The nature of Florida water

Ideas about Florida water change over time. Until just a few decades ago, the primary human notion was to drain it away, get rid of it. (See, for example, “Land into Water, Water into Land.“) That utilitarian view is still important but competing strains of thought have arisen. A mix of ideas about water jostle each other for priority even if water resources remain the same. As William Cronon said, “Nature is a mirror onto which we project our own ideas and values; but it is also a material reality that sets limits…on the possibility of human ingenuity and storytelling.”  (p. 458) What will that mirror show about Florida water resources in a few more decades?

For one thing, it will reflect ever growing human dominance. We already decide on the allowable flows of springs, how much nutrient pollution is acceptable, how many panthers can survive in south Florida, the degree of risk from boats that we will impose on manatees, how many billions of gallons of stormwater to pump around in south Florida, how effectively or ineffectively to prevent invasive aquatic animals and plants, how many fish at what season and of what size can be extracted legally from fresh and coastal waters, how frequently “wild” fires should occur, etc., etc.

In the future, it will be even more clear that Florida lakes, springs, wetlands, and rivers are allowed to exist only by our sufferance. Even “protected” or “wilderness” areas will be intensively monitored and managed. None of them are or can be fully undisturbed or pristine. One consequence of this near-complete dominance may be that working landscapes and the watery environment of people’s actual daily lives become the focus of water meaning. Water resources outside of parks and preserves may be regarded as having values comparable or greater than those on the inside of a park boundary.

Perhaps these developing facts and orientations will lead to a more exploitative, utilitarian, and abusive approach to water. One hopes that, instead, it takes a positive turn toward the roles of water steward, guardian, or resource gardener.

Going nuclear

It depends how serious you think climate change is. Some people who favor water resource protection happen also to oppose nuclear power. It seems to me that is a mistake because nuclear power could reduce the severity of greenhouse gas-powered climate change. In a recent survey, climate scientists expressed strong support for building additional nuclear power plants. This matched the call for more nuclear power in an open letter last fall from four renowned climate scientists. The state of Florida seems unlikely to heed this call.

The biggest obstacle is not water, in a state with high rainfall and a very long coastline. The problem is distrust of both the economics and safety of nuclear power. In light of the closing of the Crystal River nuclear plant, the termination of planning for the Levy County nuclear plant, and the Fukushima disaster, this low-carbon energy source is a pariah.

Zombie water ideas

Zombie water ideas are undead; no matter how many times they are killed by what appears to be lethal refutation, they still act alive. Here’s a few of them:

A ring of desalination plants around Florida can provide all the water we need. Zombies have no interest in economic efficiency. There almost always are cheaper alternatives to desal, including improved efficiency.

Privatizing water rights and setting up markets would solve water supply shortages. This ignores the many practical obstacles to a functioning water market. The undead can ignore any reality.

Agriculture’s water use is proportionate to its economic impact. This is untrue for Florida and the United States but that fact makes no headway in public debate. (Zombie agriculturalists have little interest in fruit or vegetable production.)

Climate change doesn’t threaten Florida. It is always a waste of time to argue with a Zombie about climate change. Their brain rot forces backward reasoning: Coping with climate change would be expensive and therefore the physical reality must be untrue.

Bottled water is healthier than tap water. The health differences are imaginary. (Of course, though, Zombies don’t care very much whether their drinking water is polluted.).

Some disproved water ideas still walk among us. Killed again and again, they refuse to stay dead.

Eliminate the negative

This will be the first gubernatorial administration in many years without any kind of a water management or growth management “commission” or “task force.” (For that matter, this administration has not set up an energy commission. Or a climate commission. Or a governmental reform commission. Or an open government commission. Or a tax reform commission.) If you invite people to say what they think, they just might say something you don’t like. No reason to hear any of that, with an election coming up and all.


Falling into failure

Peter Paul Rubens, 1620, "Fall of the Damned"

Peter Paul Rubens, 1620, “Fall of the Damned”

General glumness abounds in the Leroy Collins Institute report from last February: “Tougher Choices: Shaping Florida’s Future” (pdf). From education to transportation to the state’s tax system, they conclude that the state is in worse shape than a decade ago and not getting any  better:

We think Florida passed a tipping point in the 2000s – a point at which the gradual accumulation of many small changes became a large and (nearly) irreversible one. New high-skill jobs go where there are existing concentrations of  high-skill jobs because they are more productive there. They go where investments in K-12 and higher education are world class, both to tap into the talent pool and because the workers want good schools for their children. They go where infrastructure is configured to support mobility in dense, dynamic, urban centers. In 1985, Florida was close and modest continued investment might have gotten us there. Now, we have a long way to go with a low share of high-skill jobs and low educational attainment among our young workers. (p. 108)

The Institute says that “tough” choices are necessary but it is clear that the state’s current political leadership is satisfied with second-rate institutions. For many years, there was at least one exception to the usual choice of mediocrity: the state’s unique system of adequately-funded and relatively nonpolitical water management districts.  Rick Scott’s election quickly erased that anomaly.

The “easy” water and other policy choices now being made are a product of a broken political system. Constitutional referenda that are broadly supported by Floridians, like the Land and Water Legacy amendment, are opposed by Legislative leaders. One-third of of Legislative races in Florida are uncontested.  Gubernatorial and presidential elections split almost 50/50 between the two political parties but members of the Legislature somehow end up 2/3 Republican. Very recently, a judge found convincing evidence that “Republican political operatives managed to find….ways to infiltrate and influence the Legislature” and “taint the redistricting process.”

At least two water management districts are lowering taxes again just as Scott heats up his reelection campaign. Florida’s water management system no longer stands apart from general political trends. A healthier water management system is possible in Florida only with a healthier politics.