Column: Lousy water, lousy press for Florida

A Florida Water Coalition billboard in Columbia County features a bikini-clad woman holding globs of green algae.
A Florida Water Coalition billboard in Columbia County features a bikini-clad woman holding globs of green algae.
Published Mar. 26, 2013

A long time ago, Florida attracted writers from across the country who waxed poetic about its natural beauty — haunting, unspoiled and profuse. Gradually, then rapidly, natural Florida was bulldozed under and paved over. Writers looked to unspoiled places elsewhere.

Now the national press is again paying attention to natural Florida. And the appraisal is not flattering.

A month after a sinkhole fatally opened beneath a Seffner man, the New Yorker published a story ominously titled "Florida's Sinkhole Peril." It explains why the state's terra firma is increasingly looking like Swiss cheese. Big agriculture, utilities, industries and residents smitten by green lawns are overtaxing groundwater sources and drawing down the Floridan Aquifer.

The aquifer is quartered in the state's limestone underbelly. An ancient permeable rock of tunnels, chambers and chinks, it needs water to support the weight above it — meaning all of Florida and all Floridians. The number and frequency of sinkholes increases as the water level decreases. The New Yorker quotes a veteran diver of the aquifer who describes conditions below as "looking like a death spiral."

No chamber of commerce welcomes this kind of national exposure. The New Yorker's circulation alone is over 1 million, and its readers are the sort of people who invest in Florida.

Subscribers ourselves, my wife and I recently considered buying a lakefront home east of Gainesville. We loved the house and the wooded property. The deal killer, however, was the lake, which had shrunken to a pond likely en route to becoming a sand pit.

Florida has lost half of its surface water since the mid 20th century. The state has issued more pumping permits than the aquifer can handle, and lakes and springs are rapidly drying up. Florida's water abuse is actually a double whammy, hitting quality as hard as quantity. Again, the state's image suffers.

Billboards greeting tourists on I-75, where the Coppertone girl used to blush fun and sun, feature a bikini-clad woman holding out eye-popping globs of green algae from a freshwater spring, once bottle-blue and gin-clear. The billboards ask why state government refuses to "protect our water."

That's a good question, which lurks in the shadow of the state capital itself, 30 minutes' drive south at Wakulla Springs. As one of those haunting, unspoiled and profuse examples of natural Florida, Wakulla was once a top tourist destination.

Nineteenth-century poet Sidney Lanier described the spring as "thrillingly transparent." But for the past decade, nitrate overloading from runoff and seepage has stimulated algae growth. The spring's famous glass-bottom boats rarely operate for want of transparent water.

The New Yorker piece brings all this to light. Wakulla Springs is both a remarkable creation of the aquifer and a manifestation of its troubles. Divers describe our chief source of drinking water as a cistern for a polluted, algae-laden soup.

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Luckily for Florida, the story's publication preceded the most recent milestone in its water misadventures. Polluters, using state officials as their proxy, cut a sweet deal with the EPA. For years, the state and its congressional delegation have been quarreling with the federal agency over quality standards in Florida waterways. Caving in to incessant adolescent whining, the EPA agreed to let the state lead in regulating nitrogen and phosphorous levels.

That's a bad idea. Under state oversight, nearly half of Florida's bodies of water are impaired by pollution. Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Hershel Vinyard Jr. says the agreement allows the state to "move forward" with "environmental improvements."

But at the moment his boss, Gov. Rick Scott, took office in 2011, state policymakers slammed the shift lever of environmental improvements into reverse and haven't looked forward since. The regressive water policies adopted the last two years — from dismantling smart septic tank rules to dismembering water management staffing — are legendary. The current leadership claims to seek a pragmatic balance between economic interests and ecological imperatives. Instead, it continues to push Florida's freshwater sources over a tipping point.

The result is what Annie Pais of Florida's Eden calls a "sinkhole economy." It haunts us with hiked-up rates in homeowners insurance, geologists shuttling about inspecting disaster sites and excavators running heavy equipment to fix broken ground. It embarrasses us when disappointed visitors are turned away from once magical springs that are dry and fouled.

Unless our leaders recognize that a stable and clean water supply is integral to a stable economy — and stable ground — our water crisis promises a major economic crisis. Not to mention more lousy press.

Jack E. Davis, a professor of environmental history at the University of Florida, is the author of "An Everglades: Marjory Stoneman Douglas and the Environmental Century" and is writing a book on the Gulf of Mexico. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.