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Florida's Sinkhole Problem Is Just One Part of America's Looming Water Woes

Without innovative water infrastructure, Florida is swallowing itself.
March 4, 2013, 1:00pm

A sinkhole near Crooked Lake, Florida, via Southwest Florida WMD

I moved to New York for a bunch of different reasons, but the eminent danger of earthquakes in San Francisco is perhaps one reason–if slight–that I was drawn to the East Coast. I'd never have to worry about that big one anymore, the ultimate quake that people have forever theorized will one day turn the Bay Area upside-down on itself. Still, I'm resigned to believe there's almost nowhere to hide from the threat of nature's power.

Giving credence to that belief, last week a Florida man, Jeff Bush, was sucked out of his sleep and into a sinkhole. Rescue crews deemed it too dangerous to continue the search for Bush, and he's presumed to be dead. As bizarre as the story sounds, sinkholes are not-so-bizarre an occurrence in the state that relies so heavily upon its groundwater infrastructures. When groundwater moves through highly soluble limestone, of which Florida's northwestern soils are so highly concentrated, it erodes. Underground caves are formed, which inevitably collapse. Then you have yourself a sinkhole. Florida has thousands:

Image via Sinkhole Advocate

Bush's tragic disappearance is something of a rarity. Sinkholes hardly ever claim lives; in fact, only two lives have been taken in Florida's past 40 years due to the problem, according to a sinkhole detective. Both incidents were related to well drilling, so the nightmare of Bush's case is rather unique. In November, VICE traveled to Florida to examine the water crisis in Florida, along with the home-wrecking, street-gobbling, car-swallowing, mostly-non-insurance-covered sinkholes:

Sinkholes illustrate an interesting point: In some cases, what we call natural disasters actually aren't. Florida's sinkhole problem is partially due to a shrinking water table, caused by millions of thirsty citizens. To its credit, the state is looking for alternatives for potable water, and is actually a global leader in desalination. But desalination remains an extremely expensive, energy-inefficient process of turning saltwater into consumable water.

So, even if pumping Florida's aquifers through droughts isn't the best idea, one that threatens to swallow up foundations of homes like Jeremy Bush's, it's not as if desalination is an easy alternative. Here in New York, where water runs fairly free, it's easy to take things for granted. But in Florida and in much of the southern and southwestern United States, water is disappearing–sometimes, with the homes above it.