How much does it cost to restore an ecosystem that’s been damaged by bad decisions? What is the economic impact of Florida’s springs on their surrounding communities? Do natural systems have a value that cannot be measured in dollars and cents?
As we face a future of declining flows and increasing pollution in Florida’s world-class freshwater springs, these are important questions that we should be asking our elected officials, our water managers and ourselves.
History tells us that it’s more expensive to fix a damaged ecosystem than it is to preserve it. Do a Google search for “costs of Everglades restoration” and look at the numbers that come up: $8.2 billion, $10.5 billion, $16.4 billion. Yes, billions of dollars to be spent over decades—the results of bad decisions made years ago when we lacked a complete understanding of Florida’s complicated hydrology.
Fortunately, scientists have learned a lot in the intervening years. We now know what is causing the major problems that plague our springs. Long-term trends prove that we’re pumping too much water out of the aquifer that feeds those springs and we’re allowing too much pollution to enter our surface water and groundwater. Because of the porous, Swiss-cheese-like limestone that forms the aquifer, anything that enters surface water can also enter groundwater, the source of our drinking water.
Now that we know what’s causing the problems, we can begin to solve them, right? Not so fast. Slowing or stopping aquifer overpumping would require our water management districts to ratchet back on water use by denying or revoking water use permits, something they are loathe to do because of political pressure and the threat of lawsuits. Slowing or stopping pollution would require hard choices by state agencies and legislators about agricultural and urban fertilizers, wastewater treatment, and septic tanks—choices not likely to be made by people who want votes and hefty corporate donations for their re-election campaigns.
Could today’s bad decisions lead to a future in which it’s deemed “too expensive” to restore our springs to health? Might our springs be allowed to die, to devolve into dry sinkholes where once clean, abundant water flowed? Sadly, that’s already happened in some places.
The flip side of the cost of bad decisions is represented by the economic benefits that our springs generate. A recent study by Tatiana Borisova and others at the University of Florida found that the estimated annual economic contributions of springs-related recreational spending in North Central Florida for fiscal year 2012-2013 were: $84.2 million in total visitor spending for springs recreation; $45.3 million in spending by non-local visitors; 1,160 full-time and part-time jobs generated; $30.42 million in labor income; $94.00 million in industry output (gross sales revenues); $52.58 million in value added, equivalent to Gross Domestic Product (GDP); $6.56 million in local and state government tax revenues, including property taxes of $4.13 million and sales taxes of $1.58 million; and $6.57 million in federal government tax revenues.
To use just one example, the researchers found that visitors to the Ichetucknee spent over $13 million annually and were responsible for the creation of 169 jobs, yielding a total annual economic value of over $16 million.
The researchers also pointed out that our springs have a value that extends beyond dollars and cents. Examples of such “ecosystem services” include providing food and fresh water, regulating floods and climate, supporting soil formation and nutrient cycling, and cultural services.
It’s this last item—cultural services—that’s most interesting to me because it demonstrates how not everything provided by our springs can be valued in money. What is the value of a spring’s beauty that inspires artists, photographers, musicians, and writers? What is the value of a spring to the non-human creatures—fish, mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and insects—whose lives that spring supports? What is the value of a cold swim on a hot day? What is the value of a kayak paddle through a richly wooded landscape at dawn or under the full moon? What is the value of a baptism in pure, clear water or a group celebration at a place that a family has held dear for generations? What is the true value of unique, world-class ecosystems that have existed for thousands of years?
And who are we, who—in our carelessness and in our greed—are permitting those ecosystems to be destroyed?
The cost of bad decisions must be measured in more than money; it must be measured, finally, in our love for the natural world—a world that sustains not only our bodies but also our hearts and our souls.
To learn more about…
…UF’s economic impact study of North Florida’s springs:
…the creativity our springs have inspired:
This article originally appeared in the November 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.