Trouble is brewing here in the Land of Flowers, and it's something I'd bet that none of us who grew up here ever thought we'd see—a war that will eventually determine who, or what agency or business, controls the state's water supply.
I grew up in Orlando, about two hours south of where I live now. Although Orlando is an inland city, I felt as if I grew up surrounded by water, with lakes too numerous to count—where my dad went fishing almost every weekend—and springs and rivers in wild abundance. With its limestone-based karst topography, Florida has the largest concentration of first-magnitude springs in the world. Back in 1957, when my family moved to Florida and I started fifth grade, the idea that the state would one day face a water shortage would simply have made us all laugh.
Fast forward (and, looking back, it's amazing how fast a forward it is!) to 2009, and much has changed. There are springs here in the Sunshine State that have now dried up or been fouled by pollution, lake levels that are shrinking, and lakes that have disappeared; and when I moved to my house near the river, I was shocked to find that there were four new requests for water bottling facilities on one 3-mile stretch of the Santa Fe River—not including the one water bottling facility, run by Coca-Cola, that has been up and running near Ginnie Springs for many years now.
I could go off on a tangent about how we all need to drink water, but how we don't all need to drink bottled water, and how bottled water is frequently no more pure or nutritious than water we get from the tap, and how the cost of bottled water is really higher per unit volume than the cost of oil—but you get the drift.
The threats to our water supply don't stop with the water bottlers, however. Recently the St. Johns River Water Management District, over in Palatka, approved a request in favor a permit that would end up extracting 5.5 million gallons of water daily from a springfed tributary that feeds the mighty St. John's River. The idea behind this approval, as near as I can tell, is that the people who live in Central Florida need the water for their lawns and golf courses more than the river needs it.
Will Florida follow California's model of piping water hundreds of miles in support of rampant growth and development? It seems we are headed in that direction.
There are quite a few citizens, however, who object to such a course, and I am heartened that they are making their voices heard. Somewhere along the way, though, business and development have twisted state laws in their favor, so it's hard for the water management districts or the courts to take tough stands in favor of conservation and environmental protection. Somehow, this needs to change.
One tangent I will happily go off on is how decisions about our water and our environment get made. Every environmentally-related hearing I've ever been to (and I haven't been to that many) has seemed to devolve, at some point, into opposing sides arguing "science." One side will cite statistics and "facts" to prove their point; the other side will then dredge up their own statistics and "facts" that prove the exact opposite.
Now, I am not stupid enough to write off science completely; as a childhood sufferer of frequent bouts of tonsillitis, I know I'd be dead if it weren't for antibiotics and other scientific advances. But science is, after all, a human system, and as a human system it's subject to human foibles and fallibility. Indeed, we determine the outcomes of scientific investigations largely by the questions we choose to ask. Bad questions bring bad outcomes; better questions bring better ones.
So I'd like to suggest that one key to ending our water wars might be to learn to ask better questions. Instead of getting bogged down in statistics, how might our discussions be different if we chose, instead, to step back a bit and ask some bigger questions: What kind of life do we want for our children and grandchildren? How do we give a place at the conference table to the flora and fauna of ecosystems that will be affected by potential water withdrawals? Is water a commodity that should be sold for private gain, or a resource that everyone needs to survive? If water is a resource, what are the ethical implications of piping a resource away from one area and toward another? Why are we even talking about piping water if we aren't practicing massive conservation efforts first? Do any of us—business people, developers, private citizens—even want to live in a state without springs or healthy rivers?
And finally—given that Florida's rivers and springs are true wonders of the natural world, is it too much to ask that our citizens and businesses make some sacrifices in order to save them?
Last year, one of my Buddhist teachers, Khenpo Ugyen Tenzin, came to Gainesville to give a weekend seminar to the meditation group to which I belong. Over the course of the weekend, there was some discussion about environmental issues, so on the Sunday morning when I drove Khenpo-la into Gainesville for the teachings, I took him on a quick detour to see the small spring that's about five minutes from my house. He thanked me for taking him there, and told me that the place was "very unusual."
Later that day, I asked him to pray for our rivers and springs, and explained that they were threatened by the water bottlers. Khenpo-la asked me if I didn't think there was a legitimate need for bottled water. "Yes," I said, remembering how power goes out after a hurricane and how natural disasters and wars can make it impossible for people to get fresh water. "But if all the water is pumped away, then what will remain for the people who live along the river, and for the plants and animals that the river supports?"
Khenpo-la thought for a moment and then said, "I will pray, then, for an auspicious balance."