melting glaciers, and thermally expanding the water already in the oceans.

Oil is the economic juggernaut of our times and often seen as the poster child of our so-called addiction to fossil fuels.

The world produces around 85 million barrels of oil per day.

Add that over 366 days (don’t forget that we’re in Leap Year) and you get a grand yearly total of around 4 million acre feet of oil.

In hydrologic terms, that’s the volume of water in Lake Okeechobee at 15 ft, which is 5 ft higher than its current stage, and about the same elevation when all the Lake’s interior wetlands become flooded.

That makes Lake Okeechobee a great measuring cup for contemplating world oil consumption, and another good reason to go look at the Lake for yourself.

Go for yourself and take a peak over its brim. You’ll be amazed.

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Lake Okeechobee’s brim is currently being worked on. The Sun-Sentinel reports that the US Army Corps of Engineers is working to fortify the 140 mile long levee. The corps has prioritized the repair work on a 3500 ft section of the levee southwest corner, between Belle Glade and Pahokee – and is currently testing a 500 ft section of the repair — before proceeding on the rest.

The Lake currently holds around 2 million acre feet of water within the bounds of the Herbert Hoover Dike.

That’s a testament to how shallow the lake is relative to its size: it’s only down 4 ft from its early April average, but under half its capacity.

Compare that to the world’s largest free standing reservoir, currently under construction just south of the Lake, and recently featured in the Sun-Sentinel. It’s nearly 1700 acreas at 12.5 ft deep will hold just under 200,000 acre feet of water when full.

Or compare that to Lake Meade behind Hoover Dam on the Colorado River.

It’s dropped around 100 ft over the past 9 years, and is also at about half its capacity – 14 million acres – compared to around 28 million acres when full. The Los Angeles Times recently reported that climatologists have identified the American West as being more susceptible to effects of global warming, resulting in higher temperatures and lower snow pack in the headwater mountains that feed the reservoirs.

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Finally on to some coastal numbers.

The Miami Herald reports that the 6 wastewater treatment plants in Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach Counties discharge 300 million gallons to tide per day, piping it miles off shore and letting the Gulf Stream take care of the rest. That daily discharge rate adds up to around 330,000 acre feet per year. Efforts are under way to phase that practice out between 2013 and 2025.

In other coastal news the Charlotte Herald-Sun reports on at least one researcher who has concluded that red tide is increasing and caused by people. Other researchers tread more carefully on both issues.

Other new red tide research highlights the role of the Mississippi River’s downstream dead zone in the gulf, especially during its summer swirl to the east, in potentially fueling red tide episodes along Florida’s southwest Coast. The Mississippi discharges around 350 million acre feet into the Gulf per year.

That’s enough to fill up Lake Okeechobee from bottom to top every 5 days.

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Red tide is typically a more immediate societal concern than global warming or sea level rise.

In a nutshell it can be captured with the oft uttered question: “Can I go to the beach?”

The answer in Naples has been “yes” for the past year or so. It’s an out of sight out of mind issue.

Unless you’re from Jacksonville, where red tide has lingered for months, and has residents scratching their heads (and eyes) and crossing their fingers hoping that it was a once-in-a-lifetime event.

That question will be answered in time as the water cycle continues to turn.

In the meanwhile, red tide reports are now at your fingertips, thanks to a collaboration between Mote Marine Laboratory and Solutions to Avoid Red Tide (START).

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