Eyes wide open on Florida

Many people who care about restoring the Everglades will be in Naples this weekend at the annual meeting of the Everglades Coalition, representatives of 45 conservation-minded groups from the local, state and national level, and fishermen, hunters and Native Americans.

More met in Orlando last November at the annual conference of the American Water Resources Association, eager for opportunities in water management, pipes and infrastructure imbedded in the latest iteration of hope for the Everglades: some $13 billion and counting.

And many, many more people are riveted on the Everglades in context of their own needs: restoring the polluted Great Lakes, Chesapeake Bay, coastal Louisiana and California.

They are pleading for the same federal largesse promised for the Everglades and have not, apparently, realized that the commitment for the Everglades—that enjoyed the benefit of broad bipartisan support in Congress—is sinking under an avalanche of federal debt.

Gov. Jeb Bush deserves credit this week for starting a new stormwater-treatment area on former sugar lands called Talisman Farm, which, if not for foot-dragging by industry, could have been productively employed in service of the public interest many years ago.

The new project is part of the Governor’s Acceler8 program, and its goals mesh with provisions of a 2003 state law which deserves to be called Suffoc8, for allowing sugar’s continued pollution of the Everglades for the indefinite future.

It is an odd job of focusing and unfocusing by government officials on pollution and the effects of growth in Florida.

Supporters of the governor and president have a special responsibility to speak out on behalf of an historical opportunity. What people can do depends on seeing with open eyes certain unmovable realities.

From a satellite, at night, coastal cities and small communities show up as a limning edge of light around the heart of Florida: the Everglades.

During daylight, the history of the Everglades is visible from space, etched in the pattern of tree islands curving like teardrops from the slow flow of fresh water that once pulsed south from Orlando, through streams and tributaries meandering into Lake Okeechobee spilling over like a filled cup into the River of Grass.

Today, the Everglades tree islands are purposeless. Their function lost to better engineering, like wooden cargo ships abandoned on the beach, ribs exposed at the tide line by the passage of time and the disorder we made of God’s creation.

In other ecosystems like the Chesapeake, the acknowledged principal culprit is nitrogen. In minute quantities, nitrogen is harmless to humans, but it is lethal to the smallest of marine organisms, destroying our lakes, springs, rivers and bays, shallow estuaries and the coral reef.

Sources of nitrogen pollution are clear enough. The Mississippi River drains the heartland of America, spitting out so much polluted runoff from farmland and cities that a Dead Zone the size of Connecticut drifts in the Gulf of Mexico, not far from Florida’s west coast.

Currents of nitrogen-laden water curl like cigarette smoke around the southern tip of Florida, joining wisps of pollution from rivers, canals, estuaries and bays on the west coast. They brush eastward across the skeletal Florida Keys and Dry Tortugas, pass the ancient coral reef, into the Gulf Stream and upward. More nitrogen pollution flows south from the Indian River, St. Lucie and eastern cities, hugging the coast like the watery edge of a red and irritated eye.

That is just what we can see. Florida allows vast quantities of nutrient-laden municipal wastewater to be injected into deep wells—more than a billion gallons per day—far from camera’s view where it may be sweating from aquifers like perspiration or bleeding like a cut.

No one knows, because when the state of Florida looks at the unmovable reality of tree islands lost or nitrogen pollution so pervasive the state might as well be swimming in a sea of it, these problems are addressed by elegant and artificial solutions: like more than 300 aquifer-storage and recovery wells that will, according to the engineers, at some point in the future help meet the water needs of Everglades, cities, and agriculture.

For Gov. Bush’s most ardent supporters, there are two ways to help: First, let the governor know that the highest order of priority is fixing the broken system of growth management in Florida. It simply will not do for the public to be drowned out by the chorus of development interests in Tallahassee grown to gargantuan size on the steroids of historically low interest rates.

Second, it is time for Bush to bring forward an alternative plan to restore the Everglades now. Common sense says to leave the bad penny of aquifer storage and recovery in the wishing well.

America hopes for the best in the Everglades. The Great Lakes, Chesapeake Bay, coastal Louisiana and California—these are places where the need for ecosystem restoration is just crossing the horizon.

Think of it: From outer space, our planet is a blue agate marble as though lit from within. With Everglades restoration, Florida is already in the sun.

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