Florida is half-solid, half-liquid. Rivers and creeks coil through the state like curling blue and brown ribbons; springs boil up underfoot; the Atlantic and the gulf reshape the shore, encroaching on the paltry works of humankind. Most of the peninsula sits on a wafer of limestone covering a vast secret sea, some of it as old as the Ice Age, some as new as yesterday's rain.
Water is our essential element — biologically and economically. So you'd think those we elected to be stewards of the state would protect it with the ferocity of a mama gator guarding her nest. Sadly, you'd be wrong. Take Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson. He's siding with the state's biggest polluters, fighting against the Clean Water Act.
A little background is in order. Under the late, unlamented George W. Bush regime, Florida was allowed to use vague "narrative" rather than hard numerical standards for water quality. Here's how that's been working out: Toxins in the St. Lucie River have been as much as 300 times the suggested level for drinking water. Lake Okeechobee is so compromised that in 2007 a federal judge ordered that polluters had to comply with the Clean Water Act and get permits to pump dirty stuff into the drinking water source for tens of thousands of people. South Florida water managers are still fighting that decision. A toxic blue-green algae outbreak in the Caloosahatchee River forced the 2008 closure of a water treatment plant serving 30,000 people. Florida's own Department of Environmental Protection concluded that water quality in half our rivers and more than half of our lakes was poor.
Not that they are inclined to do much about it. The state of Florida has a rather idiosyncratic understanding of water quality. But as a result of a lawsuit by environmentalists, Barack Obama's EPA will now set rigorous, enforceable standards.
The predictable hissy fits have been pitched. Bronson issued a statement saying, "These new standards would impose regulations far in excess of anything being considered in any other state." Plus, he says, it will cost lots and lots of money.
"There are three standard excuses offered by polluters violating the Clean Water Act," sighs David Guest, the lawyer for the Sierra Club, the Florida Wildlife Federation, St. Johns Riverkeeper and other green groups that sued the EPA over water quality. "One: If we change anything we'll go broke and have to leave the state. Two: It'll take 20 to 25 years to figure out how to stop polluting, but we can come up with a plan by then, probably. And three: The fish like it."
Big Sugar, Big Mining, Big Citrus and Big Cattle think the fish like it because they look so peaceful, floating on their backs like that.
Seriously, it's hard to understand why Florida officialdom screams like a Hefty bag full of hyenas whenever anybody suggests that our environment should be at least as important as the fat-check interests of Associated Industries or the Chamber of Commerce. Human health depends on clean water. Nutrient-polluted water can cause gastrointestinal problems, respiratory distress and severe eye irritation. If it's bad enough, you can die. Our economic health also depends on water safe to boat on, or swim and fish in: Just imagine what it would do to tourism if visitors start getting nasty blue-green algae skin rashes.
Yet Florida politicos respond with denial, delay, foot-dragging, excuse-making, obfuscating and whining. Bronson says we ought to have "careful scientifically based standards for controlling nutrients" as if people want to set voodoo-based standards.
Florida's legislative leaders, who don't know that Florida sea water and oil don't mix, are no better: Incoming House Speaker Dean Cannon and Senate President-in-waiting Mike Haridopolos have made sucking oil and gas out of the Gulf of Mexico a priority. They aren't even subtle about it. Majority Leader Alex Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, has been named chair of the Senate committee on energy, environment and land use. His wife, Claudia, is a lobbyist for Florida Energy Associates, the sunshine-shy Texas oil interests who want to repeal the ban and drill, baby, drill. No conflict of interest there.
Along with Charlie Crist (who was for the drilling ban until he was against it), they argue that Florida could be rolling in money (in three to five years, anyway). Drilling is perfectly safe (unless there's a really big hurricane). Why not keep on encouraging fossil-fuel use? (Sustainable sources can't run a Hummer.) Besides, the fish will love it.
On Nov. 16 in Tallahassee, Judge Robert Hinkle will preside as polluters and their apologists try to persuade him not to let the EPA set real water standards. Aside from the threat to health from toxic water, don't these guys get that when the rivers and lakes get so filthy they turn the color of split pea soup and stink like an exploded septic tank, tourism suffers, property values suffer and with it all of Florida? Do we never learn?
Diane Roberts is professor of English at Florida State University.