Sunday, December 17, 2023

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)

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