Thursday, September 8, 2016

Water Visions: Changing Our Culture and Saving Our Springs With a Water Ethic

I was cleaning up files on my computer when I was struck by contrasting photographs of the Ichetucknee that were taken in two different decades.
One set of photos from the 1960s reveals the thriving, mirror-clear underwater world that I remember from my first tubing and snorkeling trips. The second set, taken recently, reveals an aquatic landscape that is by turns barren, greenishly murky and coated with brown algae.
What changed in the last 50 years?
Scientists tell us that the Ichetucknee has lost about one-quarter of its historical average flow because increased groundwater pumping—from within the springshed to as far away as Jacksonville—has reduced the amount of water available to the springs and the river. Pollution from lawn and agricultural fertilizers, stormwater runoff, and animal and human waste has fed the brown algae that darken the water and coat the once-green eelgrass.
These problems of reduced flow/supply and increased pollution now plague most of our springs, rivers and lakes in North Florida.
We can’t blame anyone else. We’ve done this to ourselves.
Imagine an alien anthropologist—let’s call her “AliAn”—looking at our culture from the outside, studying the ways we use and abuse water. AliAn would conclude that we place little monetary value on clean, abundant water and that we believe our behavior has no effect on our springs, rivers, or lakes. AliAn might also say that we are avoiding responsibility for being wise stewards of our water wealth and squandering long-term water security in exchange for short-term economic gains.
Why are we behaving like this? First, I think it’s because we haven’t emotionally acknowledged the international, spiritual, cultural, economic and ecological significance of the Springs Heartland of Planet Earth—the greatest concentration of freshwater springs in the world. Second, it’s because—in a classic example of “the tragedy of the commons”— individuals, elected representatives, and government agency heads have failed to make the difficult decisions required to keep our waters healthy. Third, it’s because we’re ignoring the fact that nitrate pollution in the springs is warning us of looming public health threats to our drinking water supply.
That’s the bad news.
The good news is that we can choose to change both our behavior and our culture.
Culture change happens in a myriad of ways, some “top down,” some “bottom up,” and others in combination. Top-down change requires visionary leadership that motivates people to adjust their behavior and/or enacts laws with stiff penalties for not doing so. Bottom-up change happens when people decide on their own to make individual changes that influence others and, eventually, the whole culture.
Given the lack of state-level water protection that has brought the Ichetucknee to its current murky condition, I think we the people must lead the revolution in the ways we are living with water if we want to save our springs. Luckily, Gainesville writer Cynthia Barnett has provided us with a way forward in her guidelines for a Florida water ethic.
Barnett’s guidelines grew out of her book, Blue Revolution:  Unmaking America’s Water Crisis, and are featured in the Ichetucknee Alliance’s display on view through August 27 at the Smithsonian’s Water/Ways exhibition in High Springs. According to Barnett, a Florida water ethic requires that: (1) Floridians value water, from appreciating local streams to being willing to pay an appropriate price for water; (2) We work together to pollute less and use less; (3) We try to keep water local in order to avoid the financial, environmental and energy costs of long-distance transfers; (4) We avoid the two big mistakes of our history:  over-tapping our natural supplies and over-relying on the costliest fixes that bring unintended consequences to future generations; and (5) We leave water in nature—in aquifers, wetlands and rivers—so that our children and grandchildren, with benefit of time and evolving knowledge, can make their own decisions about water.

What can you do to promote this water ethic? Visit your local water body regularly and notice how it changes over time. Educate yourself about our water problems. Talk to your families, friends, co-workers and congregations. Contact your local water organization and learn how you can help by using your best talent—what you love to do—to support the work of that group. Attend and speak up at meetings of agencies that set or enforce public water policy. Communicate your concerns to your elected representatives. Know that elections are important. Vote wisely! Vote for people who are willing to make tough decisions and who will champion a new Florida water ethic.
Remember that silence indicates agreement with the status quo. If enough of us act, we can change our culture and save our springs.

To Learn More

Changes in the Ichetucknee

See the restoration plan prepared by the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute:

Tragedy of the Commons

This term describes what happens when people choose or are permitted to satisfy their personal economic desires in ways that damage a shared public resource, to the extent that the resource then becomes unavailable to some or all of the people who need it. See:

One popular argument for granting unlimited numbers of water use permits deals with private property rights:  “It’s my property and I can do whatever I want with it.” But what happens if that right affects the supply of clean water available to your neighbor or the Floridan aquifer? Many of us own cars, but we agree to follow traffic laws so we don’t kill each other on the road. Should a similar agreement to not damage our waters be part of a Florida water ethic?

Florida Water Ethic

Cynthia Barnett explains the idea of a water ethic in her book Blue Revolution:  Unmaking America’s Water Crisis (Beacon Press), named one of the 10 best science books of 2011 by The Boston Globe. Her guidelines for a Florida water ethic were originally published by the Collins Center for Public Policy in “Our Water, Our Florida.” Barnett has since revised those guidelines to include mention of pollution. See:

For more information about Barnett and her work, see:

This article originally appeared in the August 2016 issue of "The Observer," a free monthly tabloid (circulation 5000 copies) distributed in the High Springs/Alachua/Newberry/Jonesville/Fort White areas of North Florida. Many thanks to publisher Barbara Llewellyn for her kind permission to post it here.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Water Visions: Why Aren’t Florida’s Water Laws Protecting Florida’s Water?

Memories are tricky. I’m often amazed at how my mental images of important experiences get foggy over time while memories of insignificant things remain clear.
Some of my most vivid memories are of seemingly minor events, snapshots of time spent in or near Florida’s freshwater springs.
In one snapshot, I’m standing on the bank of Ginnie Springs in 1969 with my geology professor, Jean Klein. We’re on a field trip and my classmates are wandering around, talking and laughing, but Jean and I have gone quiet as we stare into the shimmering mirror of the spring.
“You know,” Jean says, “if these springs ever get polluted, it will take Mother Nature thousands of years to clean them up.”
Forty-seven years ago, the idea that our springs could be polluted was laughable—but the bad news is that we have not been kind to our springs and they are polluted now.
To notice the effects of this pollution, you need a basis for comparison. You would have to remember, as I do, how the springs looked many decades ago. People who see the springs for the first time today or visit them only sporadically do not know what we have lost.
Scientific analyses of long-term trends in water quality and flow, however, give us vivid pictures of what we have permitted to happen.
According to the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute (FSI)—Florida’s only independent, nonprofit, scientific voice for our springs—long-term trends show that pollution in the Ichetucknee, Santa Fe and Suwannee rivers is going up while flows are going down. This combination is a double whammy that leads to algae growth, murky water and a looming public health threat since the nitrates (from fertilizer and human and animal waste) that pervade the springs also enter the Floridan aquifer and our drinking water.

Groundwater nitrate nitrogen (mg/L) concentrations throughout Florida and near the Ichetucknee (inset). All colored areas other than blue indicate human-caused pollution of groundwater. Source:  Ichetucknee Springs & River:  A Restoration Action Plan, p. 14, prepared by the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute.
In 1979, the State of Florida designated the Suwannee River as an Outstanding Florida Water (OFW). The Ichetucknee and Santa Fe rivers received the same designation in 1984. According to state law, these rivers should have been protected from further pollution as soon as they received the OFW designation. But according to FSI, that hasn’t happened.
Nitrate concentrations in the Lower Santa Fe River have been rising steadily since the 1960s. In 2008, the river was added to Florida’s Impaired Waters List. Average nitrate concentrations in some of the Santa Fe springs have increased by more than 3000 percent in the last 20 years.
During the first decade of this century, nitrate concentrations in the Ichetucknee headspring have increased more that 1500 percent. That spring received a D grade for nitrate levels and attached algae in the environmental report card FSI prepared in 2008.
Nitrate levels in the Lower Suwannee River have increased by 1500 percent above historic baseline levels.
Flows in our area’s rivers have fallen because of increased pumping of groundwater, periods of drought, and loss of aquifer recharge areas. According to professional geologist Jim Gross, every drop of water we use for our farms, ranches, businesses and homes means one less drop for our rivers and our springs. The expected influx of new residents escaping sea level rise in South Florida will only compound our water problems.
Local citizens are waking up to our water problems and becoming active. Recent flashpoints for public outcry include a large-scale chicken “factory” in a high aquifer recharge area near Fort White and a proposed phosphate mine on the New River—a tributary of the Santa Fe—in Union and Bradford counties.
What is happening here? For many years, Florida’s water laws served as model laws for the rest of the country. Why haven’t these laws protected our rivers and springs? Is the problem with the laws themselves? With their enforcement? With the complicated geology of our aquifer? With a combination of those problems? Or with something else?
Two attorneys—Heather Culp of FSI and Traci Deen of the Center for Earth Jurisprudence at Barry University Law School in Orlando—will discuss these issues at a free public program, “Why Aren’t Florida’s Water Laws Protecting Florida’s Water?” 7-9 p.m. Monday, July 25, 2016, at the High Springs New Century Woman’s Club, 23674 West US Highway 27, High Springs FL 32643.
The event is organized by the Ichetucknee Alliance and sponsored by the Alliance, Our Santa Fe River, and the Woman’s Club in conjunction with the Smithsonian Institute’s Water/Ways exhibition at the High Springs Historical Museum. Audience members will have a chance to ask questions and there will be time for one-on-one conversations with the speakers at the end of the program.

To learn more:

Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute (FSI)

FSI has prepared restoration plans for many of our area’s springs and rivers. The plans are available free of charge at the North Florida Springs Environmental Center, 23695 W. U.S. Highway 27, High Springs, and may be viewed on line under the “Current Projects” tab at:

For more information about FSI, call 386-454-2427.

Center for Earth Jurisprudence (CEJ)

Located at Barry University Law School in Orlando, the mission of CEJ is to protect the rights of nature by developing a philosophy and practice of law that respects the natural world in its own right. Learn more at:

Video of the Water Voices program may be viewed at:

This article originally appeared in the July 2016 issue of The Observer, a free monthly tabloid (circulation 5000 copies) distributed in the High Springs/Alachua/Newberry/Jonesville/Fort White areas of North Florida. Many thanks to publisher Barbara Llewellyn for her kind permission to post here.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Water Visions: We Live in the Springs Heartland of Planet Earth

I grew up swimming in Florida’s freshwater springs but I didn’t know until recently that we have more of these springs than anywhere else in the world.
There are over 1000 springs in North and Central Florida. Here in the Suwannee River Water Management District—which includes the watersheds of the Suwannee, Santa Fe, and Ichetucknee rivers—we have over 300 documented springs.
So we don’t just live in the springs heartland of Florida. We live in the Springs Heartland of Planet Earth!
If all that water could be channeled into one giant spring, we would have a World Heritage Site or a National Park. But because our springs are scattered and have different owners, it’s hard for most of us to grasp the full international significance of these watery treasures.
And they are treasures—economic treasures, ecological treasures, and spiritual treasures.
We’re living in the middle of a world treasure map.
Wayne Kinard is a fifth-generation Floridian who comes face-to-face with the international importance of our springs every day at his business, Amigos Dive Center in Fort White. Surrounded by air tanks, hoses, and other SCUBA equipment, Kinard points out two marker boards crowded with the names and nationalities of people who have come to dive in our springs.

“I have 5800 customers from all 50 states and 88 countries,” Kinard says. “And I’m getting over 500 new customers a year.” Reading the marker boards is a visual trip around the world and proof that our springs and rivers are economic engines for rural North Florida.
Jerry Johnston is someone else who knows what a treasure we have in our springs and rivers. A professor of biology at Santa Fe College, Johnston is the founder and director of the Santa Fe River Turtle Project. At a 2014 meeting of the Santa Fe River Springs Protection Forum, Johnston explained that the world’s number one hotspot for turtle species diversity is Asia. The southeastern United States is the number two hotspot and within the Southeast, our area—the Suwannee, Santa Fe, and Ichetucknee rivers—has the largest variety of turtle species. We’re number one in the world for springs and number two in the world for turtles!
Our springs and rivers are sources of life for countless other species including birds, fish, reptiles, amphibians, mammals, and plants. One tiny creature, the Ichetucknee silt snail, exists only in a 10-square-yard area along the Ichetucknee River.
Fifty years ago when I started exploring springs, they were not easy to find. Some springs had not yet become parts of state or county parks, signs were scarce and you had to be able to read topographic maps to locate them. I learned how to get to Poe, Ginnie, and Ichetucknee by word of mouth from people who had already been there.
Finding a spring today is much easier. The new North Florida Springs Environmental Center in High Springs has a high-tech, touch-screen version of a springs treasure map! Created in Google Earth by springs scientists, the map offers visitors a wealth of information.
In just a few minutes at the computer screen, you can search for a spring by name or location, zoom in to the map to locate other nearby springs, and find specific information including spring name, county, magnitude of flow, name of the basin that includes the spring, and latitude and longitude. Google Earth also provides directions to the spring of your choice.

The Springs Environmental Center is a new project of the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute (FSI), a nonprofit, independent, science-based organization that advocates for spring restoration and protection and provides scientific information to other organizations that are working to save our springs.
“Over one million people travel through High Springs each year to visit our local springs,” says Heather Culp, associate director of FSI. “The North Florida Springs Environmental Center is a clearinghouse of information about our springs, rivers, and aquifers.”
In addition to exploring the springs map, center visitors may watch one or more of 15 available high-resolution videos, pick up free copies of the spring restoration plans prepared by FSI, and attend Springs Academy classes that are held at noon on the first Tuesday of the month. Academy classes are taught by Robert L. Knight, Ph.D., director of FSI. Brochures are also available about nearby parks with springs and water advocacy organizations such as Our Santa Fe River and the Ichetucknee Alliance.
With warm weather already here, it’s time to get outside and enjoy the Springs Heartland of Planet Earth. Remember that while Florida’s springs are the world’s to love, they are ours to take care of.

To Learn More

Amigos Dive Center
5472 SW Elim Church Road
Fort White, FL 32038
Owner:  Wayne Kinard

Santa Fe River Turtle Project
Director Jerry Johnston, Ph.D.

North Florida Springs Environmental Center
23695 W. U.S. Highway 27
High Springs FL 32643
(old address: 99 NW First Ave.)
Hours (subject to change without notice):
Tuesday-Thursday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
Friday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-1 p.m.
Springs Academy classes meet at noon on the first Tuesday of the month through September 2016. Classes are free although a $5 donation is requested.

This article originally appeared in the June 2016 issue of The Observer, a free monthly tabloid (circulation 5000 copies) distributed in the High Springs/Alachua/Newberry/Jonesville/Fort White areas of North Florida. Many thanks to publisher Barbara Llewellyn for her kind permission to post here.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Home Spring, Heart Spring, Death & Love

I’ve started to use a couple of new terms to talk about springs. These terms just sprang (pardon the pun) unbidden in conversation with a group of people who were brainstorming about how water advocates could cast a wider net of messages to inspire greater support for saving Florida’s freshwater springs.

The first term I used was “Home Spring,” as in, “Rum Island is my Home Spring,” the closest spring to where I live. Well, it’s not actually the closest (that’s July Spring), but Rum is the closest that’s publicly accessible by land so it’s the one I visit most frequently and the one I think of as “home.” That discussion sparked one member of our group to have an idea:  To create an app so that people could punch their addresses into a smart phone or computer and find out their watershed address.

I first learned about watershed addresses from the writer Janisse Ray, who included her watershed address at the bottom of her emails. I noticed that Lesley Gamble of the Springs Eternal Project was doing the same thing so, in copycat mode, I started using a watershed address too:

@Rum Island Spring @Santa Fe River @Suwannee River @Gulf of Mexico

The idea is simple:  Identify the closest body of water to your abode, then follow the course of the water that flows from it to its eventual destination. Using a watershed address is a neat way to remind yourself to be aware of your bioregion, the local environment that sustains you.

The other term I used was “Heart Spring,” which for me has been—since the first time I went there and heard otherworldly voices—the Ichetucknee.

Yes, I spent many happy hours at the Ginnie Springs group; I lost my springs virginity at Rock Springs near Orlando; I marveled at Silver Springs and Rainbow Springs back in the 1950s; but it is Ichetucknee that exudes a profound magic and exerts a magnetic pull on my heart.

The difference between all those other springs I’ve enjoyed, my Home Spring and the Ichetucknee is easy to describe:  The Ich is the spring I love beyond all others.

It’s like the difference between good friends, family members, romantic and business partners, and the beloved—the person who, out of all the people you know, overwhelms your heart with so much unconditional love that you weep cathartic tears from the center of your soul.

Last night, I dreamed of a headless demon clad in black and when I turned to face my fear, the demon came at me relentlessly. In my dream, I began to scream and the terror woke me up. I realized the demon was Death and he was stalking me; I wasn’t ready to go.

Death is stalking all of us, yet we are bound together by cords of Love. I held these two concepts, Death and Love, in my mind for a while, and the question came:

What do you love enough to die for? Could a spring be one of those things?

If your answer to that last question is yes, then that’s your Heart Spring.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

When the Springs Were Self-Secret, Like the Vajrayana

Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the only way you could find a spring near Gainesville was to be taken or told how to get there by someone who knew. There were few highway signs, no readily available springs maps, no Internet with new springs discussion groups welling up every day. The way to the springs passed directly from someone’s mouth to your ears. The springs were self-secret—like the Vajrayana.

I can’t remember which friend took me to Poe Springs, where a rope swing hung from an ancient oak on the bank above the greenish water.

My creative writing teacher, Carolyn (Cissy) Arena Wood, told me how to get to Ginnie Springs:  Take County Road 340 west out of High Springs past the chicken farm, past Poe and then Blue Springs (the only spring that had a sign), go under one set of large power lines and a second set of smaller lines, turn right onto a dirt road that ran along a shaded fence line and then took a sharp curve to the right before finally curving left down into the woods, where you could smell the spring before you saw it.

“Come on girls, I found a new spring, let’s go.” Chad, my pizza-delivery-guy roommate from Fort Lauderdale who had a Plymouth Barracuda that we called the Blue Fish, took our other roommate Pam and me to Ichetucknee Springs for the first time. We were the only people there on a fall afternoon in the year before the State of Florida bought the property to turn it into a state park.

The springs grabbed me and held on; I was enraptured.

Today, over 45 years later, the memories of my spring-hopping days come back to me in snippets, like scenes from a movie.

At Poe and at Ginnie Springs, I swing out over the boil and let go, fall suspended in a bardo between earth and sky, then plunge into 72-degree water and come up gasping for air.

Late on weekday afternoons, I am the only person at Ginnie Springs where I do laps around the vent in water so crystalline that it reflects the sky’s blue. When I get tired, I float on my back while sunlight falls in slanting shafts through the surrounding trees and dapples my eyelids.

Or I visit Ginnie on a weekend when there’s a crowd. I spend some time in the main spring and keep a keen eye out for snakes as I hike past an old hollow cypress tree up to Devil’s Eye and Devil’s Ear. Again I enter the water, swim across the river to July Springs, then back across to Ginnie. I trek down to Dogwood and Twin Springs, just big enough to dip into, and return to the main spring for one last lap before heading home.

Or I camp at Ginnie one cold winter night with friends from my college’s zookeeper training program. My black 1968 VW Beetle sinks in muck near Devil’s Eye on the way to the campsite, but several strong young male classmates simply pick it up and lift it to safety.

Driving out Ginnie one afternoon after a frog-strangler rainstorm, I notice that the dirt road along the fence line has transformed into a long puddle with quite a few cars parked at the other end. People have gotten out of their cars and are standing around talking to each other. I am about halfway through the puddle when I realize that my VW bug is floating! I exit the puddle and chug along toward the springs, but as I pass the stranded drivers I notice that they are all staring at my car with their mouths hanging open.

Ginnie is a magnet for SCUBA divers and relations between divers and swimmers are not always the most cordial. I float on my back one afternoon when I feel a hard bump from underneath. I roll over and come eye-to-eye with a diver who has just emerged from the cave and hit me with his air tank. We glare at each other and he swims away.

My friend Kathi and I are the only people at Ginnie and we decide it would be a good idea go skinny-dipping. We are happily paddling around in the spring when we look up to see a van full of divers arriving on the bank! As quickly as we can, we scurry onto the bank and into our clothes.

That autumn afternoon in 1969 with just the three of us at Ichetucknee is magical. Sunlight is afire on saffron and crimson leaves; the aquamarine water is cold and bracing. We splash into the headspring and Chad climbs up onto one of the big limestone rocks, produces a bar of soap he had hidden in a pocket of his swim trunks, and lathers up while singing a bath soap jingle. We dissolve into laughter.

Later, I climb the little hill above the spring and away from my friends and hear, dimly at first and then more and more clearly, a murmur of voices in a language I have never heard and do not understand. Convinced there must be someone else in the woods, I stand up and turn in a complete circle, searching between the trees for signs of human life. There is no one else there.

The springs of my youth were joyous places marked by beauty, sanctity, and a palpable magic. Out of all of my memories, though, there is one that stands out more vividly than all the others. One that disturbs my sleep.

I am on a geology field trip to Ginnie Springs with my college classmates and our instructor, Jean Klein. The other students are milling around while Jean and I stand next to each other on the bank of the spring, both of us quiet, both of us gazing into the water.

“You know,” Jean finally says to me, “if these springs ever get polluted, it will take thousands of years for Nature to clean them up.”

Back then, the thought that Florida’s springs could be polluted was like one of those old B-grade horror movies—spooky in an amusing but ridiculous way. The scenario that Jean described seemed about as likely as the Gill Man’s emergence from the cave at Ginnie Springs to chase the closest nubile female.

In 2015, though, we are living that horror movie. Polluted springs, a falling water table, and scary algae blooms are Florida’s chilling new reality. In thrall to agriculture, economic special interests, and a carpetbagger governor who doesn’t understand that the diseases of our springs reflect the condition of our drinking water, our shortsighted state agencies refuse to enforce the laws that could reverse the damage that’s been done to our springs. (And despite Big Ag’s repeated claims to the contrary, agriculture represents less than 2 percent of Florida’s economy.)

Here’s a current example of that horror movie scenario at Silver Springs, once Florida’s largest spring and major tourist attraction:  Water management district staff let go or "resigned in lieu of being fired" so a water use permit can be issued to one foreign billionaire for a cattle ranch that will cause more harm to the already impaired springs. The voices of thousands of citizens ignored and the idea of "public interest" twisted to ensure one person’s private profits. Bad science made to look good. A proposed multi-million-dollar "alternative water supply project" that taxpayers must fund to mitigate the impacts of that permit so the billionaire’s profits can be ensured. A state senator already calling for the permit to be revoked. The person who got the permit: a big donor to the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. Want to bet that person also gave money to Rick Scott’s campaign for governor? I can't answer that last question, but I would not be surprised.

Florida is not just open for business; it and its freshwater springs are for sale to the highest bidders.

And yet, what I’ve learned from my Buddhist teachers is that everything changes. I am reminded of another memory, a conversation I had a couple of years ago with a park ranger at Wakulla Springs.

We are standing next to the boat dock talking about the murky condition of the springs and why the glass-bottom boats aren’t running that day, talking about how the City of Tallahassee’s water treatment spray field lies within Wakulla’s springshed. That spray field sends pollution directly into the aquifer that feeds the spring. That pollution, in turn, feeds the algae that cause the murky water.

“That’s okay,” the ranger says, looking out over the spring at the end of our talk. “Mother Nature will eventually fix this.”

And then I hear the rest of that sentence—unspoken but loud and ringing like a bell in the silence between us, transmitted directly from the ranger’s thoughts to mine—“But we won’t be here to see it.”

There is an idea in Vajrayana Buddhism that the tantric teachings are self-secret, meaning that people can hear them but will never truly understand them until they are ready—until their obscurations have been somewhat cleared and until they meet a teacher who can give them the mouth-to-ear instructions about what those teachings really mean.

The springs, too, have a self-secret aspect. Those of us who saw the springs in their relatively pure state—back in the middle of the 20th century or earlier—know what the springs were like then and what they could be again, given the political will. We have a singular responsibility to try to convey to young folks, and to people who are seeing the springs for the first time, what healthy springs are like and what we must do to restore our springs to health. To reach that goal, we have to muster enough citizens who care. We have to build a groundswell of people who will vote wisely and demand changes in the ways we are using our water.

So listen—from my mouth to your ear—this is how it was.

Diving into a spring was a baptism, a rebirth into a world of boundless purity, a transfiguration from solid earth-bound creature to fluid water nymph. Clear as air, the water sparkled and shone with a thousand rainbow lights. The flows coming out of the spring vents were so strong they could push you backwards when you swam against them. Lush, green plants bent and swirled in the currents like bright dancers on an underwater stage. To immerse in a spring was to taste paradise. You knew, instinctually and immediately, that these springs are sacred, like other waters throughout the world whose people have known them to be sacred for thousands of years.

But Florida’s freshwater springs are different—they are the greatest concentration of such springs in the world. Our springs heartland isn’t just ours; it’s the springs heartland of the whole planet. Florida’s springs are the world’s to love, but they are ours to care for—and we must do that.

People throughout Florida are, thankfully, becoming more aware of the conditions of our springs and are beginning to speak out. Will we be in time? Will we be enough? History will judge. Just remember that when the people lead, the leaders will follow.

Will you lead?

Monday, June 15, 2015

Carrying Rainbows

Once upon a time there was a young man of the East, who carried rainbows with him wherever he went.

Sometimes the people with him would see the rainbows; sometimes they wouldn’t. But when they didn’t see the rainbows, they saw other things that were just as spectacular.

Sometimes they saw kindness. Sometimes they saw gentleness. Sometimes they saw compassion. Sometimes they saw penetrating wisdom. Sometimes they saw humor, and smiles, and laughter. Sometimes they even saw things that they couldn’t explain!

But always, they saw beauty—like a rainbow.

People whispered that this young man could do miracles. They murmured that he could leave hand- and footprints in solid rock. They whispered that his eyes could look into realms that other people couldn’t see. They thought he knew things that were impossible for anyone to know. They claimed he knew what would help them, and what wouldn’t.

They said he knew the secrets of the mind.

Most of all, they marveled at his activity. How he drew people to him, as a lamp beckons travelers on a dark and dusty road. How he touched people’s hearts and minds with the rainbows of his own heart and mind. How he sparked others to change, even as he, himself, remained steady and glowing.

As the young man grew, so too did his rainbows.

He wrote music that was beyond beautiful, music that made people begin to hum, and sing, and dance. He painted pictures that moved people to take up their own brushes and paints. He wrote poetry that inspired the best parts of people’s natures.

He made people think, I want to be like he is.

As the young man grew, so too did his reputation. Some of us outside his own land began to hear about him, began to want to meet him, began to write him letters to ask him to come to us.

And after some time, he did travel. He packed his rainbows, and mounted a dragon with a thunderous, profound roar, and flew for a very great distance to a place that he had named as his home in the West.

Where hundreds of us came from thousands of miles away just to see him. Just to hear him speak. Just to be in his presence. Just to witness his activity. Just as in his homeland, where thousands of people would come from hundreds of miles away for the same reason.

To witness his rainbows.

And so we gathered, the young man who carried rainbows and those of us who were drawn to him. We gathered in a warm shrine room. We gathered in a bitter cold tent. We sang, and then we listened.

It is like a fairy tale to be here, he said. For the first time, he said, I begin to feel that I am free. You must not think that you are ever separate from me, he said. You have been in my heart before I even came here; you will be in my heart when I am gone; I will hold you in my heart for always.

And he said more. He said that both samsara and nirvana are experienced by the mind, so that is what we mean by the equality of samsara and nirvana. He said that the mind has two aspects, stillness and movement. The stillness of mind is like a light; the movement of mind is like thoughts. And so he pointed the way to a secret, the secret of how the mind works.

And he smiled. He smiled a lot! And he laughed. And so did we.

And day after day, rainbows followed the young man. Rainbows on the highway. Double rainbows. Bright rainbows. Rainbows around the sun.

And when the young man left, the hundreds of us who had come to see him left, too. But something was different for us all, now. Something magical. Something like a fairy tale.

We began to feel that we were not separate from the young man. We began to feel that we carried the young man in our hearts, even though he was gone. We began to feel that we would hold him in our hearts for always.

We began, for the first time, to feel free.

We began to carry rainbows.

Inspired by His Holiness Karmapa's first visit to the United States
Written at the Summer Solstice/June 19, 2008
Originally published in KTD's newsletter, "Zampa," Fall 2008

Sunday, June 7, 2015

An Open Letter to Florida’s Water Advocates

Hello everyone. Like all of you, I have been watching with dismay the direction that Florida’s elected “leaders” are choosing to take with regard to our waters and our environment. I have some thoughts to share that might spark discussion.
We are still placing a lot of emphasis in our discussions on working within the system and “throwing the bums out” via elections. I believe this energy is misplaced. Here’s why:  The political system that many of us grew up with is broken; it doesn’t work any more.
Two of the primary reasons why the old system is not working are gerrymandered legislative districts and the huge amounts of money being poured into political campaigns as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision ( As long as our elected representatives serve in “safe” legislative districts, we won’t be able to throw them out of office. As long as huge amounts of private money can legally be poured into political campaigns, water advocates and environmental groups can’t compete.
Some Princeton University research that backs up these assessments was sent to me recently by Lesley Gamble; see:

From the Abstract of that study: “Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.”
The conclusion I draw is disheartening:  As long as we keep doing what we’ve always done, nothing is going to change. That’s doesn’t mean, however, that we need to stop doing what we’ve always done; it simply means we need to admit to ourselves that it’s not enough.
The flip side of that conclusion is this:  We need to be much more creative. We need to reach out to organizations such as Move To Amend, which is working to overturn the Citizens United decision via an amendment to the U.S. Constitution, to find out how we might work or at least “message” together. We need to identify allies who are working to require more fairly apportioned legislative districts. We need to let our members and the public know why we are doing these things. We need to get much savvier in our messaging so that we can communicate to our leaders who DO care about our waters, as well as the public, where the real problems lie. And even though it’s part of the old system, we might want to consider starting a Political Action Committee (PAC) for Florida’s waters.
One thing I think we need to do in our messaging is to begin to ask this question of our elected representatives and in our op-eds:  Has North Florida’s springs heartland been declared a sacrifice area for big business and big agriculture? It would be interesting to watch the reactions, if any, to this question.
We need to consider our springs problem not only as a springs problem, but also as an aquifer problem. We need to forge alliances in aquifer restoration efforts with as many farmers as we can via a concerted, person-to-person effort to mend fences with those groups. Why? Because if our aquifer is damaged, they stand to lose as much as we springs lovers do, and because there are no solutions to our aquifer problems without their cooperation and support. We also want them to stay in business so their land doesn’t get sold to developers! Industrial farmers/ranchers will, of course, not be interested in this argument. I believe, however, that many Florida family farmers and organic farmers will be interested and would be willing to add their voices to ours if we play our cards right and focus a substantial effort on building these bridges.
We need to find ways to create greater emotional connections between people and springs.
We need to identify what I call “helicopter projects” that enable us to get out in front of the big truck that’s throwing out trash (or worse!) for us to shovel. We need to move from being reactive to being proactive. (Thanks to Annie Pais for the helicopter idea.)
We need to change our laws to level the playing field between the environment and business/commerce.
Finally, we need to make ethics the centerpiece of our messaging. I say that because I have long seen that invoking the ethical argument against destroying our springs is how we will win. As the ethicist Kathleen Dean Moore has said, “It’s wrong to wreck the world.” The “ethics” I’m talking about are not the ethics of one religion or one culture, but rather what His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama refers to as “secular ethics,” “…the diverse set ofvalues that people of various beliefs hold in common.”
I know that many of our groups are already doing some of these things. I am writing this piece not as criticism of what people are already doing, but in the hope that these ideas will spark discussion and perhaps lead to better, stronger efforts to save our waters. It’s always fascinating to watch what comes out of brainstorming sessions and my sense is that from here on out, those sessions need to start with an honest admission that the old ways simply aren’t working any longer.
When you drink water, remember the spring. -Chinese Proverb