Up Another Notch, Florida

“…man is part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself.” —Rachel Carson,  Silent Spring, 1962.

Florida panther

A Florida panther. Only about 120 still live in the wild. Their biggest threat is unrelenting development, which pushes them into smaller and smaller areas.

I just got back from Florida. I grew up there, running barefoot through the palmettos and live oaks with my siblings, and learning about Ponce de Leon and the Suwanee River in grade school. I’ve only been back a few times as an adult, and the last time was over twenty years ago. And this time, though on vacation and truly enjoying the weather,  I couldn’t help but view southern Florida through the lens of sustainability and this blog. Unfortunately, I wasn’t impressed. While huge numbers of Floridians are trying desperately to protect and restore natural systems there, I don’t think it’s enough, and I think they’re slowly being overwhelmed and are losing the battle. Because of this, I think that the people of Florida need to step it up yet another notch. All of the people of Florida.

My unscientific impressions of the place—profligate water use, pesticides being applied right next to waterways filled with birds, endless rows of strip-malls and gated developments and sprawl, near-zero use of electric vehicles, an emphasis on consumption, no solar energy production to speak of, no clearly marked sustainable choices in the seafood sections of the grocery stores, hundreds of thousands of people, and congestion. And perhaps the most troubling—bulldozers and excavators on all fronts, carving up nature as if a gold rush were on. Huge numbers of people seem to be completely oblivious to all of this as they drive their shiny new SUVs and high-dollar sports cars between jewelry stores and clothing outlets, and others seem to be actively cheerleading—several articles in the first local paper I picked up were praising the local politicians that enabled this year’s deals for yet more golf courses and upscale developments.

This was all in southwest Florida, but I have no illusions that the Miami side of the state is any different. And in between the two—the Everglades, one and half million acres of (partially) protected land. We went down partly to see it again, and partly to escape the cities. A display at the entrance to the Park Headquarters was foreboding, however, describing the park as an “ecosystem on life support”. The visitors’ center and rangers spelled much of it out; how the water used to flow down all the way from the Orlando area, into Lake Okeechobee, and from there to the southern coast in huge, slow-moving sheets of pristine water, sixty miles or more wide and filled with sawgrass, but had now been channeled and diverted and drained and polluted, leaving the park continually at the mercy of politicians and water management boards, who often seemed to give preferential treatment to big corporate interests.

swamp covercroppedIntrigued, that evening I picked up a book on the subject, Michael Grunwald’s “The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise”. The book is fantastic—Grunwald is a phenomenal writer, and captures the essence of the story in a wide-ranging scope that extends from prehistoric times all the way to today, in a story as fast-paced as an action thriller. And the book contained some surprises. The biggest surprise, to me, was how for a hundred years or more, everyone wanted the Everglades drained. Politicians, settlers, conservationists, everyone. It was seen as a “liquid wasteland”, virtually impassable, unproductive for human purposes, nearly limitless, and filled with nothing but snakes and mosquitos and alligators.

Draining it was no easy task, but millions were spent, and after decades of near-heroic efforts, the water was channelized and directed and dammed and diverted and shunted out to sea, so that ranchers and growers could graze and plant. But then came the unending stream of unintended consequences—areas so dry that the very soil burned, land subsidence, runoff that came in unmoderated bursts and flushed vast loads of agricultural chemicals into Lake Okeechobee and the Caloosahatchi and the St. Lucie. The Everglades, cut off from its lifeblood of fresh water, dried and permitted human access, where people shot wading birds and alligators and panthers and carried off the orchids, and invasive species took hold and began to permanently alter the ecology. Aquifers statewide saw saltwater encroachment as the weight of fresh groundwater diminished. Florida Bay and the other estuaries suffered in kind, with the former denied the fresh water it needed, and the latter overwhelmed by too much of the same. Mangroves, manatees, and shellfish suffered there, along with the coral reefs and all the fishes that depended on them. Algae blooms and red tides became common, Lake Okeechobee was imprisoned in huge circular dike, and the entire ecosystem, from Orlando to  Key West, was drastically diminished by human intervention.

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The Everglades. In its original form, a “river of grass” that extended for hundreds of miles.

And then they tried to fix it. They’re still trying to fix it. Billions have been allocated, to undam and unchannelize the water, and to make filter areas to suck up and trap agriculture chemicals. But, these efforts have been hamstrung by political gridlock, and by conflicting goals of corporations and growers and burgeoning urban areas.

The environmentalists have worked, and still work, feverishly to protect it all, but every day thousands more people move to southern Florida, and governments at all levels give lip service to slowing the human tide, and yet approve 99% of all development applications. Almost every new arrival needs a house, and a job, and water, and schools, and electricity, and a place to put their garbage and sewage. The power companies, burning fossil fuels, emit mercury and other pollutants that add to nature’s woes, and CO2 that accelerates the warming of the planet and the rising of the seas, itself a huge threat to an area only a few feet above sea level.

Roseate

Roseate spoonbills. The number of wading birds like these in the Everglades is down 90% since the 1940s.

So what to do? I can read and learn, and pledge my support to the groups fighting tirelessly on the front, but there’s something I can’t do– I can’t vote in Florida. But the people in Florida can, and they need to, and they need to vote with nature in mind, because ultimately, as Rachel Carson said, nature is them, and it underpins their economy and their very existence as Floridians. What needs to be done is no great mystery, politicians just need the political will to do it. And voters can give them that will, if they want to, by making their desires known, en masse. Florida needs a dramatic change of course. Even more than other parts of the country, they need energy efficiency and net-zero houses and electric cars and solar panels on every roof. They need to progressively tax those jewelry-store-shopping wealthy people and millionaire owners of second homes, they need to curb the influence of money in their politics, and they need to virtually stop development. They need to buy out farmers and ranchers and restore the natural flow of the rivers, as they’ve begun to do on the Kissimmee, and they need to build state-of-the-art sewage and stormwater treatment plants that release water that’s clean enough to drink, because there’s no place to put polluted water in Florida. They need to quit watering the grass on every highway median and every lawn, and embrace restorative and organic agriculture instead of vast expanses of petrochemical monocultures. They need to end subsidies to the sugar industry, they need to enforce their own pollution laws, and they need to create even more wildlife refuges, including marine ones. Florida, threatened more than most places by global warming and sea-level rise, needs to lead the way, to set the example, to be on the cutting edge of a new, sustainable path, instead of continually being dragged reluctantly along by the concerned few.

And, everybody else, and I mean everybody, needs to do the same in their own neck of the woods, because we are all connected. Nature is a great, huge, interconnected web, and if we don’t do better, then the problems in Florida are going to eventually land on our very own doorsteps. Floridians need to step it up a notch, but the rest of the world needs to as well. It isn’t impossible. As the restoration of the Kissimmee River shows, it is possible to undo our mistakes. The time is now, and the place is wherever you are, and there’s work enough for us all.

Kissimmee_River_Restoration

A portion of the restored Kissimmee River. Long portions of the C-38 Canal, visible here as a straight line, have been filled in and the river is free once again to find its own course, and to moderate flows, cleanse the water, provide recreational opportunities, and nourish wildlife along the way.

 Note- 3 Jan 2015— I just learned today that Florida voters recently approved a state constitutional amendment that will direct billions of excise tax money into conservation programs. Wonderful news, and an example of the power of voting. Keep that pressure up, Florida…

Top image credit: US Army Corps of Engineers.
 Everglades image: “Sawgrass”, by George, Flickr Creative Commons.
Kissimmee River: Wikimedia Commons.
Roseate spoonbills: “She Said What?”, by vladeb, Flickr Creative Commons.