Sunday, December 17, 2023

Breaking the Barriers to the Ichetucknee's Restoration, Part 2

Ichetucknee Head Spring (my photo)

I originally wrote this article for the website of the Ichetucknee Alliance when I was working for that nonprofit organization as their communications coordinator. The article has disappeared from the Alliance's website, so I am republishing it here.

The Barriers & Some Suggestions About How to Break Them (continued from part 1)

Barrier #4: State Funding Priorities. There are at least four large problems with state funding priorities. 

The first problem is that state funding is being wasted on ineffective projects that do not target major water users and major polluters. This is explained in the 2021-2022 Springs Funding Report by the Florida Springs Council (FSC) here:

Water management districts are either unable or unwilling to propose cost effective springs restoration projects that target the major sources of nutrient pollution. Springs funding is being wasted on ineffective projects, some of which are reported to have no benefit to spring water quality or flow. Legislation should be passed to allow other entities, like the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (DACS) and accredited land trusts, to directly submit project proposals to the Department of Environmental Protection for consideration for springs restoration funding. (from page 1 in FSC's report) 

Other excellent recommendations for change are listed in FSC’s report, including (from page 2), “Stop preempting local rules and ordinances to improve water quality and reverse previously passed state preemptions.”

The second problem is that state funding priorities neglect North Florida, which has a smaller population and therefore fewer voters than South Florida. South Florida always receives more state funding for water issues.

Barrier Breaker. Given that North Florida’s springs—the largest concentration of springs in the world—is a priceless treasure every bit as important ecologically as the Florida Everglades, funding for water issues should be evenly divided between the two halves of the state, not allocated on the basis of population. 

The third problem is that funding is usually allocated to fix problems rather than to prevent those problems from occurring. Lessons learned from Florida’s Everglades have made it abundantly clear that it is easier and cheaper to prevent problems than it is to fix them after they’ve occurred.

Barrier Breaker. The role of Florida’s water managers needs to be reframed legally and conceptually from “problem fixers” to “problem preventers.” 

The fourth problem is that state agencies mask ineffective actions to protect natural systems by claiming to spend large amounts of money on protection, while, at the same time, failing to take effective actions such as limiting water use and insisting that pollution be controlled at its source. 

Barrier Breakers. Floridians must realize that at their core, our water problems are political problems. Florida voters must insist upon effective actions by electing officials and representatives with strong histories of environmental advocacy and action—candidates who are willing to bring people together to agree that tough decisions are needed, who are willing to make those tough decisions, and who are able to lead by inspiring people to make the changes needed to manifest a new vision for living with Florida’s waters.

Barrier #5: Water Pricing. For rural residents on wells, water is free except for the cost to install and maintain the well and the power required to draw the water. There are no price incentives other than those costs for rural residents to conserve water, although urban and suburban residents on municipal water systems pay fees for their water.

Barrier Breaker: Tiered water pricing for all water users would address inequities in water pricing and encourage stronger efforts at water conservation.

Barrier #6: Lack of a Compelling Vision for the Health of Florida’s Natural Water Systems. It’s been said that if a foreign country were doing to our natural water systems what the State of Florida is allowing to happen to them, we’d be at war. That statement has the ring of truth when you consider that the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute has documented over 20 years of springs health declines; see especially pages 4 and 19 here: 

Barrier Breaker: Florida needs an overall vision to guide water management decisions and the ways we all live with water. We like this vision, below.

Realizing that the health of its people, economy and natural water systems are interconnected, Florida will restore, preserve and protect those natural water systems and will become an international model of wise water use.

What are your ideas for a new water vision for Florida?

Breaking the Barriers to the Ichetucknee's Restoration, Part 1

What a healthy spring should look like; photo of the Ichetucknee by Charles Dutoit in the 1980s.

I originally wrote this article for the website of the Ichetucknee Alliance when I was working for that nonprofit organization as their communications coordinator. The article has disappeared from the Alliance's website, so I am republishing it here.


Why hasn’t the Ichetucknee’s lost flow been restored yet? Why are the nitrates in the Ichetucknee higher than the state standard? Why is it so hard to get our state agencies to take effective action to restore, protect and preserve springs and spring runs like the Ichetucknee?

One of the answers to this question, of course, is that state legislators, agency administrators and staff are much more comfortable giving “the illusion of protection” than they are with making the tough decisions that are needed to stop pollution at the source and limit the amount of water that is being pumped from the Floridan aquifer. Taking such tough actions could alienate donors to political campaigns and is viewed as being “bad for business,” while the long-term costs of inaction and allowing our springs and aquifer to fail are ignored.

But there are other reasons for the state’s failure to act, reasons that we can find embedded in state and federal laws and in our own personal behaviors.

A list of some of these barriers to springs protection follows. (Some of you may remember the Alliance’s list of “Florida Water Sins” that was included in the older version of this website; several of those sins are mentioned in this article.)

Our intention is not to overwhelm you with the magnitude of these barriers, but to inspire you to action and advocacy.

If everyone who reads this article would choose to work on breaking even one or two of these barriers, we could build a groundswell of actions for the Ichetucknee and our other springs that could turn the “the illusion of protection” into actual protections.

Please read the following list with this question and vision in mind: Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could make Florida an international model of wise water use?

Put on your creative thinking caps! You might decide join forces with the Alliance, with another springs advocacy group, and/or with groups outside the “water choir” that are working on breaking down some of these barriers. Or you might invent a new water conservation technique or a way to stop pollution at its source. Be bold!

The Barriers & Some Suggestions About How to Break Them

Barrier #1: Apathy and feelings of powerlessness.

These days, it’s easy to become apathetic and to feel powerless to make change. We’re all busy, and working for change is hard and can be energy draining.

Barrier Breakers. Remember that people are motivated to save what they love.

Consider your feelings about the Ichetucknee—the springs, the river, the Floridan aquifer. Remember that the springs are the “canaries in a coal mine” that indicate potential problems with our water supply.

What has the Ichetucknee meant to you? What would it mean to you if it dried up? If your children couldn’t enjoy it the same way you have? What would it mean to you if the water from your tap was polluted, or if you turned on the tap and nothing came out? Do you care enough to get involved?

To inspire you, check out the many roles that the Ichetucknee has played in the lives of people in its surrounding communities:

Remember that the Ichetucknee is part of the Springs Heartland of Mother Earth—the largest concentration of freshwater springs on the planet, a unique, world-class natural system that is every bit as significant ecologically as Florida’s Everglades.

Barrier #2: Greed.

One of the reasons Florida’s lawmakers balk at effective actions to protect springs systems like the Ichetucknee is because they are beholden to special interest donors who could withhold political campaign contributions if they think springs protection will hurt them financially. One of the reasons businesses balk at changing their practices to help our springs and rivers is because they think that doing so will cause them to lose money.

Barrier Breakers. Think about water and natural water systems as a common interest, not a special interest. Do you think special interests should take priority over common interests? Are the profits of a few more important than the wellbeing of the many? Wouldn’t businesses that choose to “do right” by our springs and rivers reap financial rewards from a grateful public?

What if the Ichetucknee had the legal rights to exist, to flow, and to thrive? Could that create a legal balance with special interests where no balance currently exists? Consider supporting efforts to grant legal rights to natural water systems and/or working with groups that are trying to get big money out of political campaigns, so our elected representatives will no longer be owned by special interests.

Learn more about efforts to grant legal rights to natural water systems:

Do an Internet search for “end Citizens United” to learn how people are working to overturn that Supreme Court decision. Search “getting big money out of politics” to learn how and why we should create a more democratic (note lower case “d”) society.

Barrier #3: Ignorance & Myths.

Many Floridians don’t understand the basic concepts that are important for restoring, protecting and preserving the Ichetucknee. That lack of understanding isn’t their fault; it’s simply that many Florida residents came here from somewhere else or that these basic concepts are not usually part of the standard K-12 education. People who saw our springs for the first time in the mid-20th century know what we have lost; people who see the springs for the first time today have a completely different baseline from which to view springs conditions.

Barrier Breakers. Education is the best antidote for ignorance, and these shifting baselines demonstrate the need for more education about Florida’s hydrological cycle and the changing conditions of our springs. Here’s some helpful information for you to share with friends and family members.

To learn about Florida’s hydrological cycle, see:

To learn who makes water decisions that affect our springs and how those decisions are made, watch The Ichetucknee – Tomorrow:

Included under the heading of “Ignorance” are several prominent myths that create barriers to the restoration, preservation and protection of our springs.

 Myth #1: The Myth of an Infinite Water Supply 

 First is the Myth of an Infinite Water Supply, but the amount of freshwater available to us is finite. See: 

 Embedding a strong water conservation ethic in Florida’s society could help to debunk this myth. For that effort to be successful, state agencies, local and state governments and springs advocacy groups should collaborate with each other (so that the public gets consistent messages) and with public relations and advertising experts to develop creative campaigns to educate people, encourage water conservation and inspire innovations in that area. 

Myth #2: The Myth of Legal Protections 

The second prominent myth is the Myth of Legal Protections that enables our state agencies to create the “illusion of protection” even while our current laws actually permit harm to our springs. The things that our state agencies tout as providing springs protections—the “alphabet soup” of agricultural Best Management Practices (BMPs), Basin Management Action Plans (BMAPs), Minimum Flows and Levels (MFLs), and Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs)—have proven to be ineffective. For just one example, see the Florida Springs Council’s report about how long it will take the State of Florida to clean up our Outstanding Florida Springs (hint: 191 years for the Lower Santa Fe and Ichetucknee rivers, based on projects proposed in 2021-2022): 

 Additionally, federal laws make it impossible to prevent pollution that’s produced by non-point sources such as agricultural operations because non-point sources are unregulated.

To learn more about how federal laws hamstring springs restoration, preservation and protection efforts, read the lead article (“Is It Really Illegal to Create the Community You Envision?”) here: 

The Myth of Legal Protections also masks several other severe problems that create barriers to springs protection:

  • Absence of accountability for state agencies means there are no penalties for pollution or lost spring flow.
  • State agencies fail to enforce Florida’s water laws.
  • State agencies rely on inaccurate water models for decision-making. Those models do not account for the unique ways that water moves through the underground limestone aquifer.
  • The effects of regional water usage (ex: in South Georgia) are beyond the control of local and state officials.
  • State water laws mention “public trust” as a factor that must be considered in water use decisions, but Florida has never defined what “public trust” means.
  • Failure to adopt the Precautionary Principle, which recommends taking the most conservative course of action that causes the least amount of environmental harm when scientists disagree about the sources of that harm.

What could bust the Myth of Legal Protections? Should the directors of the water management districts and the secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection be elected instead of appointed by the governor? Should we take care to elect governors who have a history of solid environmental stewardship? Should a higher priority be placed on and should more money be allocated to enforcement of water laws? What could be done to improve regional water models used to make water management decisions? Could “public trust” be encoded in water law to enable Florida’s waters to be managed conservatively, similar to the ways a financial trust fund should be managed? Should Florida encode the Precautionary Principle in its environmental laws?

What ideas do you have?

Myth #3: The Myth of the Environment Versus the Economy 

The Myth of the Environment Versus the Economy advances the view that preventing or fixing environmental problems costs too much money and that environmental regulations are bad for business. 

 What such arguments fail to take into account, of course, are the long-term costs of environmental destruction and the fact that the health of people, business, and the economy are all directly tied to the health of the environment. The kind of short-term thinking on the part of the public, public officials, elected representatives and business owners that is demonstrated by this myth is what is causing damage to springs and river systems like the Ichetucknee.

We need to understand and acknowledge that no one wants to live or do business in areas where the environment is trashed and there are problems with the water supply. And we know that the cost of fixing problems is more expensive than the cost of preventing problems. The Myth of the Environment Versus the Economy is easily debunked when you realize that in Florida, where tourism is our biggest industry, our environment is our economy. Having a reputation for a clean, beautiful environment is how Florida attracts businesses and tourists from throughout the USA and from the rest of the world.

 (continued in part 2)

Tuesday, August 8, 2023

Hints About Communications from the FACETS Project

Ichetucknee River in Winter


These "hints" are lifted from the communications research performed as part of the University of Florida Water Institute's USDA-funded project to create a new water model for North Florida and South Georgia, the Floridan Aquifer Collaborative Engagement for Sustainability (FACETS). I offer this information in case it is helpful to agriculturalists (aka "producers") and springs advocates as we try to navigate our way to healthier springs and a healthier aquifer. Information in bold italic type indicates my emphases.


Agriculturalists and environmentalists have similar values and interests, but view agriculture differently. 

Similarities include: 
• Connection to nature
• High perceived risk to ground and surface water
• Prioritization of water for crops and ecosystems 

Differences include:
• The way they interact with water
• “Agriculture is part of the problem” vs. “Agriculture is part of the solution”

It’s not just about science—it’s about values!
The public:
• Has limited water knowledge
• May not believe water scientists
• Follows their values to policy preferences

Strategic communication can increase support for sustainable water action by:

• Reducing false conflict 
    o End the blame game
    o Create opportunities to experience alternative perspectives
    o Use language that builds shared understanding


• Supporting value-based discourse
    o Reveal shared values
    o Employ messages and messengers with value resonance

(A Word Witch notes mention in the research findings about the importance of an agreed-upon water ethic: “Communication and collaboration on sustainability measures can be impeded by perceptions of incompatible water ethics.” How can we move toward a water ethic for Florida that is shared by springs advocates, producers, and urban and suburban dwellers?)

Summary of “A Co-orientation Analysis of Producers’ and Environmentalists’ Mental Models of Water Issues: Opportunities for Improved Communication and Collaboration”, Sadie Hundemer & Martha C. Monroe, Environmental Communication, 2020

(A Word Witch compiled the following summary for the Ichetucknee Alliance in December 2022. I take responsibility for any errors herein. Emphases in bold italics are mine.) 

• Communication and collaboration on sustainability measures can be impeded by perceptions of incompatible water ethics. 
• Agricultural producers tend to think about the individual stewardship practices they engage in on their land. Environmentalists tend to think about collective agricultural impacts on the environment.
• When collective agricultural impact does not reflect individual stewardship efforts, producers and environmentalists can have strikingly different perceptions of problems. Those perceptions create barriers to cross-group communications.
• Research findings suggest frames, topics and word choices that can help communicators bridge the divides between producers and environmentalists. 

• Some environmentalists perceive producers as indifferent toward regional water conditions.
• Producers, however, are concerned about the environment and see themselves as stewards of the land—so they can see themselves as being unduly blamed by environmentalists for placing personal interests above environmental protection.
• These different perceptions create a delicate communication environment in which good intentions are undone by unintended message interpretations.

Stakeholder Land Ethics
• A land ethic is a moral code of conduct for interaction between humans and the natural world, and the nature of producers’ and environmentalists’ roles lead them to interact with land and water in different ways.
• Producers have utilitarian relationships with natural resources while environmentalists are concerned about environmental challenges.
• Utilitarian use of resources and conservation of those resources are not opposites and are not mutually exclusive.
• One study found that 48% (almost half) of farmers were willing to pay for innovations that reduce water pollution even if those innovations would not increase their incomes.
• That same study found that 80% of farmers would not invest in new technology that pollutes water.
• In many cases, producers do not view conservation and profit as alternatives but instead as mutually reinforcing goals.
• American history reveals the ideas of competing land ethics that pervades national lore and shapes narratives on what constitutes ethical agricultural land use.
• The first ethic derives from Thomas Jefferson’s early vision of America as a land of virtuous farmers and portrays producers as land stewards.
• The second ethic portrays producers as maximizing the utility of the land for the benefit of human beings.
• This creates a “two-faceted romanticism” of farmers as both custodians and conquerors. These mixed portrayals affect how farmers see themselves.
• Since the moral foundations of environmentalists are predominantly set in the ethic of stewardship, agricultural decisions that are morally acceptable under the utilitarian land ethic may not be perceived as moral by environmentalists.
• Producers and environmentalists, however, have substantial shared interests. 
• Natural resources communication can be better structured to promote cooperation and collaboration by framing issues and interventions in ways that resonate across all audiences.

(A Word Witch wonders: Could we communicate better if we switched our focus from springs to the aquifer? Or made sure to include the aquifer as our overarching concern?) 

Research questions
1. To what extent do producers and environmentalists perceive commonalities in their views on water issues?
2. How do producers and environmentalists differ in their views of regional water issues?
3. How do producers and environmentalists differ in their mental models of regional water issues? 
Results: Research question #1, Perceptions of shared views on water issues 1. To what extent do producers and environmentalists perceive commonalities in their views on water issues? 
• The greatest dissimilarity of views was reported by responding producers when comparing their views on water issues with the views of environmentalists.
• Among sampled environmentalists, an increase in interaction with producers was associated with an increase in the perception of shared ideas on water—but a similar change was not observed among sampled producers.
• Sampled producers expressed perceptions that others do not recognize them as good stewards of the land, that economics is not taken into account by others, and that environmentalists’ positions are extreme.
• Sampled environmentalists expressed perceptions that producers prioritize their operations above the environment and questioned the appropriateness of certain types of agriculture in the region.
• Within this particular research sample, producers perceived substantial differences between their perspectives on water issues and those of environmentalists, but environmentalists did not perceive the same disparity.
• Producers’ perceptions of shared ideas did not significantly change across interaction levels with environmentalists. Stated differences included attributions of blame and conflicting perspectives on producers’ prioritization of stewardship.

Results: Research question #2, Comparison of producers’ and environmentalists’ views on water issues 2. How do producers and environmentalists differ in their views of regional water issues? 
• Both groups expressed high levels of concern for the quality and quantity of surface and ground water and placed high priority on the allocation of water for crop irrigation and water body protection (springs, rivers, and wetlands) with relatively low priority placed on water for urban areas.
• Sampled environmentalists perceived greater threats than did sampled producers.
• One of the producers’ comments about things on which they disagree with other stakeholder groups reads, “We vs. they mentality.”
• Producers and stakeholders agree that regional water sources call for concern and agree on how limited water supplies should be prioritized.
• Producers and environmentalists disagree on how much agriculture contributes to water problems.

Results: Research question #3, Mental model analysis 3. How do producers and environmentalists differ in their mental models of regional water issues? 
• There is a strong basis for collaboration on mutual water goals; however, this potential is constrained by conflicting perceptions of agriculture’s impact.
• Producers’ views of the water-economic system are predominantly shaped by operational interactions related to agricultural production.
• Environmentalists’ perspectives on that system are shaped by their experiences with assessing and advocating for environmental health.
• When considering relationships between water and the regional economy, environmentalists think of overarching problems rather than functional domains.
• Sampled producers’ dominant perspectives on the water-economy relationship are micro-level and agriculture-oriented.
• Sampled environmentalists’ dominant perspectives are macro-level and issue oriented.
• In interactions between the two groups, individual behavior may be confounded with collective impact. Farmers and ranchers may be confounded with agricultural industry.
• Since the negative impacts of crop production are consequences of scale, it is possible for individual producers to be good stewards AND for agriculture as an industry to be detrimental to water quality and quantity. When this distinction is not clarified, cross-group tensions can rise and stymie sustainability efforts.
• That communications error can be made by both environmentalists and producers. Environmentalists can inappropriately hold individual producers responsible for problems of the agricultural industry and producers can inaccurately perceive critiques of that industry as personal attacks. 

Term associations
• The use of specific terms can unintentionally spur miscommunication or even division among stakeholders and stakeholder groups.
• Different stakeholder groups assign different priorities to types of risks.
• Communicators should realize that prime producers are most concerned with risks to their operations, while environmentalists are most concerned with risks associated with regional tradeoffs and decision-making choices.
• To advance toward consensus, communicators need to be aware of the diversity of cognitive domains activated by word choices (“framing”) and address each frame of reference to increase stakeholder recognition of alternative viewpoints.

Term inclusion percentages
The paper includes a table of terms that had the largest selection differences between sampled producers and environmentalists. These findings provide communicators with fertile ground for expanding stakeholders’ understanding of the regional water situation while simultaneously building awareness of others’ points of view.

Producer-favored terms (“Ag language”) included: 
• Risk management
• Pasture
• Allied agricultural industry
• Precision agriculture
• Choices
• Education
• Cost sharing
• Crop yield
• Jobs
• Payments

Environmentalist-favored terms (“Springs health language”) included: 
• Climate change
• Septic tanks
• Regional economy
• Agricultural water use permits
• Ecotourism
• Ecosystem health
• Land-use change
• Lawn fertilizer
• Climate variation
• Endangered species
• Water treatment 

• Both producers and environmentalists agree that water sustainability is important.
• There are important differences between the groups, primarily about the degree to which agriculture is perceived as a stress on regional water resources.
• The differences stem at least in part from the nature of each group’s interaction with natural resources. Producers interact with water as agricultural input. Environmentalists interact with water as receiving the collective impacts of agriculture and other systems.
• The implications of disparate mental models of agriculture can cause the agricultural industry’s impact to be confounded with the actions of individual producers, resulting in a sense of blame that intrudes on communication and collaboration toward mutually beneficial water sustainability objectives.
• The authors cite the “sense of blame” problem as being previously identified in a Chesapeake Bay Region study. (What if we framed "sense of blame" as "sense of responsibility"?)
• By developing representations of agricultural production that are closer to the nuances of reality, and which distinguish between the actions of producers and the impacts of agriculture, natural resources professionals can improve cross-group perceptions and thereby foster collaboration toward mutual sustainability goals. Doing so requires awareness of the different mental models that are operational in different groups.
The mental models (“cognitive predisposition”) of communicators are just as important as the mental models of producers and environmentalists! Through examination of the perspectives of others, communicators can reflect on their own mental models and consider how their perspectives shape the conversation to the benefit or detriment of natural resources sustainability.

Limitations and future research 
• This was a regional study; therefore, the ability to generalize from its findings is limited. Broader scale conclusions would require studies conducted in other locations.
• The people involved in this study included participants in a water sustainability participatory modeling project and were therefore inclined toward cross-group collaboration. 

Sunday, July 23, 2023

What If...? (Part 2)

Blue Hole Spring on the Ichetucknee River

“What if…?” My report on the six years I served as a water defender on the University of Florida Water Institute’s FACETS project (continued from Part 1)
July 23, 2023

The Product

To create this new model, the project team worked with two existing models, SWAT and MODFLOW. One of the modelers explained that instead of functioning as a steady-state model, in which underground water is assumed to move at a constant rate of speed, the FACETS model would function as a transient model that assumed underground water moves at different rates. This is an important shift from steady-state water models since dye trace studies have shown wide variations in the rates of movement of underground water. Those rates depend upon the size of conduits in the Floridan aquifer through which the water must travel.

The summary of key findings from the Florida regional scenarios that the project team conveyed to stakeholders at the last in-person meeting on June 29, 2023, was as follows. In the list below, “Mix-n-Match” refers to a combination of different techniques (including use of BMPs, controlled release fertilizer, changes in crop types and management systems that include controlled release fertilizer and sod based rotations, etc.) that could be applied to specific springsheds or springs Priority Focus Areas. The key findings were:

• Conversion to low-density longleaf has best potential to increase flows and decrease nitrate concentrations.
• “Hi Tech CRF” (Controlled Release Fertilizer) reduces row crop N load by 68%, total load by 20%.
• Mix-n-Match provides environmental and economic benefits (win-win).
• All scenarios meet minimum flows; none meets nutrient criteria.
• “Realistic” scenarios don’t move the needle on nitrogen much.
• Economic changes are uneven across sector and region; rural counties more highly impacted by decreases in agriculture and forestry.

All members of the stakeholder group agreed that while one of the key messages of the FACETS project is that there is no one “magic bullet” that can save both agriculture and the springs, there are new agricultural developments that can move the needle in the desired directions of higher recharge and lower pollution.

The FACETS team stated from the beginning of the project that it was not their intention to use the project’s results to make state-level policy recommendations. Through the project’s educational component, however, the team will be letting policymakers and elected officials know about the results of this research. The hope is that those results can be used to inform the development of new public policies.

Once the project team members have completed their final reports on the project, the FACETS water model will be available to others by request. Employees of the Suwannee River Water Management District have already expressed interest in examining the model, although they cautioned everyone not to confuse the FACETS model with the water model used to set regulatory standards for the region’s Minimum Flows and Levels (MFLs).

The Promise

I see nothing in the project results to indicate that the dual goals of promoting “economic sustainability of agriculture and silviculture in North Florida and South Georgia while protecting water quantity, quality and habitat in the Upper Floridan Aquifer and the springs and rivers it feeds” are achievable. FACETS has, however, encouraged me by demonstrating that it is possible for people with very different opinions and interests to work together toward common goals—a big accomplishment in today’s atmosphere of polarization and “us vs. them.”

The FACETS project team was focused not only on the scientific issues involved with creating a new water model, but also on how the stakeholders from different groups (agriculture, public policy, state agency and environmentalists) communicated with each other throughout the six years of the project. Because my background is in social science, this communications research was what I was most interested in. Below are some of the conclusions about communications that were shared by the project team in their presentations at the final FACETS meeting.

1. Producers and environmentalists have similar values and interests, but view agriculture differently. Similar values and interests include connections to nature, a high-perceived risk to ground and surface water, and the need to prioritize water for crops and ecosystems. Differences include the ways producers and environmentalists interact with water and whether they view agriculture as part of the problem or part of the solution.

2. The public’s views about human relationships with water and water use are not just based on science but also on personal values. Members of the public have limited water knowledge, may not necessarily believe water scientists, and follow their values to policy preferences.

3. Strategic communication can increase support for sustainable water action by reducing false conflict and supporting value-based discussions. Strategic communication can help to end the blame game, create opportunities to experience alternative perspectives, and emphasize language that builds shared understandings. Strategic communication can also support value-based discussions by revealing shared values and employing messages and messengers to convey resonating values.

I’m planning to take a deeper dive into this communications research to lift out some ideas that might be helpful for water defenders. I have been encouraged, however, that the FACETS communications research has supported some positions for which I’ve long advocated—that water defenders need to see growers as part of the solution instead of part of the problem, that values—aka the human dimension—are just as important a factor as science in developing solutions to our water problems, and that education about those problems should include education about how we communicate as well as about what we communicate.

Because we all exist in relationship with water, how we define and value those relationships is the proper ground upon which many of our water-related discussions should be taking place. Science, in this case, may be secondary in importance to human values.

Conclusions and What-Ifs

Here are my conclusions at the end of this six-year project.

FACETS was successful in creating a water model that could be used to analyze how different land uses, crop types and crop management systems might benefit aquifer recharge, flow and pollution prevention in specific springsheds and spring Priority Focus Areas.

Nothing in the FACETS data convinced me that it will be possible to have both sustainable agriculture and springs restoration and preservation here in North Florida. As many of the stakeholder participants agreed, nothing in the FACETS data is “a magic bullet.”

The FACETS communications research is fascinating and carries important implications for public education as well as for communication among and between different stakeholder groups.

Here are my what-ifs.

What if conversations between different groups began with a discussion of values that led into discussions of scientific data, rather than starting with scientific data and ignoring values?

What if different groups could use the FACETS communications research to guide their conversations with each other?

What if we all stepped back from our entrenched positions, agreed to ditch “us vs. them” thinking, and assumed that both agriculturalists and water defenders are part of the solution instead of part of the problem?

What if agriculturalists and water defenders could collaborate on a public educational campaign to speak with one voice about the importance of water conservation and pollution prevention?

What if agriculturalists, state agency and public policy representatives, and water defenders could come together in facilitated discussions to create and publicize a workable water ethic for individual householders, business owners, local governments and growers?

What if the water modelers on the project team could collaborate with the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute to analyze and, if necessary, revise springs restoration plans by applying the FACETS water model to specific springsheds? Would that change the restoration plans and if so, how?

What if we could all learn to understand and respect the interconnections we share with the Floridan aquifer, with the springs, with agriculture and forestry, with public policy, and with each other? How could that understanding and respect change our work and our lives?

I am not naive enough to think that these "What ifs" would lead all water users to link hands around a campfire and sing "Kumbaya." What I do think is that what we water defenders have done so far has not made a difference for our springs and rivers; we keep doing the same things over and over and expecting different results. My point is that we need to try some new approaches to solving our water problems, and we need to be working with the people who may be in very good positions to help us do that--because there are no solutions, short of increased housing and commercial development (which are no solutions at all!), without our farmers, ranchers and foresters.

I’ll close with one of my favorite Chinese proverbs: When you drink water, remember the spring.

Here in North Florida, maybe we should revise that to read: When you use water, remember the aquifer.

What if...? (Part 1)

Ichetucknee Head Spring

“What if…?” My report on the six years I served as a water defender on the University of Florida Water Institute’s FACETS project, Part 1
July 23, 2023

What if I told you that agriculturalists and foresters, state agency and public policy people, and springs and environmental defenders all agree that there are serious problems with groundwater in the Floridan aquifer here in the Springs Heartland, and that we should be working together to find solutions to those problems? 

Would you believe me? Or has there already been so much “us vs. them/fighting” rhetoric that you think the people in those groups will never be able to agree on anything? Never even be able to have open and honest conversations?

Based on reams of evidence in news reports and messaging by the various groups I mentioned, I wouldn’t blame you if you came to those hopeless conclusions. For the 10 years I worked as communications coordinator for the nonprofit Ichetucknee Alliance (IA), however, my intuition kept telling me that if aquifer- and springs-related conversations could be held in private, outside of public forums, some surprising things might be revealed.

I had a gut feeling that many of the people the springs advocates had identified as foes actually love our springs as much as we water defenders do, and that those seemingly at-odds groups should be trying to find new ways to communicate with each other.

During the six years I spent as a stakeholder on the Floridan Aquifer Collaborative Engagement for Sustainability (FACETS) project run by the University of Florida’s Water Institute, I discovered that my intuition was right.

And although several water defenders have suggested that instead of using water models to make decisions about water use permits, Minimum Flows and Levels (MFLs), etc., the State of Florida should be using actual water data, I decided to maintain a shared focus on a water model with the FACETS group for the purposes of what I hoped could be productive conversations.

The Project

In 2017, I received an invitation from the UF Water Institute to represent the Ichetucknee Alliance as a stakeholder on a new project to create a mathematical water model for the Santa Fe River region in North Florida and the Flint River region in South Georgia. FACETS was designed to be a five-year project that would gather information from agriculturalists, foresters, state agency representatives, public policy experts and environmentalists in support of the creation of that water model. The model would include information about different crop types and crop management systems to analyze their effects and the effects of land use changes on spring flow, nitrate pollution, and impacts on the local economy.

The project was funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) National Institute for Food and Agriculture and included participation by the University of Georgia, Auburn University and Albany State University (part of the Georgia State University system) in addition to the University of Florida. The ambitious vision for FACETS was to “promote economic sustainability of agriculture and silviculture in North Florida and South Georgia while protecting water quantity, quality and habitat in the Upper Floridan Aquifer and the springs and rivers it feeds.”

I wondered at the outset whether that was an achievable goal and since I would be representing the Ichetucknee Alliance on the project, I asked members of IA’s board of directors and advisory board for advice about whether to accept the invitation.

The people I communicated with were not enthusiastic. They saw FACETS as “just another exercise in tradeoffs” and wondered how I could communicate about the project if I disagreed with its findings.

My gut kept telling me to say yes, however, since I had long wanted to have some contact with agriculturalists outside of public forums. Since I usually regret it when I ignore my intuition, I accepted the invitation to represent IA as a stakeholder.

Based on the feedback I had received from IA’s directors and advisors, though, I resolved to write my own report about FACETS when the project ended.

The Process

FACETS turned out to be a six-year instead of five-year project when it was disrupted by the COVID pandemic in 2020 and in-person meetings were shifted to the Zoom online platform.

Much credit for the work on this Participatory Modeling Project (PMP) must go to the FACETS facilitators, who made sure all stakeholders’ voices were heard and all comments and questions were respected. I had observed a couple of stakeholder meetings during a different facilitated water-modeling project several years before FACETS. On that previous project, it was obvious to me and to many other people that the facilitators were leading stakeholders to desired conclusions. Facilitation during the FACETS project was the polar opposite of that sham process.

FACETS began at the field “Parcel Scale” by interpreting agricultural Best Management Practices (BMP) field trial results and collecting detailed information from growers to develop the part of the model that focused on different crop management systems. The modelers wanted that information to correspond as closely as possible to current agricultural and forestry practices. The crops and crop rotations considered for the Florida part of the project included corn-peanut, corn-carrot-peanut, Bermuda hay and pasture, and slash, loblolly and longleaf pine—including restoration longleaf pine as a “bookend” to the expansion of current agricultural practices. Not all crops grown in the Santa Fe River region of North Florida were included, likely because of funding limitations.

Development of the Parcel Scale part of the model was a lengthy, labor-intensive process that involved a lot of back-and-forth communication between the project team members and growers to ensure that the model used accurate information.

After interpreting the Parcel Scale results, the project team began creating the part of the water model that could be used on a Regional Scale to evaluate the effects of specific crop rotations and crop management systems on stream flow, nitrate pollution and regional economics. For the Regional Scale, stakeholders worked in tandem with the project team to develop nine scenarios that the modelers used to highlight flow, pollution and economic tradeoffs:

1. Restoration Forestry-High (a bookend)
2. Restoration Forestry-Low
3. Mix & Match (combination of different scenarios)
4. Solar Farm Expansion
5. High-Tech Controlled Release Fertilizer (CRF) Adoption
6. Sod Based Rotation (SBR) Adoption
7. Current Conditions
8. Urban
9. Agricultural Expansion (a bookend)

It became obvious during the Regional Scale discussions that the restoration (low-density) longleaf pine scenario resulted in the lowest leaching and highest recharge, which—not surprisingly!—led to quite a few discussions about how “realistic” that scenario was, since it led to regional economic losses and since many FACETS participants could not envision agriculturalists deciding to switch from row crops to longleaf pine. This “realistic” bone of contention might have also been prompted by the fact that several water defenders have publicly advocated for mass switches from row crops to longleaf pine.

One key member of the project team pointed out that the concepts of what was “realistic” were based entirely on the economic conditions that currently exist, not on how those conditions might change in the future.

I pointed out that a missing piece of the economic puzzle was a failure to include the economic impact of springs- and river-based recreation; again, this omission was likely due to funding issues.

In terms of what is “realistic,” I asked the stakeholder group and project team: How “realistic” is it to keep depleting and polluting the Floridan aquifer that feeds our springs and provides our drinking water?

One thing I learned that surprised me during the process of creating the model is that not all forestry crop types are equal with regard to pollution prevention and aquifer recharge—what matters, instead, is which pine trees are grown and how those tree crops are managed.

(to be continued in Part 2)

Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Keeping Faith with a River: "Florida’s Santa Fe River and Springs: An Environmental and Cultural History" by Robert L. Knight

The following is a review that I wrote for Bob Knight's 2022 book about the Santa Fe River, reprinted here since I think it's disappeared from where I originally posted it. Bob is the executive director of the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute, Florida's only politically independent nonprofit organization dedicated to research on and education about our freshwater springs--a worthy organization that deserves the support of every springs lover.

Browsing my copy of Bob Knight’s new book about the Santa Fe River Springs (that’s what he once told me that this whole system could be called), I found this on the back cover: 


Florida’s Santa Fe River and springs are as old as the earth; sacred as creation; home to the First Floridians and the megafauna they lived with; a natural escape from urban madness; beloved by those lucky enough to know it; but not pristine.

As with all of Florida’s natural waters, the Santa Fe is suffering under human dominium; protected by law but not safe from harm; and waiting patiently to escape the yoke of human possession.

We must restore and protect the Santa Fe.

This isn’t an ode in the poetic sense of that word, but it is Knight waxing poetic—“as old as the earth,” maybe not quite, but old indeed. “Sacred as creation” certainly, since so many of us acknowledge the sacred quality of our freshwater springs. Definitely “a natural escape from urban madness” as the thousands of canoers, kayakers, swimmers, floaters and even hard-core partiers know when they visit the river, especially in the summers. “Beloved by those lucky enough to know it” as more and more of us now know the river year-round, through winter, spring, summer and fall. “But not pristine”—there’s a chilling conclusion to that first paragraph.

I thought Knight had confused the word “dominium” with “dominion,” but then I looked up “dominium” and discovered he’s right. That word is, according to the dictionary on my computer, a legal term that means “absolute ownership and control of property.” Dominium, it turns out, points straight at the problem that the Santa Fe, like so many of Florida’s rivers and springs, is experiencing—the control of ecosystems by human beings whose rights carry more weight in our courts of law than the rights of those natural systems to exist and to thrive. But I digress.

Knight’s book has something for everyone, whether you live near the Santa Fe River, visit it regularly or only on occasion; whether you’re interested in prehistory, recorded history, anthropology, or archaeology; whether you’re interested in geology or hydrology; and whether you care about if and how the river and springs have been damaged and how they might be saved.

The book is full of scientific and cultural information, all peppered with visual images—photos of archaeological finds, images of fascinating old maps, current images of the springs and the river and even a table that shows the nitrate concentrations in popular brands of bottled spring water (that water may not be as “pure” as you think it is).

There are sections that deal with the sabre-tooth cats, mammoths and mastodons that existed when the land we call “Florida” looked very different than it does today. There are sections on the PaleoIndians, later Native American cultures, the arrival of Europeans, and the development and evolution of agricultural techniques in the Santa Fe Basin. And yes, you’ll learn what a “basin” is and what a “springshed” is, if you don’t already know.

I marked quite a few “Did you know…” quotes that surprised me; here’s a brief sample.

• “Florida’s basement rocks include volcanic and sedimentary rocks most similar to those under…Senegal, Africa.”
• Hernando de Soto crossed the Santa Fe and, not surprisingly, had some violent encounters with the Native Americans; the Spanish chroniclers of those early explorations dubbed the Santa Fe “the river of discords.”
• The town of Worthington Springs was once a tourist destination that advertised the medicinal qualities of the spring it is named for, with a resort hotel, dance pavilion, and bathhouse.
• “Fort White was built in 1837 and was considered the ‘head of navigation for steamboats in the Santa Fe River.’”
• “The 2020 estimate for nature-based recreation in Florida is more than $20 billion each year, compared to $2 billion for forestry and agriculture.”

I had to laugh out loud when I saw the photo that illustrates “challenging travel” on page 102. In the photo, three people are trying to unstick an ancient automobile that’s mired in the mud near the river. I laughed because the same thing happened to me—I once sank my 1968 VW “bug” in the mud near Ginnie Springs, on my way to an overnight campout. Luckily there were some strong male students in that group who heard my calls for help, came over, and simply lifted the car out of the mud! But I digress. Again. (Yes, I have a personal history with this river and its springs.)

For all the fascinating information that Knight includes, however, what really strikes me is when his writing moves from factual into inspirational territory—because I think inspiration is going to be one of the keys to saving the Santa Fe.

Here, following a paragraph on how Florida’s ancient ecosystem supported now-extinct horses, buffalo, dire wolves and sabre-tooth cats, along with a plethora of other giant animals or “megafauna,” Knight writes from the heart:

Clean rivers—no nutrients or hazardous pollution. Flowing springs—no groundwater wells. Extensive wetlands untouched by dredging and filling. No dams, no clearing for pavement and permanent dwellings, no mines, no factories. No air pollution. No plastics. Just Mother Nature in her sublime and terrible innocence.

“Sublime and terrible innocence.” I could contemplate that phrase for hours.

At the beginning of the book, Knight writes, “Everyone needs a place of refuge.” It’s clear that the Santa Fe River has been that place for him. His quote reminds me of what another Florida writer, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, wrote about her home in Cross Creek: ““I do not understand how anyone can live without some small place of enchantment to turn to.” Yes, Florida works her strange magic on those who understand it and, thankfully, can communicate it.

I also loved this description of the Santa Fe River Springs that Knight included:

One canoe guide compared the aerial view of the uncovered springs to the opening of a series of blue eyes. With springs in their pristine condition dotting the length of the tannic Santa Fe River, these blue eyes would have appeared to a migrating bird as a series of blue sapphires along a black onyx necklace. 

Blue sapphires along a black onyx necklace! The jewelry lover in me resonates with this image, big-time.

And of course—as you would expect from his work as the founder, lead scientist and executive director of the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute (FSI)—Knight has a lot to say about why and how the springs and river are threatened and what needs to be done to correct those problems. If you’re reading this review, you either already know what those problems are or you need to spend some time on FSI’s website to educate yourself, because I want to focus on Knight’s recommendations about what needs to happen to save the Santa Fe River Springs.

Here is what Knight thinks our state agencies ought to be doing much more effectively than they are, to the point where most if not all of us are going to have to change our behaviors and our relationships with water:

• Targeting groundwater and spring flow reduction goals. • Targeting the quality of ground and surface waters.
• Targeting human use carrying capacities in the springs and on the river.
• Emphasizing a holistic, springshed-focused approach to solving problems.
• Continuously monitoring the amount of pumping from the Floridan aquifer.
• Creating a groundwater extraction fee.
• Creating a tax on nitrogen loading.
• Exploring ways to compensate agriculturalists for converting to lower value, unfertilized crops.

The big question, of course, is could any of these things happen given Florida’s current political climate? While that answer may be “No,” Knight hints but doesn’t delve into what could be another approach—development and encouragement of a water ethic that could be adopted by people willingly, without government intervention, if they cared enough to understand how such an ethic might save the Santa Fe.

“It appears ironic that Floridians stress so much about hurricanes and flooding—natural disasters that we have little or no responsibility for or control,” Knight also writes. “And yet, lower aquifer levels and salt water intrusion are dire problems that humans could minimize substantially with the widespread adoption of a water ethic.”

When discussing population and industrial growth, Knight hints again at the idea of a water ethic: “Perhaps this desecration was inevitable because of the pioneer mentality of Florida’s European occupiers and the lack of an appropriate cultural ethos for maintaining environmental harmony and sustainability.”

And yet, Knight remains hopeful even though he’s documented in detail the harm that we humans have caused to the Santa Fe River Springs.

Many millions of people have walked these lands before us. And many more will follow down the same paths. The future of the Santa Fe River and its indigenous biota is murky. But it is our generation’s responsibility to give the living river a better future than what the recent past has given us.

“Santa Fe” means “holy faith” in Spanish so this book’s title reminds me of a popular saying back in the 1960s, “Keep the faith.” Knight has kept faith with the river by writing this book.

If you feel called to do more to “keep the faith” with the river after reading the book, then please ask yourself, “What can I do?”

“Florida’s Santa Fe River and Springs” is published by the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute, High Springs, Florida, © 2022 (ISBN 9-781936-63407-1), and is available here:

Important information about the Ichetucknee River System is included in the book, particularly on page 154.


Sunday, July 16, 2023

Springs Advocacy: We’re Doing It Wrong

Since early 2011, I’ve been involved with many well-intentioned, caring people who are trying to save Florida’s freshwater springs—the largest such concentration of springs in the world. During that time, the conditions in our springs have not improved; instead, they’ve gotten worse.

What we’ve been doing isn’t working.

We thought if we could “raise awareness” and “educate people” that would help. It hasn’t.

We thought if we could “fight the permits” and bad actions by the State of Florida’s water managers that would improve things. It hasn’t.

We thought if we used the tried and true advocacy techniques of the past, those techniques would be effective. They aren't. They don't work when political and public policy decisions are made by people who only care about money, power and control.

What all of these efforts are lacking, and what the State of Florida is lacking, is a vision for the future of Florida’s springs and other waters.

Instead of articulating a new vision, what we’ve done is to reinforce what retired UC Berkeley Linguistics Professor George Lakoff calls “the frame” of business-as-usual for water decisions in Florida, and what the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (then managed by Thomas Linzey and Mari Margil, now with the Center for Democratic & Environmental Rights) identified as the “regulatory triangle.” That triangular decision-making framework kept us from focusing on the big problems that are causing springs to decline and forced us down a rabbit hole from which we can only nitpick at small aspects of those problems from well outside established power structures.

Or, as one of my early mentors on Florida water issues explained, “It’s like we’re behind a big dump truck that’s shoveling trash and we keep trying to clean it up. Instead, we need to get a helicopter and get out in front of that truck.”

Raising awareness and educating people only works if people are empowered to connect the dots between what they see happening at the springs and how they mark their ballots in state elections. So far, springs advocacy groups have been unable to connect those dots, probably because of an overabundance of caution in protecting their Federal 501(c)(3) nonprofit status, which prohibits the endorsement of or opposition to individuals running for public office.

Yet the fact remains that our springs problems are political problems—but even changes in political leadership might not be enough to make the kinds of changes that could save the springs. No matter how much we all bemoan the “leadership” that allows our springs to decline, even under different leaders there are severe structural, cultural and legal barriers that those leaders might not be able to overcome. I listed those problems when I was working for the Ichetucknee Alliance: 

We all know it’s easier to criticize than to make positive suggestions for change, but I have suggestions and will list them now.

We must realize that what we are engaged in, at its core, is transformation and culture change—and transformation begins with a positive vision. That vision can come top-down, from a leader who can inspire buy-in by others, or it can come bottom-up, from the grassroots—but there has to be a positive vision.

Our springs advocacy groups have not articulated a vision; they’ve only indicated what they don’t want, which is damage to our springs—and that reinforces, albeit inadvertently, the “business-as-usual” frame. At its core, this is a “failure to communicate.”

We must understand that apathy—at the voting booth, and in the form of many new citizens who have no clue about what Florida has lost and may lose—is our biggest enemy.

We must come up with new, creative ways to transform apathy into love. We could create an animated video of the Floridan aquifer and make it available to everyone on YouTube, to increase understanding. We could hold rituals at the springs, involve faith-based groups, collect old-timers’ stories and use them as jumping-off points for articulating a new, transformative vision for Florida’s waters. Those are just some of the ways we could ignite this kind of spiritual transformation with regard to our springs.

We could join hands with groups that are seeking to overturn SCOTUS’s Citizens United decision to get corporate money out of our political campaigns.

Realizing that we all need clean and abundant water, we must actively reach out, join hands and work with Florida’s agriculturalists to solve our water problems instead of labeling those people as “the enemy” and engaging in “us vs. them” thinking. Why? Because there are no solutions to our springs problems without the involvement of our farmers and foresters.

We must change our laws to enable transformational culture change. We could enlist our small army of springs advocacy organizations’ members and other like-minded groups in support of efforts to encode new, stronger, rights-based constitutional laws that would give the State of Florida the legal teeth it needs to protect our springs. State and Federal constitutional amendments must give people the rights to clean and healthy waters and give ecosystems the rights to exist and to thrive.

In a counterpoint to the frame of “fighting” for the springs, we must articulate and constantly reinforce a compelling vision for the future, one that could include recommendations for tiered water rates (a big encourager of conservation).

We must get political—create a political organization, or partner with an existing one, to advance that vision.

As for what that vision might be, what about this: 
Realizing that the health of its people, economy and natural water systems are interconnected, Florida will restore, preserve and protect those natural water systems and will become an international model of wise water use.

We must think bigger, bolder, and more creatively.

In short, as one speaker advised us years ago at a meeting hosted by Barry University Law School’s Center for Earth Jurisprudence: We must state what we want, not just ask for what we think we can get.

If you're reading this and want to do something to help turn this situation around, please visit the website for the Florida Right to Clean & Healthy Waters proposed state constitutional amendment, read up on that effort, then print, sign and mail the petition to put the amendment on Florida's 2024 ballot. Then ask five of your family members and friends to do so, too.

The photo above is my photo of Gilchrist Blue Spring, which experienced a sinkhole collapse the day before I wrote this article. Thankfully, the spring has recovered.

Sunday, April 2, 2023

Love the Springs? Help Cut the Demand for Bottled Spring Water

Choose your water bottle to revive the springs and reduce trash!

Did you know that...

  • Florida's freshwater springs are losing flow and plastic trash is clogging our landfills and even our oceans?
  • Every drop of water we use in Florida's Springs Heartland is one less drop for our springs and rivers?
  • One water-bottling plant can produce 6,000 plastic bottles per minute?
  • There's one easy thing you can do to keep our springs healthy and reduce trash?

Buy and re-use a sturdy water bottle that you can refill from the tap!

Reusable water bottles are reasonably priced and you'll quickly save the money you would have spent on water that's packaged in plastic.

Most tap water meets strict drinking water standards and is just as safe, if not safer, than bottled water.

You can buy a large water storage container at a hardware store and fill it ahead of time if you find yourself in the path of a hurricane.

If you must buy bottled water, avoid the bottles marked "spring water."

Reducing the demand for bottled water is one way we can say "Thank you" to our springs and rivers for the joy they have brought us!