Useful Hint About Environmental Stories – If They Don’t Show You The Numbers They’re Lying To You


It’s very easy to scare people by waving large numbers around in front of them. The oil spill of tens of thousands of litres – tens of thousands, oh my! – into the Gulf of Mexico say, when we know absolutely that there are natural seepages of millions of litres into the same waters. Earthquakes of .5 from fracking! The level of energy felt being akin to the cat jumping off the bookcase. Three rooms away.

Thus, whenever trying to make sense of an environmental story always look for whether they’re giving you the full set of numbers. If they’re not they’re lying. As with this story about Nestle trying to take water from the springs which feed the Santa Fe River in Florida. One reason this caught the eye is that I’ve swum in that very same river, decades back, at Ginnie Springs, a place they mention. An excellent place and not one we’d or I’d want to see beaten up, destroyed or degraded. So, we need to work out whether it would be.

Nestlé plan to take 1.1m gallons of water a day from natural springs sparks outcry

1.1 million gallons a day. Oh Our! But is that a lot or not?

The crystal blue waters of Ginnie Springs have long been treasured among the string of pearls that line Florida’s picturesque Santa Fe River, a playground for water sports enthusiasts and an ecologically critical haven for the numerous species of turtles that nest on its banks. Soon, however, it is feared there could be substantially less water flowing through, if a plan by the food and beverage giant Nestlé wins approval.

This rather depends upon the meaning of “substantially” doesn’t it? And what’s the number we need to work that out? Well, we need to know the flow of the river. Only then can we see whether 1.1 million gallons a day is a substantial portion of the flow. And what’s the one number they don’t give us? The flow of the river. Nor, even, some estimate of what portion of that flow 1.1 million gallons a day is.

Thus they’re lying.

Opponents say the fragile river, which is already officially deemed to be “in recovery” by the Suwannee River water management district after years of earlier overpumping, cannot sustain such a large draw – a claim Nestlé vehemently denies. Critics are fighting to stop the project as environmentally harmful and against the public interest.

Yes, they’re lying. Because if it were true, the drawdown is to be substantial, then they’d tell us the numbers so we could see, wouldn’t they?

So, let us investigate.

Santa Fe River flow

Let’s call that a thousand cubic feet per second. Or, as these things work out, 28 thousand litres per second. Yes, this is the same river. No, it’s not the main river further downstream. It’s at about where another bottling plant – High Springs – has historically abstracted water from the system.

OK, the proposal is to take 1.1 million gallons a day. We’ll assume these are American gallons, so 3.8 litres. Divide by 24, by 60, by 60, to get the per second abstraction. Close enough we’re talking 50 litres per second. We’re talking about 0.17% of the flow. (1,100,000 x 3.8 /24/60/60 = 50 ish)*

This is not substantial now, is it? Therefore they are lying to us.

We’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to work out whether this is greater or lesser than the evaporation rate from the same river. My suspicion is that it’s substantially less but that’s because I’m lying to you by not giving the number.

Thus our rule of thumb. The correct reaction to an environmental story which doesn’t give us all the numbers is “Why is this bastard bastard bastard lying to me? The bastard.”

*It’s entirely possible to get lost in units in these sorts of things. If I have then correct me.