Strawberries Threaten to Destroy City

Winters in Plant City, Florida can be a scary time of year.  When the temperature drops below freezing, the strawberries in this self-proclaimed “winter strawberry capital of the world” get rowdy.  Roads begin to buckle, schools are closed, and homes are swallowed up by the earth.  The culprit?  Sinkholes.  Sinkholes caused by the 8,000 acres of strawberry fields surrounding the city.

Under normal circumstances, fields of strawberries are quite harmless.  The problems start when near-freezing temperatures threaten the crop and farmers turn on the sprinklers.   As the water freezes on the plants, it releases just enough energy to keep the plants themselves from freezing.  That’s the risk of growing strawberries in Florida in winter; if the temperature drops too low you could lose your entire crop.  Freezing that many strawberries, however, takes a lot of water — a lot more than you might think.

The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences at the University of Florida says that each acre of berries needs 6,800 gallons an hour to coat crops in a protective layer of ice.  That means a 20-acre farm can use 3.2 million gallons — the equivalent of five Olympic-size swimming pools — in 24 hours.  It’s about the same amount of water used by the 32,000 residents of Plant City in a single day.  With 8,000 acres of strawberries to cover in a 110-square mile area around the city, that’s over one billion gallons of water per day. [Source]

This past January the city got 11 straight days of near-freezing temperatures.  Farmers ran sprinklers night and day with only occasional breaks.  Billions of gallons of water were sucked up from the Floridian aquifer beneath the town.  Pumping that much water out of the ground at once destabilizes the already sinkhole-prone Florida landscape.  Sinkholes began appearing overnight in seemingly random locations around town.

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First Post!

Top Ten Worst Water Resource Disasters?

I’m starting this blog today because water is important to me.  It’s important to you too.  I’m sure you realize that, but you may not realize just how important it is.  I’m sure you know that you need water to live and that plants need rain to grow but so many of us take it all for granted.  Maybe because water easily and constantly flows through your tap, or because when drought destroys a crop in one part of the world another part of the world seems to effortlessly pick up the slack and your local grocery store hardly notices the difference.  I hope this blog helps people to better understand how essential water is to life and how reckless human beings can be when trying to manage it and how dire the consequences can be when it is poorly managed and water is taken for granted.

I thought a good way to start this blog would be by writing a Top Ten list of the worst water resource disasters in history.  A lofty goal since I’m still learning about the history of water myself, but certainly an eye-catching first post!  However, as I began to compile my list, I ran into some snags.  First, I needed to define “Water Resource disasters.”  A water resource disaster (WRD) is different from a water disaster.  Simply put, a WRD is not an act of God.  A tsunami, an iceberg, floods caused by torrential rainfall, these are acts of God.  They become WRDs when they are exacerbated or sometimes directly caused by human attempts to control water.  A flood, for example, may occur when a poorly constructed dam breaks.  A city may go without drinking water when a poorly maintained water line bursts.  A WRD results from the severe misuse or wasting of a water resource to the point that it negatively impacts ecology or the continued use of that resource.

The line between an act of God and a man-made disaster is growing ever thinner.  As scientists continue to better understand the effects of global warming, increases in extreme weather events may soon come to be seen as a result of governmental failures to reduce emissions and not as acts of God at all.  However, it’s doubtful that governments of the world will ever be held liable for bigger, stronger, more frequent hurricanes or heavier than expected monsoons.

The Titanic vs. the Exxon Valdez

Once I started considering WRDs I quickly came upon the question of oil spills.  Is an oil spill a water resource disaster?  If the answer is yes, then my top ten list quickly starts to resemble a list of the top ten worst oil spills in history because, let’s face it, we’ve had some really horrible oil spills.  Can an oil spill be considered an act of God or is allowing oil tankers to traverse through iceberg ridden waters near environmentally protected lands without functioning sonar, as was the case with the Exxon Valdez, a regulatory failure to properly assess the risks?  The Titanic sank after hitting an iceberg and resulted in the deaths of 1,517 people.  Was this an Act of God or a WRD because White Star Line failed to provide enough lifeboats for its passengers?

In either case, the ocean is clearly a water resource used for transporting passengers and freight.  However, I think we could all agree that Exxon Valdez feels more like a WRD than the sinking of the Titanic.  I think the difference hinges on the long term ecological impacts of each disaster.  While the Titanic was tragic, it did not result in a loss or reduction in the ability of others to utilize the resources of the ocean.  In contrast, the grounding of the Exxon Valdez resulted in an oil spill that blanketed the pristine Alaskan coast damaging arctic habitats that may take up to 30 years to fully recover.  The human cost of the Exxon Valdez may be more difficult to calculate because it occurred in such a remote location.  However, you only have to look to the Gulf of Mexico to find examples of oil spills that have a devastating effect on both the environment and the economic well-being of thousands of communities that rely on the waters of the gulf for recreation, tourism, and fishing.

Fresh vs. Salty

In the end I decided that, though salt water is an important water resource, this blog will mainly focus on the potable variety.  After all, as a civilization we spend a lot more time trying to control and manage our sources of potable water than we do trying to manage the ocean.  This is especially true when you consider just how little potable water we have compared to how much time and money we spend trying to manage it.  Below is a graph from Wikipedia.  It gets right to point.  It says the out of all the Earth’s water, only 3% is fresh.  Out of that 3%, 68% is frozen at the Earth’s poles.  30% of our fresh water is sequestered in the ground leaving only 0.3% as easily accessible surface water.  I don’t know about you, but when I consider how essential fresh water is to life on Earth and how little of it there is to go around and then think about the health of rivers and streams near my home, I get a bit concerned.

I think it’s a bit premature for me to make a top ten list of the worst water resource decisions but hopefully this blog will unveil a strong list of nominees for such a dubious honor.  I plan on posting about both current water resource issues as well as taking a look back at the history of water use and hopefully see what we’ve learned.