Florida Sinkholes are Swallowing Cars: America’s Water Crisis (Part 2/3)

just unforgettable. The birth of a child. Your first day at school. The day you fell in the
giant sinkhole. Well, at least that last part
is the reality for one woman in Plant City. CARLA CHAPMAN: It
compresses you. It’s hard to– you can’t
maneuver out of it. You’re wiggling and you’re
maneuvering more into it. EMERSON ROSENTHAL: So we’re
here in Central Florida to investigate the problem of
massive sinkholes being caused by groundwater pumping. Basically, to get fresh water,
they’ve caused all the porous limestone underneath central
Florida to start to cave in and crack, causing homes,
neighborhoods, cars to start falling into giant holes. So we’re going to get to the
bottom of that story and find out if there are any
possible solutions. Ah. Holy shit it’s cold. Sinkholes are the result of
groundwater pumping, the process we use to retrieve
80 billion gallons of water every day. The process is simple. Water falls from the sky and
sinks down through the ground to fill aquifers, which are
like massive underground vaults of water. By drilling into these
aquifers, we can pump freshwater out. It’s cheap and, in theory, a
renewable source of drinking water for this country. More than half of our water is
already produced this way. Problem is we’re using too
much of it too fast. We’re draining aquifers faster
than they can be replenished, and it’s compromising not only
wetlands, lakes, and rivers, but the structural integrity
of Florida’s limestone foundation. In Florida, where 90 percent
of the population relies on groundwater for drinking, it’s
no surprise that sinkholes swallow up new terrain
every day. So we’re right outside
of Gainesville. And this house right
here has a huge fucking hole in its backyard. Looks like it’s about 80
yards across, maybe 30, 40 yards deep. Just a fucking massive hole in
the center of the earth. We spoke to some of
the neighbors. No one wanted to appear on
camera, but they did know the people who lived here. And it happened in the
middle of the night. They said it sounded like
thunder and then suddenly went outside to find their backyard
had caved in. EMMA KNIGHT: The Floridan
aquifer, this is where we have all the water that’s
underneath us. It’s kind of like a bank
account, where you have a certain amount of money and you
have bills that need to be paid every month. And those could be the springs
and the rivers, that could be the uptake that used for
plants or trees. So you have withdrawals from
your account, direct withdrawals, which would be
people watering their lawns, washing their cars, cooling
towers from a power plant. And then there the deposits. And deposits are almost
exclusively from rainfall. And it’s just the percentage
of rainfall that manages to percolate down to get right
back into the system. Right now, we happen to be in
a drought and we happen to have the highest amount
of consumptive use that we’ve ever had. And there isn’t enough water. EMERSON ROSENTHAL: So we’re
trying to reach the family who lived here previously, , but
nobody has gone back to us. It’s super terrifying to know
that we’re in a neighborhood where there’s a bunch of
families and literally, at any point, shit like this
can just open up. [TED CORELESS] If you’ve got a home with a 36
foot hole in the front yard, under the current definition
of what constitutes a sinkhole, that’s not covered. Because it didn’t affect
the house. Now forget about the fact it
completely destroys the value of the home. The idea was introduced and then
ultimately adopted in to law that required all property
insurers who sell insurance in the state of Florida to provide
sinkhole coverage. When the claims got to an
unacceptable level for the insurance industry, because
they felt they were losing money over that, there was a
real legislative push to try and address the issue by
discouraging claims. I mean, you can see the amount
of control that they’re exercising over property rights
of people by being able to change the definition of what
constitutes a sinkhole. JILL HEINERTH: In Florida, we’re
also over permitting. We’re giving permits for
withdrawals of water, water that we simply don’t have. So permits are being offered
to very large industrial operations, mining, or
agriculture in some cases. It’s too much. We don’t have that much
water to offer. And because of that, that’s why
I see the flow declining in the springs and slowing
down over time. EMERSON ROSENTHAL: So if
groundwater pumping empties our aquifers and costs
homeowners billions in sinkhole damages, why
do we still do it? Because it’s cheap. With population levels
skyrocketing, especially in Florida, the supply authorities
in charge of drinking water for Tampa Bay and
Saint Petersburg have to find a way to keep
the taps flowing. Tampa Bay water has increased
groundwater pumping by 400% since 1960, extracting 4.2
billion gallons of water each day from the Floridan aquifer
just to keep up. The first to pay for all this
pumping, of course, is the environment. Florida springs have been
up and rivers are soon predicted to follow. JILL HEINERTH: I’ve seen
the quantity of water disappearing. I’ve seen the lifeblood of
the planet slow down. There’s less flow coming
out of these springs. And I’ve seen a continued
degrading of the quality of the water and the springs
and rivers. EMERSON ROSENTHAL: As more and
more sinkholes opened up, Tampa Bay Water was hit with
a number of lawsuits from property owners whose wells
had been over-pumped. They decided to try their hand
at making ocean water drinkable, so they proposed the
largest desalination plant in the Western Hemisphere, a
notoriously expensive solution Tampa’s citizens weren’t
exactly stoked about. Despite the amount of energy
required, the Tampa Bay desalination plant was
eventually approved and today provides around 10% of the
region’s drinking water. CHUCK CARDEN: 15 years
ago this region was suffering some drought. Looking for water sources other
than groundwater, this was an alternative
that we chose. There was a bunch of projects
we call alternative sources that were looked at. River waters, building
reservoirs, building a desalinization plant. We had engineers study it
and found out it was possible with the cost. EMERSON ROSENTHAL: And this was
the most cost effective? CHUCK CARDEN: It wasn’t the most
cost effective, but it was most drought-proof. EMERSON ROSENTHAL: Can you give
us information on how much money it takes to keep
a place like running? CHUCK CARDEN: I will use
the rule of thumb. The plant is a 25 million
gallons a day plant. To run it, 25 million gallons a
day, on a 365 days, it would be about $20 million
in operations. EMERSON ROSENTHAL: So why,
in particular, is this the most expensive? CHUCK CARDEN: It’s all because
of the power and to some degree the chemicals. But the power is close to 50%
of the operating cost. Just to keep the lights and the
pumps running, there’s a lot of horsepower. It is more expensive than any
other sources, and it’s more complicated than treating
groundwater. But when it gets down to you
don’t have any water, it’s a very viable solution. You need to go to the hospital
and the only vehicle you have is an SUV, you’ll
get in that SUV. And it’s the best way
to get in there. JILL HEINERTH: The bottom line
with drinking water is that when you use groundwater– Let’s just say it
costs a penny. If you start withdrawing water
from a surface water body, a lake, a river, and have to clean
that deliver it to the public, that costs $0.10. If you have to desalinate the
same quantity of water, it costs a dollar. EMMA KNIGHT: There’s springs
that are drying up all over the state of Florida. Flow is down at all
of the springs. What do we have to do to keep
everything from falling apart? [MUSIC- STEPHEN FOSTER,
unfortunate reality is that we’re already feeling the
pressures of a freshwater shortage in Florida. Houses are falling into
sinkholes, springs are drying up, and homeowners will continue
getting screwed by insurance companies,
unless someone’s able to find a solution. The question really is whether
or not Florida will be able to pull itself together before
everybody ends up sitting in the sinkholes in their
backyards, drinking desalinated ocean water
out of Dixie cups. MALE SPEAKER 1: No one has
a right to the water. MALE SPEAKER 2: It’s always
been somebody trying to steal or water. Don’t take my water. I depend on it for
my livelihood. MALE SPEAKER 3: It’s the
north versus south. It’s the war of water
in California. It’s been going on since
the Gold Rush. And it’s continuing
to this day.

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