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Issue 573

02/02/2012 at 4:30pm
Not enough water to drinkWater, Water Everywhere,
But Not Enough to Drink"

A week of cloudy skies doesn't keep our motel rooms from filling up, a week of cold weather won't stop our agriculture from feeding the rest of the country, but if we turn on the taps and the water stops coming out, our economy is done.” - Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater

Renowned environmental journalist and award winning author Cynthia Barnett was the guest speaker at a Conservation Forum on water sponsored by the Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation (SCCF) and the Everglades Foundation Tuesday night. Held at the Sanibel Community House, Barnett spoke to a room packed with over 200 people on the importance of developing a 'water ethic' that will help Floridians to embrace a new way of thinking in order to make sure that enough freshwater remains for future generations.

Barnett, who has authored two books on the water issue – one of which won the gold medal for best nonfiction in the Florida Book Awards and was named by the St. Petersburg Times as one of the top 10 books that every Floridian should read – calls for a water ethic similar to the land ethic promoted by Aldo Leopold in the 1940's. She began her presentation by talking about her first book, Mirage, and how it told the story about the vanishing water in one of the wettest states in the country.

"In the 19th century, we perfected the art of draining swampland and since then we've drained over 9 million acres,” she said. "In the 20th century, we became very good at pumping groundwater up from the Florida aquifer. I live in Gainesville, and the Floridian aquifer is one of the most prodigious water sources in the world, feeding over 900 springs. I've really started to see those springs as windows to our aquifer. Beginning in the 1950's, over pumping has caused some of them to dry up and not come back, and efforts at water management and permitting has not stopped this problem.”

"I've grown to love writing in this genre of Florida history because I think if we Southerners knew as much about the history of our water as we know about the Civil War, we wouldn't have so many problems,” Barnett continued. "Water ethic is really an intergenerational obligation. It's clear that society must lift water above politics. America was blessed with 3.5 million miles of rivers – even Las Vegas was known for its big springs, which dried up in 1962. Freshwater habitats are the single most degraded of all American ecosystems.”

Barnett explained that the biggest problem is that Americans – like many throughout history - have always seen the availability of freshwater as an entitlement, something that is endless and plentiful.

"Despite the advances of the early 1970's in environmental standards, we still view water as an endless resource,” she said. "We still flush toilets with potable water that meets federal drinking standards. We pour it on our lawn, which is actually the nation's largest crop. For the past 100 years, large water users have been so good at harnessing water and moving it around that modern Americans haven't had to worry about where it all went. That achievement has grown into an entitlement – we enjoy an endless supply of cheap and clean water. But this has led to insufficient supplies and enormous energy consumption involved with moving it around.”

Barnett spoke of how freshwater supplies are drying up around the country.

"The Colorado River is more than 100% allocated – there is no longer enough for all legal users during times of drought,” she said. "Scientists say that Lake Mead has a 50/50 chance of drying up by 2021, and by 2017, there's an equally good chance that the water levels in Mead will drop so low that the Hoover Dam will be unable to use hydroelectric power.”

Barnett explained that this is a result of a long-accepted, but short-sighted way of thinking when it comes to the way we view our water supply.

"In SW Florida, permitted uses trump the natural Everglades and natural ecosystems,” she said. "Some of our largest water supply projects are some of the biggest drains on energy – Tampa's desalination plant has an enormous energy demand and carbon emissions. Nationally, between 10 and 20% of all our energy is spent pumping water and moving it around. These situations make clear that neither government regulation nor the courts are enough on their own – but one solution stands out above all others: the embrace of a water ethic.”

In 2009 and 2010, Barnett traveled the world in search of how this ethic should be established, and found countries that have had success in changing their approach to water – Australia, Singapore and the Netherlands have all seen dramatic increases in their supplies. She found a water ethic applicable to our country in the words of Aldo Leopold's son, Luna, a leading hydrologist who suggested that a new philosophy of water management is needed, one based on geologic, geographic, and climatic factors as well as traditional economic, social, and political factors.

"Most people don't really understand where water comes from, what happens to it – that's where the water ethic comes in,” she said. "Luna Leopold tried to make people see that technology could not solve all of our water problems. He wanted to find a steady state – the balance at which our water use today would not affect our children's future. The question is how society begins to make that transition. I found countries where the government is very focused on water and how to make the best use of it, Australia, the Netherlands, Singapore – what they all have in common is state and federal leadership who all focused on water.”

Barnett said she found an American example of this in the city of San Antonio.

"San Antonio is a great example of a very wasteful city who has really turned around its approach to water use,” she said. "In just 25 years, industrial water users made sweeping changes after the utility began buying their saved water by such simple solutions as recycling their air conditioning water. It's also illegal to let water run down the street. A dentist realized that switching to less wasteful tools – paid for by the utility – would save a lot of money and that was repeated by every other dentist. As a result, their water consumption was cut in half while population doubled.”

"Another city is Philadelphia, which, if it goes forward with its all 'green' stormwater plans – will restore streams, repave everything with a porous surface so that the water seeps through to the ground (much like our Beach Library did when they redid their stormwater system) and plant shrubs on every rooftop,” Cynthia continued. "What if every person in Florida did everything they could to make sure water stays on their land?”

Barnett said it is possible to change the mindset of an entire country.

"Remember in the 1950's when it was perfectly normal to toss trash out the window and to leave garbage all over the ground after picnicking?” she said. " Studies show that what changed the culture was a community-wide interest in cleanliness. Once citizens become more aware of issues they can force change in national policies.”

She concluded by offering Floridians some common goals to help get the idea started.

"Every community will come up with it's own water ethic,” she said. "I suggest including more meandering streams, less concrete, less chain link retention ponds, more community farms, less lawns, stop subsidizing crops, create more water efficient power plants, and start reharvesting rainwater for toilets and other water uses.”

During the question and answer session that followed, Barnett and Everglades Foundation President Kirk Fordham urged folks to get involved by staying on top of legislation in Tallahassee and making calls and emails to make their desires known.

The SCCF regularly sends out emails to keep people informed about what's going on in Tallahassee. To sign up, go to

Keri Hendry