FSU News Release
Troubled Waters: a history of Florida's most precious resource
Florida’s nickname, ‘The Sunshine State,’ fails to include the area’s most abundant resource: water. Florida ranks behind only Alaska and Michigan as the state with the most water, and this statistic does not even account for the countless beaches and coastal areas found along the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean. Florida’s unique aquatic landscape is even recognized on a national scale: the southern portion of the state is home to more than half of the national parks found within the southeastern U.S.
Connected through an endless series of canals, rivers, marshes, springs, and lakes, water can be found all throughout Florida. Aside from the multi-billion dollar fishing, boating and tourism industries, the state’s waterways serve as a lifeline for Floridians. The Floridan Aquifer, one of the largest freshwater sources in the world, spans the entire state and provides drinking water for all of north and central Florida. The several hundred springs found within the state can be attributed to the aquifer, which pushes groundwater to the surface at a consistently cool temperature year-round, attracting millions of residents and non-residents annually.
Water’s role in the development of Florida cannot be understated. Lake Okeechobee, Big Cypress, the Everglades and mangrove swamps covered the entirety of southern Florida before the 1900s. With potential for rapid growth in the largely submerged southern portion of Florida, a need arose to manipulate the land in a way which favored the growth of towns and cities. A once untouched expanse of waterways and marshes was soon dredged, or dug out, for the construction of canals and levees which would help control water flow for commercial infrastructure. With freshwater and plenty of undeveloped land at their disposal, developers laid the foundation for vast urban and rural zones. Nearly overnight, the southern region of Florida boomed with housing and commerce. Spanning from the Everglades to central Florida, cities were created at a rapid pace due to easy credit access for buyers, rapidly appreciating property values, and ample plots of land.
Beneath all of this promising growth, however, was a crisis in the making, and the favorable connectivity of Florida’s water would soon manifest as a curse rather than a blessing. Although the waterways could now be controlled via canals and levees, such systems significantly lowered water levels in the Everglades and ultimately impacted the sustainable rate at which water could flow. Additionally, farmers dumped excess groundwater filled with cow manure, fertilizer, and pesticides back into the water, and runoff from residents’ lawns trickled into the mixture also. Such is the ideal recipe for what can best be described as the toxic green goop, or ‘algae blooms,’ found all throughout Florida’s waterways and coasts. The magnitude of algae bloom’s effects cannot be fully understood without considering Lake Okeechobee.
The largest lake in Florida and the second largest body of freshwater in the United States, Lake Okeechobee spans an area roughly half the size of Rhode Island. In the 1920’s, a hurricane struck the area and destroyed the Herbert Hoover Dike, killing nearly 2,500 people. Since then, the dike has been reconstructed, and for precautionary purposes the Army Corps of Engineers recently opened the dike’s gates to send billions of gallons of water per day through the canals. The water, filled with runoff and pollution, ran out into the east and west coasts of the state, creating an algae bloom which would make headlines as the “guacamole-like slime” plaguing the waterways of Florida. Rick Scott issued a State of Emergency for both Martin and St. Lucie counties shortly after.
Despite the increasing occurrence of algae blooms throughout the state, the development of Florida continues on. Not too far north of Lake Okeechobee lies Deseret Ranch, the proposed site of the largest single development in Florida history. In fifty years’ time, a region populated with more cows than people will transform into a megalopolis spanning an area larger than Orlando, Winter Park, Kissimmee, and Apopka combined.
The Deseret Ranch development project will require an estimated 111 million gallons of water per day. Sprawling urban zones will account for more than one third of the state’s lands within the next five years, according to a study conducted at the University of Florida. “Florida is a big state with a huge budget,” Ryan Smart of 1000 Friends of Florida says, “yet the amount allocated for our state’s water is extremely small. In fact, for every $200 spent on roads, only $1 is spent on water management.”
The impacts from a history of mishandling Florida’s water can be felt even further north than Lake Okeechobee and Orlando. One of the three rivers in the nation that flows north to south, the St. John’s River begins at Cape Canaveral and pours out of Jacksonville- the largest deep-water port in the Atlantic Ocean. 3.5 million people call the St. John’s River home, and it plays a fundamental role in Florida’s economy.
The river was designated as an American Heritage River in 1998. Despite the program’s recognition of prominent rivers such as the Hudson, Mississippi, and Potomac, many residents criticized the American Heritage River initiative as a form of federal pork-barreling, and alluded to the program’s lack of scientific legitimacy as a misstep within the program’s formation.
Nineteen years later, residents and environmentalists alike are still concerned about the St. John’s River. A documentary brought in part by St. Johns Riverkeeper, Troubled Waters: Connections and Consequences examines the current condition of the river and provides insight into the ongoing battle between conservationists and the state of Florida.
The film was screened at the iMax Challenger Learning Center last Wednesday to a nearly packed house. Attendees ranged from students to retirees. Alan Amidon, a senior political science student at Florida State University, came out to the screening to learn more about a subject his sustainable food and water class had been covering.
“One of the books we’re reading [in class] is called Mirage, which discusses the history of Florida development and water,” says Amidon. “When I read it, I learned how Florida’s history is based on the interconnectedness of its water system and thought ‘Wow, this information is really important.’”
The film highlights the wide accessibility of Florida’s water and focuses on the numerous actors and organizations which are responsible for the state’s ongoing water dilemma.
Some of Florida’s residents who water their lawns in excess may be in part to blame for the degradation of water quality. One speaker in the film specifically blames the St. Augustine grass, which requires more water, pesticides, and fertilizers than regular grass. Such runoff may contaminate the water by making it unsafe for drinking and recreational purposes.
Industries within Florida may be the cause of blame, as well. Commercial fishermen claim Jacksonville Port Authority’s proposed $684 million dollar project to dig out the last thirteen miles of the St. Johns River for increased commercial shipping will result in the decline of fish populations and various aquatic species. Commercial fishermen, whose businesses revolve around the quality of Florida’s water and fish, especially bear the weight of degraded water quality: their fish become less valuable with increasing pollution. Some water samples taken in Florida have found the consumption of fish to be safe only once out of every two weeks.
The Army Corps of Engineers has provided the environmental impact statement for Jacksonville Port Authority’s dredging project, but many find the impact statement inadequate. “There are too many unknowns economically and environmentally,” says Lucy Sonnenberg, PhD.
Some blame the state of Florida itself for the water-related woes, claiming that its environmental protection measures lack diligence and legitimacy. Multi-million dollar programs like the St. John’s River Water Management District are put in place to oversee the handling of district’s ground and surface waters, but many are unconvinced such programs are entirely supportive of protecting the natural landscapes.
“Many of the best scientists in the water management districts and organizations have been fired,” Bob Graham (D), 38th governor of Florida says. “Bad decisions are made and often go unchallenged because there are not people with the proper disciplines on the management boards to challenge the decisions.”
Florida environmentalists are also concerned with the rhetoric often heard in the state’s capitol regarding environmental protections. “Lobbyists are creating loopholes to keep protection out,” Lisa Rinamin, the St. John’s Riverkeeper, says. “Regulation is a dirty word in Tallahassee.”
Lee Constantine, former senator and real estate broker, argues how the problem arises from Florida prioritizing developmental interests over the economically valuable natural resources the state has to offer. “Nobody ever moved to Florida because of its strip malls,” he states.
Manley Fuller, president of the Florida Wildlife Federation, is still optimistic toward some of the ongoings within the capitol. “We are supportive of Senator Nelson’s effort to acquire land for reservoirs south of Lake Okeechobee,” Fuller says. “We were also supportive of the Water Land Legacy Amendment that passed overwhelmingly in 2014.”
Changes are occurring outside the doors of the capitol building as well. Grassroots efforts on behalf of citizens are setting the tone for environmental action throughout the state. Fuller believes such efforts are helpful when bringing about meaningful change. “Get involved in programs which both interest you and better the environment,” Fuller says. “Do not be afraid to engage yourself by going to talk to your legislator, your county commissioner, and to your civic authorities.”
Mary Sue Scott, a resident of DeBary, Florida, was shocked when she discovered conservation lands in her hometown were slated for development. With the creation of a petition and a steadfast attendance at town hall meetings, Scott encouraged her local elected officials to turn down the proposed development project.
Other community members are working with nonprofits and local environmental organizations to bring about change on a smaller scale. Alicia Smith, the chairwoman for Rising Tides, partakes in routine cleanups of the areas surrounding the St. John’s River. Although the cleanups led by Smith may not have a widespread or immediate impact on the overall water quality in the state of Florida, she feels they are still important steps in educating the public about responsible stewardship of the land, stating, “In order to begin to make a difference, people need to do the little things which eventually translate into large scale impact for change.”
As for the current affair of the St. John’s River, President Trump has vocalized support for the Jacksonville Port Authority dredging efforts, and the project is slated to begin some time during 2017. Although Governor Rick Scott has allocated $31.1 million dollars for the deepening and widening of the port, Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry has yet to provide city funds for the project.
This story first appeared at FSUnews.com.