RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
From Nashville to Central Florida now and the giant lake there that is so dry and so low the lake floor caught fire. Cynthia Barnett is here to explain. She's the author of "Mirage: Florida and the Vanishing Water of the Eastern United States." Good morning.
Ms. CYNTHIA BARNETT (Author): Good morning, Renee.
MONTAGNE: Describe for us what happened to Lake Okeechobee.
Ms. BARNETT: Well, first of all, Lake Okeechobee is an enormous lake. It's 730 square miles. The drought in South Florida has sunk the Lake. And on the northwest side all these thick grasses were exposed and dried up, and that's where the fire is burning. Altogether it's burned more than 23,000 acres. And I checked with the Florida Division of Forestry and they said the fire is now 90 percent contained.
MONTAGNE: Can't engineers control somehow the level of the lake?
Ms. BARNETT: Yes. It's surrounded by 140-mile earthen dam called the Herbert Hoover Dike. The reason it was so heavily diked was a hurricane in 1928 killed 2,000 people. They were basically drowned by the lake's waters. And in the fall of 2005 we had not only Hurricane Katrina, but there was an engineering report on the Hoover Dike that called it a grave and imminent danger to human life. So the Army Corps of Engineers made the decision that fall to lower the lake, and this drought began very soon after they dumped all those billions of gallons out to sea.
MONTAGNE: Now, you know, we talked about the drought as a cause and unintended consequences in terms of the engineers controlling the lake. What about demand? Florida, as we all know, is among the fastest growing places in the country.
Ms. BARNETT: Yes. But I argue that we can't blame all of our water supply problems on population growth, or 100-year-old engineering mistakes or even this drought. Florida's groundwater has been over-allocated. And in addition, we just haven't taken conservation as seriously as other parts of the country.
MONTAGNE: As in what might Florida have done but it hasn't been doing?
Ms. BARNETT: Well, for example, many homeowners associations in Florida not only require sod, but they have guides in golf carts driving around measuring the shade of green. And if you don't have the right shade, you get a nasty letter from the homeowners association and a fine. So the conservation ethic is more like the Vegas of the 1980s. People are in denial.
MONTAGNE: Of course, in Florida there's a huge agricultural use of water.
Ms. BARNETT: Yes. Absolutely. Farmers use nearly half of all public supply.
MONTAGNE: Now, in some parts of Florida you'd think people might be warned because they've had to close city wells because saltwater is creeping in.
Ms. BARNETT: Yes. This is what's known as salt-water intrusion. If water levels drop in fresh water aquifers near the coast, seawater will creep in. And once wells hit a certain level of salinity, you cannot use them for years. Saltwater is threatening fresh water aquifers in Miami and Jacksonville, Brunswick, Georgia, Beaufort in South Carolina, the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland and Virginia, the Delaware River and Bay Area in New Jersey and Delaware, Long Island in New York and Cape Cod in Massachusetts. And water-rich states are beginning to really worry about water supply and water conflict. Several of these conflicts are headed for the Supreme Court.
MONTAGNE: Thanks very much for talking with us.
Ms. BARNETT: Thanks very much for having me.
MONTAGNE: Cynthia Barnett is author of "Mirage: Florida and the Vanishing Water of the Eastern United States." You can read an excerpt from "Mirage" and get an overview of our water series in npr.org.