Thursday, February 22, 2018
Perspective

Perspective: What I would have said about water (w/video)

I'll get to the part about our rivers and springs — the part that really matters — in a minute.

First, the recap: I was invited to give a talk at Mission San Luis in Tallahassee. It was scheduled for April 3 and titled "A Dream State Environmental Nightmare." Next thing I know, someone at the Mad Hatter's Tea Party we know as state government canceled it.

The reasons offered by a spokeswoman for Department of State were unencumbered by consistency or sense. She said my topic involved "another agency" (that is, the Department of Environmental Protection) that didn't have time to vet the topic. The topic wasn't germane to the Mission's "core mission," which is Florida history. The environment has nothing to do with Florida history. Perhaps I could come back another time. With another topic.

Or, as Tweedledee explained: "If it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn't, it ain't. That's logic."

The topic was water. I understand it's a touchy subject for the current regime. Here follows an abbreviated version of what I would I have said. If it seems familiar, well, I've been writing about Florida water for a long time, from back when I was an editorial writer for this newspaper. The problems remain the same: We're destroying wetlands, fouling the Everglades, poisoning the springs and treating rivers and lakes as sewers — still.

Wakulla Springs used to be as clear as a May morning. The spring bed, 190 feet down, looked as though you could just reach out and touch it. I'm not talking about centuries ago; I'm talking about the 1990s. Once you could take a glass-bottomed boat out into the Wakulla River and watch fish and turtles swim between your feet. Now a cocktail of crap — nutrients from urban sewer systems and rural septic tanks, fertilizer, cow manure — clouds the water.

Other great springs — Ginnie Springs, Rainbow Springs, Silver Springs — suffer as well from gigantic ranches and bottling enterprises sucking out their water, unmanaged growth and agricultural runoff. Many parts of the St. Johns River are now smothered in algae the radioactive green of a B-movie space alien. That stuff packs more than 100 times the World Health Organization's recommended limits for toxins. The Caloosahatchee River, the St. Lucie, and the Santa Fe likewise.

Go to the Earthjustice Florida website: It's got a rogues' gallery of slime photos. The algae isn't merely ugly: It smells; it lowers your property values; it repels tourists; and it can make you sick: rashes, tumors, respiratory distress and liver damage.

A couple of thousand miles worth of rivers and 375,000 acres of lake water in Florida are considered "impaired," that is, dirty. The Indian River ecosystem has collapsed, fish kills are increasing, and between floods and profligate pumping, we risk contaminating our aquifer. We keep destroying wetlands and marshes, which act as water recharge areas. This isn't abstract; it's not some "green" trifle you can simply ignore. Nature isn't a place outside your air-conditioned house, beyond your nice subdivision. It's in your drinking water. When you look at a Florida spring, you're looking at our aquifer.

We know where the pollution comes from, and we know what to do about it. The trouble is, our government refuses to get it. Yes, Rick Scott's been touting money for Everglades restoration and springs cleanup. And the state seems to have abandoned the spectacularly stupid idea of selling conservation lands to make money to buy other conservation lands.

But Scott has gutted the water management districts. His development-uber-alles DEP has fired scientists, elevated industry hacks and recently tried to change the rules so that more wetlands got trashed (DEP lost in court, thank God). The state agency charged with overseeing growth management has been dismantled and, instead of cooperating with environmentalists and the EPA on numeric nutrient standards for our toxic water, Scott, the commissioner of agriculture and the rest of the regime have fought it every step of the way.

Lawmakers point to a couple of springs bills making their way through the Legislature, even as Associated Industries, the Chamber of Commerce and the rest of the other usual suspects complain it will wreck the economy. The big money boys and girls probably needn't worry: If springs restoration survives, it's likely the funding will be mightily reduced and other provisions, such as addressing leaky septic tanks, removed. And there's the godawful HB 703, Rep. Jimmy Patronis' annual attempt to roll back environmental regulations. The bill reads like a Big Sugar and Big Phosphate wish list.

My thwarted talk at Mission San Luis wasn't going to draw a huge crowd. There were no bold revelations, no bombshells. I was just going to tell you that our springs won't clean themselves up, our rivers can't lose the algae by magic, and remind you of what you already know: In Florida, dirty money trumps clean water. Oh, and that April is Springs Protection Awareness Month.

Diane Roberts, author of "Dream State," a historical memoir of Florida, teaches at Florida State University and serves on the board of the Florida Wildlife Federation. She wrote this exclusively for the Times.

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