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  1. Opinion

Perspective: On Earth Day, Florida needs a change of heart for clear, clean water

Many of Florida’s once-crystalline springs are now coated in slime. Our springs are a mess, says photographer John Moran, who wonders how we can ignore the ugly truth hiding in plain sight just below the water’s surface.
Many of Florida’s once-crystalline springs are now coated in slime. Our springs are a mess, says photographer John Moran, who wonders how we can ignore the ugly truth hiding in plain sight just below the water’s surface.
Published Apr. 17, 2015

Earth Day this week is the time once a year when we pause to reflect on our appreciation for the planet.

Fitting, for it is the Earth, after all, that lies at the very center of our existence and makes possible life itself, to say nothing of human endeavors like the economy.

It was on Earth Day 2011 that Gov. Rick Scott proclaimed that "Florida continues to lead the nation in developing innovative programs to ensure the health of our state's waterways." Four years on, the gulf remains wide between what he says and what we see.

You don't have to be a scientist to see that many of our springs and public waters are in terrible shape, and we're a long way from "getting the water right," as they like to say at the Department of Environmental Protection.

This is the year, we were told, that water would finally get its due in Tallahassee. And after considerable arm-twisting in the court of public opinion, the Legislature appears poised to drop $50 million on springs protection. That's a miserly $2-and-change per Floridian for our irreplaceable springs.

The bottom line is that the change we need won't be found in our wallets. The change we need must come from our hearts. We can't spend our way back to clean and abundant springs. Laws and dollars alone will not do the job.

We can't fix what's ailing our springs until we fix first what's ailing our hearts. And that is the tragic affliction that enables too many Floridians to look around this extraordinary state and see little more than a resource from which to extract a profit.

If I had the ear of the governor, I'd encourage him to use the power of the bully pulpit on Earth Day to inspire us all to embrace a new way of thinking about water in Florida.

"Dear Florida," the governor could declare. "We have a drinking problem, and we have a substance abuse problem. Yes, my fellow Floridians, we are pumping way too much groundwater, and we are using way too much fertilizer and other contaminants. As Mother Earth has shown us, she can no longer bear the abuse. We are killing our springs and we are poisoning our drinking water.

"I call upon all Floridians to accept that resistance to change is no longer an option. We shall start with the low-hanging fruit and I am today directing all state agencies — and urging all Floridians — to cease the use of landscaping fertilizer and irrigation, for the benefits of artificially enhanced lawns and landscaping come at a cost too high, as seen in the sliming and depletion of our once-lovely springs."

And if I could have a word with our legislators, I would remind them that the business of government isn't business; it's wellbeing.

And to our business leaders, I contend there can be no long-term wellbeing in Florida if we continue to use and abuse water like there's no tomorrow.

Before we build another highway or shopping mall or subdivision, we need to build a movement — a bold new era of environmental patriotism, grounded in the reality of life on a finite planet.

To our learned thinkers in academia, I ask: Perhaps the riddle to be solved isn't how to develop a less toxic fertilizer, but rather how do we wean Floridians from this harmful addiction? Restoring our springs isn't complicated, if that is our intention. We can stop the overpumping. We can stop pollution at its source. We can get serious about real environmental protection.

Yes, we can clean up our springs and rivers and lakes and coastal waters, but only if this discussion transcends the language of law and the domain of dollars and becomes an affair of the heart.

We need organ donors, 20 million strong — every person lucky enough to call this place home, ready and willing to give our hearts to Florida. The real Florida. The one and only Florida.

It's time for a new water ethic in Florida, with real conservation and civic water education at its core. We need leadership from the top, but we are all called to be agents of change.

We need true Floridians who express their love not just in word but in deed for this place like no other.

Dear Florida: Our actions will determine whether history shall judge us with gratitude or contempt.

Our water is our future. We get to decide. What will our legacy be?

John Moran, co-director of the Springs Eternal Project, wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times. The Springs Eternal exhibit is on display at the Museum of Science and History in Jacksonville through August. Learn more at SpringsEternalProject.org