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Water Ethos Takes Time to Sink in

Florida has been having a nostalgic summer, reminiscent of the days when I grew up and it rained like clockwork at least once in between noon and 4 p.m. Despite the year’s regular summer rains, Florida remains in a drought, much like the majority of the country. The rains, however, only further muddle the understanding of the drought. Last Wednesday, Cynthia Barnett, a Gainesville local and award winning author and journalist, spoke to a group of about 40 people, who crammed into a gallery room at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Gainesville with hopes of getting her two books, Mirage and Blue Revolution — Unmaking America’s Water Crisis, signed.

Many came simply because Florida is once again facing a water crisis from both drought and over-consumption, and Barnett is a wealth of valuable knowledge in this arena.

Mirage, her first book, describes in excellent detail how Florida came into this water predicament in the first place: overdevelopment, draining of wetlands, over-consumption, and too many Consumptive Use Permits (CUPs) for various agricultural and industrial processes. In her newest book, Blue Revolution, she advocates “a new way of living with and valuing water in every sector of the economy.” Essentially, a water ethos.

The talk was hosted by the Suwannee-St. Johns group of the Sierra Club, so much of the audience was aware of Florida’s long standing water crisis. Longtime Florida natives listened to Barnett attentively as they lamented over the springs that they once played in as children — the springs that are now dried up and no longer flowing.

Since the 1950s, several Florida springs have dried up as a result of the wanton, unchecked development, and the damming, draining, and diverting of the state’s natural water flows. To date, Florida has drained approximately 11 million acres of swampland, permitted several CUPs to bottling companies, and allowed excessive over-pumping by the agricultural sector. This is why Barnett and others are calling for a new Water Ethos, a way of looking at and valuing water for what it really means to all of us and our collective survival.

America has an illusion of water abundance. The lawn is actually America’s largest “crop,” an estimated 63, 240 square miles of turf grass, which Barnett calls the “51st State.” While Floridians may not fully grasp the severity of their water crisis, legislators between Florida, Georgia and Alabama have been fighting over water for more than 20 years, racking up an estimated cost of $30 million for taxpayers.

The Supreme Court has refused to hear the states’ case and that money has been needlessly wasted on the right to freely access and pump a precious resource instead of being used more effectively to improve leaking pipes and implement education programs and water saving policies that reduce per capita consumption as well as the number of consumptive use permits stressing the state’s water supply.

Barnett claimed, “people shouldn’t look at water as such a political issue.” That is a huge mistake, she said. “They see water management as a job killer.” San Antonio, Texas, she argued, is a prime example of how a city can reduce its total water consumption by creating better policies that benefit everyone, including business, which is growing and growing there.

Unfortunately, as many who attended the speech could tell you, the water crisis is only getting worse, no thanks to Florida’s state governor, Rick Scott.

Scott has taken a different approach here in Florida and has repeatedly cut funding to the state’s five water management districts during his term in office, so far over 40% of their budgets, and has restructured the districts through over 270 layoffs and various reductions in employee benefits. Many environmental groups have argued that these cuts will reverse the great work in water management achieved by the state over the last couple of decades, hurting Florida’s water resources now and water security in the long term.

While environmental groups have been trying to educate people about the urgent water crisis, Florida has only implemented reactionary policies, such as usage restrictions. Only recently has Florida implemented more stringent regulations in response to the state’s eutrophic, stream-killing water conditions and banned the purchase and use of nitrogen lawn-fertilizers that are not slow release fertilizers during Florida’s rainy season.

Despite all the threats to the water supply, Floridians are lucky in this state for several reasons: 1) great rainy seasons; it rains here more than most places even if it is a light season, 2) an aquifer that replenishes faster than most, though we are still pumping out faster than it can replenish, despite the rains, 3) we collectively own the water; in Texas for example, essentially anyone with pumping capabilities and property located above a water supply can pump freely, regardless of their neighbors’ water needs.

Cynthia Barnett concluded gracefully and left everyone with a lot to think about. From there though, there must be action. We cannot afford to not have water security. However, the argument to increase water costs that reflect water’s importance, brings with it economic and social justice issues. The argument to reduce barriers to industry for job growth brings with it environmental justice issues.

Water is crucial to life, all life, and to balancing the climate of the planet. Calling for a new water ethos isn’t revolutionary, it’s necessary, though it’ll likely take some time to firmly root and affect the population. But is that time Florida’s springs and aquifers have? Let’s get more conscious in our practice and value water for what it’s worth before we are made to pay the price.