Robert Ulanowicz: Is Florida Pumping Its Way to Dry Land Farming?

Is Florida Pumping Its Way to Dry Land Farming?

May 23, 2019

Dear Dr. Frazer:

Let me begin by congratulating you on your appointment as Florida’s first Chief Science Officer. Our state is in serious need of scientific advice concerning water management and you possess excellent credentials for the job.

I am writing out of deep concern that Florida’s current water management plan is fatally flawed and in dire need of reformulation. Indeed if the plan is not amended, the entire economic health of the state will fall into jeopardy.

The problem centers on the major attention and resources devoted to improving water use efficiency. The common understanding is that more efficient use of water will lead to conservation of our most precious resource. The reality, however, is that this initiative, without any countervailing mechanism, will foster exactly the OPPOSITE outcome – greater overall water consumption!

This unexpected outcome is an example of a 165-year old economic principle known as Jevons Paradox. William Stanley Jevons studied examples of improvements in the efficient use of coal, oil and gas and found that, virtually without exception, gross consumption of the resource increased in their wake. That the paradox also applies to water resources is a matter of fact, not speculation. I am enclosing a copy of a feature article from the August 24, 2018, issue (vol. 361, No.6404, Pp. 748-750) of Science Magazine, the most highly respected and thoroughly vetted scientific journal in our nation.

In their paper and supplementary materials, Drs. R.Q. Grafton et al. provide ample evidence and arguments to bolster the fact that better irrigation efficiency leads to higher gross water consumption. The paradox is an economic rule, however, and therefore amenable to economic remedy. The authors note in their next-to-last paragraph how water use fees can strongly incentivize conservation. Indeed, the Florida Springs Institute has already warned the public of Jevons Paradox and in February 2015 advocated the application of tiered universal water use fees to counter it. (Enclosed is also a later op-ed on the subject that appeared in the Orlando Sentinel.)

Water fees, even at small rates, have proven to be very effective in Florida. When JEA introduced tiered fees to cover the cost of delivery, overall consumption immediately fell by some 60%. Tennis Village Condominiums in St. Augustine was beset with a water bill that exceeded their budget by some three-fold. After meters were installed on individual units and major users were assessed for their excess, overall consumption dropped by about two-thirds.

Withdrawals from the Floridan aquifer already exceed recharge rates, and wells near the coast are being invaded by saltwater.  Throughout Florida the freshwater upper aquifer is underlain by brackish and salt water that rises to the surface at a rate of 40 feet for every one-foot drawdown in aquifer level. Chloride levels in inland springs are rising and areas of heavy extraction are candidates for “up-coning” of saline intrusion. Brackish wells can no longer be used for irrigation. Salt either kills the plants directly or accumulates in the soils, rendering them non-arable.

The horror of saline intrusion is that in a karst medium it is virtually irreversible. Karst limestone resembles a sponge in appearance, with a heterogeneous distribution of holes. Diffusion dynamics in such a medium mean that rates of depuration are very long – likely decades. (Recall how long it takes to rinse soap from a sponge.) Agriculture as we know it will cease to exist and will revert to dry-land farming, with production levels falling to only a few percent of today’s. Furthermore, significant chloride renders water unfit for many industrial purposes (n.b., Jacksonville industrialist Preston Haskell’s urgent call for water-use fees [Times-Union, Mar. 17, 2015]).

Desalinization cannot forestall this tragic eventuality. While demineralization can provide water for drinking and bathing, it is 10 times more expensive than current water supplies. The energy needed for separation of salt and water is set by thermodynamics and cannot be reduced by technological advances. Imagine Florida’s economy turning into that of a dry Caribbean island!

Even if the water laws already on the books (now largely neglected) were fully implemented, Jevons’ economics would consign our state to an impoverished future. The only feasible way of avoiding such a fate is to adopt water-use charges as soon as possible. The irreversibility of saline intrusion dictates that this remedy cannot be delayed until inland wells turn brackish. It would then be too late!

Doubtless, many will object to what at first might be perceived as a new tax. But homeowners are already paying ad-valorem taxes to support the Water Management Districts (WMDs). The WMDs could be supported instead by water use revenues, and their burden of developing and subsidizing efficient water use technologies could be dropped, because the fees themselves would strongly incentivize private enterprises to adopt efficient methods on their own.

I have taken the risk of trying your patience, because the very fate of our state is at risk. I am counting on your academic background to enable you to appreciate the dire situation facing us. I would welcome you to fact-check the points I have raised and to share your findings with other Secretaries, WMD CEOs and Legislators so that appropriate study groups can be launched. As Chief Science Officer, you are in a unique position to initiate and promulgate action that could spare Florida major natural and economic trauma.

I wish you every success in your job of providing our state government with the finest scientific counsel available.

Sincerely yours,

Robert E. Ulanowicz
Board Member, Florida Springs Institute
Professor Emeritus, Univ. Md. Center for Environmental Science
Courtesy Professor, UF Dept. of Biology

Cc:  Hon. Nikki Fried, Commissioner FDACS
Secretary Noah Valenstein, FDEP
Secretary Jamal Sowell, Commerce & Pres. EFI


  1. Consider that populations can desalinate and pass the cost to users. The author correctly states that brackish water is not suitable nor cost effective for farming. Great article! Farming is indeed pumping themselves out of a job mostly because water is free to them. Should they be allowed to destroy the environment before they destroy themselves?
    From the USGS-
    Overall, agricultural irrigation accounted for 40 percent and was the largest of the total freshwater withdrawn (ground and surface), followed by public supply with 37 percent.
    Public supply (52 percent) and agricultural irrigation (31 percent) used the largest volumes of fresh ground water in 2005, followed by commercial-industrial-mining self-supplied (8.5 percent), domestic self-supplied (4 percent), recreational irrigation (4 percent), and power generation (0.5 percent) (fig. 4).
    Agricultural irrigation (56 percent) used the largest volume of fresh surface water in 2005, followed by power generation (20.5 percent), public supply (13 percent), recreational irrigation (6 percent), and commercial-industrial-mining self-supplied (4.5 percent) (fig. 5).

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