The Forgotten Commodity
by Chip Haynes

You walk over to the kitchen sink, turn on the faucet and fill your glass. Without any hesitation, you take a drink. The water is clear and pure and refreshing. You dry the glass and never give it a second thought. You could repeat that scene a hundred times a day and never question it: When you turn that tap, clean, clear, safe drinkable water will come out every time.

But what if you turned that tap and got smelly brown water with stuff floating in it? Say, that can't be good. What's going on here? Hmmmm. Maybe the water you got so used to started feeling a little, well, taken for granted. Under appreciated. Forgotten. Maybe it went on strike. Whatcha gonna do now, Thirsty Boy?

One million people are going to sleep here in Pinellas County tonight. They will all want to take showers, flush toilets and yes, have a glass of water. Maybe two. Some will do laundry while others will give their dog a bath. More than a few will take a dip in the pool, and no one will be disappointed. Water enough for everybody for now. Of course, if we were to restrain our growth to allow only as many residents as the county's own fresh water resources were able to serve, a few of these one million people would have to leave. Like maybe 667,000 of them...everyone that got here after 1957. Too bad, so sad. Bye-bye. Hey wait, that's me!

Of course that won't happen. For one thing, it's far too late. Not only is that horse out of the barn, he galloped into town and is currently buying everyone drinks. He is one very popular horse. The thing is, this county reached its maximum water-sustainable population forty-three years ago and kept right on building. We're living on borrowed water, and have been since 1957.

When people talk about the sustainability of a community or region, they refer to energy demands or transportation needs. There might even be some talk about food and housing. But water? As long as it flows, it's a given. No one thinks twice about it, and yet the only thing you'd miss quicker is the air. It seems like available water resources should be a community's first guideline for development and sustainability. Especially if you haven't got any. (Like us.)

It is mid-June, and Pinellas County is just now coming out of the worst drought in recorded history. It rained for the first time this year last Sunday. Many of our lakes are now fields. Private wells are dry and the forty year-old hedge alongside our house is dying. I last mowed the yard around Halloween of last year. True, the rains are starting to come back for the summer and our yard is looking better, but it will take months before fresh water levels return to normal. And even then, the rains will only last through October--barely five months out of the year. In the midst of all this, some of my neighbors water their lawns at every opportunity, as do the countless golf courses around the county. Why do they do that? Because they can. For many, sustainability is only seen on a daily basis: they will water today because they can water today. And they can water today because various government agencies have worked long and hard to make sure that water comes out of that tap every time without fail. If my neighbors, and everyone else here on this crowded sand bar, knew what the various government agencies went through to find that fresh water, pump it out of the ground, pipe it down here from two counties away and make it pure, clean and drinkable, maybe then they'd understand why it's such an insult to all concerned to simply pour it out on the ground. When do we say "Enough!," and when does anyone listen?

I'm guessing they'll start listening right after our well fields start pumping salt water. And when might that be? That's the funny part: Nobody knows! HA!

Of course water isn't the only resource to consider when it comes to development and growth. Around here, it seems to be the last. Come to think of it, I have never heard of a development, residential or commercial, being denied for any reason around here. If you build it, they will come. And if you come here, you can build it. We'll make sure you get your roads, your power, sewers and water. No problem. After all, we did it for everyone else. Why not you?

The big trend here in Pinellas County isn't building--it's re-building. With less than 2% of the available land actually vacant, we're doing a lot of the out-with-the-old and in-with-the-new. And you'd better believe that the new stuff needs more: more roads, more power, more water. Right now, the city water coming out of my kitchen tap tastes as good as any bottled water. Great stuff. And I do, like everyone else, blindly expect that to remain unchanged. Then again, at some point, maybe I'll start to notice a little wisp of a salty taste in there. Salt water intrusion into the fresh water wells is a big fear here--among those few that know what to fear. The rest of us just drink the water. If the wells start picking up salt water, there's no way to turn them back. But I'm sure they'll think of something, right? They always do. Don't they?

Desalination plants have been in the news here lately, mainly because the locals are so adamantly opposed to them. The NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard) come out in force to any public hearing on the subject. No way, no how, no sir. They don't want a desalination plant any where near them. But fresh water? Yes, they'd like that very much. I don't doubt that we will soon reach a point where the choice is not a choice, but a demand: fresh water or else. Or else what? Somebody has to move? Like that could happen. Don't go investing in Samsonite stock just yet. Trust me on this one.

Maybe where you live, it's not too late to secure that Sustainable Fresh Water Future. Forget milk--Got water? The U.S. average use is 180 gallons a day per person. That seems a little high to me. I know I didn't use that much yesterday, and I took a shower. Even at 100 gallons a day, it doesn't take very long for a million people to go through a serious amount of fresh water. Especially here, in sub-tropical Florida. And did I mention we were pretty much surrounded by undrinkable salt water down here? Just thought I'd share that.

Saying "NO" to development and growth is something governments at every level are loathe to do. (They sure are here, anyway.) Still, the alternatives of not doing so, of permitting continuous growth, can be devastating. You can mitigate road congestion for yourself with a bicycle, you can supplement your power supply with solar cells and a windmill (or an open window). You can even grow your own food. But when the well runs dry? All you can do then is pack up your troubles in the ol' Model T and head west to California. Unless it's full there, too.

You may want to look around where you are and start asking questions: Where does your fresh water come from these days? How does it get all the way to your house? And what would you do if it didn't, starting tomorrow morning? And the big question: At 180 gallons per person per day, how many more people can move in near you before you all hear that distinctive bottom-of-the-Slurpee noise that tells you all the water is gone, come back and try again tomorrow?

I know we have a capped shallow well alongside our house. My parents had it connected to a small electric pump to water the yard, way back when. We haven't used it for over twelve years. I wonder? What if I uncapped it and installed a hand pump? I mean, after all, I might get thirsty some day. Bottoms up!

Chip Haynes