Years ago, I had a part-time job working in the back office of a Florida engineering firm that handled foundation restoration claims. Its commercial success was not only evidence of Tampa's burgeoning population, but also the growing number of sinkholes that were beginning to appear across West Florida's "Sinkhole Alley" at the center of the state.
The report of a sinkhole accident meant priority response, not only because lives could be in danger as the hole grew larger, but also because sinkhole claims were a bit like auto accident claims: The faster you were on site, the better chance the distraught homeowner, who was watching his house disappear, would assign you the lucrative job of handling the insurance claim.
And, at the end of the day, there was always the swapping of big fish stories in the back office: "Wow, George: You should have seen that thing! It took half the house with the garden, the washing machine and the Porsche -- and my guess it will still be growing when we get back there tomorrow!" As office work went, the atmosphere was rarely dull.
These days, however, Florida sinkholes seem a lot less entertaining. With the state's population capping out at 20 million, the country's third-largest state relies on a diminishing water source that is, in effect, the ballast that keeps South Florida's fragile limestone geology in tact.
Much of Florida's sandy soil sits atop a limestone surface that is held aloft by the water pressure in its generous supply of aquifers.
"Florida’s principal source of freshwater ground water moves into and out of storage in the carbonate aquifers — some of the most productive in the nation," explains D. Galloway in a 1999 U.S. Geological Survey report. "Development of these ground-water resources for municipal, industrial and agricultural water supplies creates regional ground-water-level declines that play a role in accelerating sinkhole formation ..."
In past years, the water pressure created by the underground aquifer has been sufficient to maintain the surface's integrity. But, as the population has grown, the demand for water for everything from a freshwater drinking source to hydraulic fracturing in Florida's high-valued drilling sites has increased -- weakening the bond that keeps both the limestone and the soil in place.
In 2014, there were 1,920 known sinkholes across the state, according to the Orlando Sentinel. And that's just the identified sinkholes. The real problem, researchers note, is that sinkholes usually aren't identifiable until they have already begun their cavernous descent -- a process that in recent years has been known to consume entire houses, vacation structures and, in the case of a Bowling Green, Kentucky, museum last year, a large fleet of Corvette cars.
As sinkhole claims increase, so have insurance premiums. In 2006, 2,360 claims were filed across Florida's 10 most sinkhole-riddled counties. By 2010, that number had jumped almost three-fold to 6,694, racking up an insurance outlay of $1.4 billion.
As if this headache weren't large enough for homeowners, in 2011 the state changed the insurance laws to limit the extent that homeowners can claim in the case of a sinkhole accident. According to the Office of Insurance Regulation, the state "requires authorized insurers to cover catastrophic ground cover collapse, but damage, outside a catastrophic ground cover collapse, caused by a sinkhole may not be covered by your policy if it does not specifically include sinkhole coverage."
Cost of that extra coverage, however, can be pricey -- as much as $600 to $800 more per year for residents that live along the state's Sinkhole Alley.
In 2013, the first signs of hydraulic fracturing showed up in South Florida. At least one oil and gas company has now filed for exploratory oil well and wastewater disposal permits in Collier County, an area better known for its Everglades and black panthers. There's already been push-back from state legislators as well: In December two state senators filed a bill to block fracking in Florida, noting that, "we Floridians also get the vast majority of our water supply from ground water through the Floridan Aquifer," a source of water that would also be vital to the industry's survival in the Sunshine State.
It's yet to be seen whether the legislature will back the bill, since interest in hydraulic fracturing has already been expressed by one of Florida's largest utility companies, Florida Power and Light. But if the state's industrial and environmental history is anything to go by, even the increasing risk of sinkholes may not be enough to convince lawmakers to vote against fracking in a state whose greatest resource -- and possibly its greatest commodity -- is its fresh water.
Image of sinkhole damage screenshot - ABC Action News via John S. Quarterman
Image of bus - Daniel Oines
Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.