The Salting of Florida: And Not a Drop to Drink

June 28, 2011

Drought, wildfires, floods. The first three minutes of network news is like a TV primer from the Book of Revelations. Al Gore, in Rolling Stone, was inventor of that line, but at some point in the not-so-distant future, destroyed drinking water wells in South Florida could be on Nightly News. And if Al Gore is still with us, the shot wells scattering chaos in the nation’s presidential bellweather state will not go unremarked. Florida’s threatened drinking water supply is a stark reminder of Gore’s 2000 loss in Florida. Fearing dissent in his own ranks on policies governing growth and the environment, Gore retreated. Today there is no doubt, none at all, that water management has put South Florida property owners into the path of fresh water at the price of gold or a modern Exodus. This is the dirtiest little secret in Florida and why the dying Everglades are a potent symbol of politics in America today.

For decades in Florida, elected officials supported more growth and development and agriculture than our aquifers could reasonably sustain. It is not conjecture. It is not smarmy, feel-good ethos. Within government agencies, scientists, policy makers and attorneys treaded on the subject like walking on egg shells. Early on, it was established that standing up to the destroyers on water supply or water quality issues was the fastest way to lose one’s job. Sugar billionaires, their lobbyists, builders and developers and trade associations like Miami’s Latin Builders Association had the inside track in the inside hallways of government: from the White House to the lowliest office of the county commission. It is still going on. Last week, Florida’s Jack-Ass-In-Chief Barney Bishop– the Associated Industries leader, a self-described “life-long Democrat” (who led the successful effort to dismantle Florida’s growth management agency), appeared on Fox News, calling out the U.S. EPA for “killing jobs faster than President Obama can create them”. Bishop, a carpetbagger if there ever was one, has prevailed on Florida Governor Rick Scott to push back against federal authority to regulate nutrient pollution where the state won’t: overwhelming Florida’s valuable rivers, estuaries and coastal real estate values. To round up the disaster, after so many decades, in a pithy “killing the goose that lays the golden egg” puts an unforgivable smiley face on abject corruption. Read the rest of this entry »

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Of Elvis and Rachel — and turning points

June 3, 2007

May 27 marked the 100th birthday of Rachel Carson, who died at a young 56. And soon enough, the August week will arrive to mark the passing of Elvis Presley who died 30 years ago and at an even younger age, 42.

Granted, on the surface there’s not much to connect these two characters.

Elvis, with his open hips, made teen girls think about biology. Rachel, with her award-winning writing on the environment, made the whole chemistry industry hopping mad.

At the same time Rachel was putting the final touches on Silent Spring, Elvis was in Florida shooting a movie in Yankeetown, north of Tampa, where he paid a visit to one of Florida’s most famous springs, Weeki Wachee.

Under the surface is where the spring waters join Rachel, Elvis and us.

In 1941, Rachel Carson published her first book, Under the Sea, establishing her reputation as a prescient writer able to connect for a popular audience how we are connected, ourselves, to nature that shapes us. Elvis was just a child.

Twenty years later, Weeki Wachee, on U.S. Highway 19, was one of Florida’s premier tourist attractions. Elvis was at the height of his career and television had just started casting its net wide into the world of color.

Weeki Wachee was one of the most magical sights nature had to offer within easy distance of a broadcast station. A few years before Elvis’ visit, ABC Broadcasting purchased the spring and its attractions. Not too long after, Disney would make U.S. 19 and its attractions obsolete. (In the 1990s, Disney purchased ABC.)

Today Weeki Wachee lives on, in memories as splendid and youthful as the young Elvis. But in 1961, nothing could have been further from the mass culture fermenting at Weeki Wachee than Rachel Carson’s dire warnings.

Carson had already won a National Book Award for The Sea Around Us. Were she alive today, she would have been equally captivated by what has happened to Weeki Wachee.

The spring and its waters are murky with algae, a symbol of both Florida’s past and present: the entire peninsula of Florida is swimming in a sea of nitrogen pollution, measured in parts per billion.

In Time magazine’s portrait of the 100 most influential Americans of the 20th century, Peter Mathiessen (a writer who brilliantly chronicled Florida’s natural past) wrote about the hostility Carson faced with the publication of Silent Spring: “A huge counterattack was organized and led by Monsanto, Velsicol, American Cyanamid — indeed the whole chemical industry — duly supported by the Agricultural Department as well as the more cautious in the media (Time’s reviewer deplored Carson’s ‘oversimplifications and downright errors’.)”

Elvis lives on, at Graceland and in the hearts of millions of aging baby boomers, and also in “sightings” that may have more to do with recapturing what we have lost in ourselves than Elvis, himself.

Today we can look back from Elvis, Rachel and Weeki Wachee and understand that the nature of commerce that pollutes the environment is grounded in changeable ownership.

The same motivation that compelled bitter hostility against Rachel Carson, despite her broad popular appeal, is just as evident in the corporations organized to oppose mandatory measures to combat global warming.

And that is no different than our own state’s failure to impose measures to stop nitrogen pollution — from lawn fertilizers, from dairies and farms, from cesspits and stormwater runoff from roadways.

The publication of Silent Spring was a turning point in public awareness and demand for change in federal laws protecting the environment.

Today, the Bush White House is attempting damage control in advance of a summit of world leaders on climate change. Some of our allies, Germany in particular, have a big head start on adapting energy policies to a new economy.

Is it any wonder that much of the world views America as a nation that is king, mostly, in its own imagination?

We still love Elvis for what he was, but Rachel Carson gave us a glimpse of what we must become: caretakers for what our careless touch can ruin.

In Congress, a Republican senator from Oklahoma has effectively blocked a measure to honor Rachel Carson, on the 100th anniversary of her birth.

If Congress won’t, then there would be nothing more timely than for the chemical industry to reverse course and acknowledge the contribution Rachel Carson made when it was youthful and filled with promise.