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.

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