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Florida's beauty at risk

Margaret Ross Tolbert had an idea to do something with a snorkel. On Wednesday, she was in Tallahassee to receive the Florida Book Awards gold medal for nonfiction for Aquiferious. Gov. Rick Scott presented the medal. In return, she gave him a dive mask and snorkel with an invitation to join her for an afternoon at one of Florida's premier freshwater springs.

Tolbert is a Gainesville artist who has been painting the springs for nearly 30 years. Thanks to her work, Florida's beauty hangs in galleries around the world. But that beauty is at risk.

Over the past few years, Tolbert has observed the crystal-clear luster of the springs fade to strange, cloudy colors. She has seen the sheer, green eelgrass grow fuzzy brown. Disheartened by the overuse and pollution of the Floridan Aquifer, the life water that charges the springs — and our water taps — she wrote Aquiferious. The book is her tribute to natural Florida, which, despite the condition of the springs, has in many other places been rebounding.

It is also a warning for governmental leaders like Scott. Having lived in Florida only since 2003, he has not seen the changes Tolbert has. He has no memory of what Florida was like when manufacturing, automobile, residential and wastewater runoff was killing its bays and estuaries; when industrial and power-plant discharge fouled its air; when Florida was a less healthy place for wildlife and humans alike. The wood storks he can see today trolling the shallows at shoreside and the white ibis he might spot wading across neighborhood lawns were not around a few decades ago.

Many people — activists, policymakers, farmers, businesspeople, voters — worked hard over those years to repair Florida's ecological health. They brought the birds back. They restored clarity to bays and estuaries, and they wiped the smudge from the sky.

Yet the good work is threatened if Scott and the Legislature follow through with their environmental agenda. They propose to outlaw the authority of local governments to regulate fertilizers that pollute their waters; dismantle growth management policies and the agency overseeing them; delay septic tank inspections; derail state legislation against dumping improperly treated sewage into the ocean; and abolish Florida's conservation land-buying program, a model worldwide. Scott favors offshore oil drilling near habitat where approximately 90 percent of gulf fish spend part of their lives. Legislative leaders want to keep the Environmental Protection Agency out of Florida's affairs, and they are willing to spend taxpayer dollars to do it.

Think of where Florida would be today if their agenda had guided the past. Biscayne Bay would be an oil refinery and supertanker port, and a deepwater canal would slash through coral reefs. Acidic air from industrial pollutants would hang over Jacksonville, where it once disintegrated nylon stockings drying on clothes lines. Tampa Bay would be so putrid with waste that the water, as it once did, would tarnish silver in Bayshore Boulevard homes. Raw sewage would be gushing into waters around the state's world-class beaches, industrial discharge would be expanding the marine dead zone at the mouth of the Fenholloway River and concrete seawalls of dredge-and-fill projects (once completely unregulated) would rise in place of the last mangrove habitats. The angler's luck would be mere memory.

Floridians do not deserve to live with these conditions again. This is the message of the springs Tolbert paints, which, along with the aquifer, face the same peril that the state's once-ailing bays and estuaries faced. Florida cannot afford to return to the dirty days of the past. If clean air and water is the cost of doing business in Florida, it is a morally justifiable one.

It is also economically sensible. Protecting the environment has never jeopardized the state's or the nation's economy. An independent study conducted by University of North Carolina researchers, and confirmed by numerous other studies, finds that "states with the best environmental records also offer the best job opportunities and climate for long-term economic development." Florida governors from both parties, dating to the 1960s, have understood this point. Not Scott. Neither sound economics nor history supports his environmental agenda.

If he is inclined to learn about Florida's history, he might read the nonfiction gold-medal winners from the five years the Florida Book Awards has existed, including Tolbert's. Four deal specifically with the environment, recounting how environmental quality and the quality of life have always risen and fallen on the same tide.

Let's keep the tide high. For the good of Florida's people and natural endowments, and its economy, Gov. Scott should don mask and snorkel and dive with Tolbert into the living heart of Florida.

Jack E. Davis, professor in the department of history at the University of Florida, is the author of "An Everglades Providence: Marjory Stoneman Douglas and the American Environmental Century."

Florida's beauty at risk 03/27/11 [Last modified: Sunday, March 27, 2011 4:30am]
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