The comparable effort on the ballot this November is Amendment 1, the Land and Water Legacy referendum. If you love Florida water, you should consider supporting this vital change to the state’s constitution.
Elizabeth Kolbert decided that one 2006 book on global environmental calamity was not enough. “Field Notes from a Catastrophe (Man, Nature, and Climate Change)” was based on her articles in the New Yorker that won a National Magazine Award. She succeeded brilliantly in her desire “to convey, as vividly as possible, the reality of global warming.” Now her second book (The Sixth Extinction), on mass biological extinction, is available and also is excellent. Why did she decide to write this second book?
If extinction is a morbid topic, mass extinction is, well, massively so. It’s also a fascinating one….I try to convey both sides: the excitement of what’s being learned as well as the horrors of it. My hope is that readers of this book will come away with an appreciation of the truly extraordinary moment in which we live. (Prologue)
As with the climate change book, Kolbert traveled the world to report on cutting-edge research from many scientists. One of them warns that acidifying the oceans “is likely to leave a legacy of the Anthropocene as one of the most notable, if not cataclysmic events in the history of our planet.” (Chapter VI.) Another transformative process is how humans are shifting species all over the planet. An expert she interviews calls this a “mass invasion event” that is “without precedent” in the planet’s history. (Chapter X.) [Florida is especially vulnerable to both of these particular threats.]
This kind of book usually ends with a list of the measures necessary to address the enormous problems described in the preceding pages. Not this time. In fact, Kolbert deliberately decided that the book was NOT a call to action.
I very carefully avoided saying what it was. What I’ve laid out requires action commensurate with the problem. We’re talking really huge global-scale change, and I did not feel that I had the prescription for that kind of action, so I’m going to leave it to the reader.
It is a very large task, as she says, merely to “bring this before people.” But deciding not to make any attempt at problem-solving is unfortunate. If someone as intelligent and well-informed as Kolbert feels unable to say what actions should be taken, what about the rest of us? Universal silence?
If you are looking for possible answers to giant sustainability challenges, let me recommend two books. The Bridge at the Edge of the World, by James Gustave Speth, proposes “transformational changes” and advises that “solutions exist, abundantly.” ”Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities,” by Rebecca Solnit, proposes a “new vision of how change happens.” She advises that “Hope is dangerous, and yet it is the opposite of fear, for to live is to risk.“
The U.S. Geological Survey has constructed a spatial water quality model that they call “SPARROW” (SPAtially Referenced Regressions On Watershed attributes). A tough job to build such a model for entire watersheds across the country but they have some results for Florida. For example, here is what they estimate are the primary sources of nitrogen in the Suwannee River-Apalachee Bay region:
State tax dollars allocated for water quality projects can accomplish great things but regulation can accomplish much more at lower cost. Some examples of essential water quality management regulations:
Stringent water quality standards.
Effective pollutant permitting rules.
High quality agricultural Best Management Practices.
Protective dredge and fill and stormwater permitting rules (Environmental Resource Permitting).
Waterbody setback ordinances.
Water-efficient plumbing codes.
Septic tank construction and maintenance requirements.
Managed land use density.
Comprehensive landscape design ordinances (fertilization times and rates, plant types, irrigation design, etc.)
Regulations save tax dollars from being expended. They are also very fair because they target the exact parties that generate water pollution. We need more water quality regulation, not less.
Laypeople and water experts who always predict a water crisis are not stupid (just wrong!). There are strong unconscious incentives to see water supply disasters just over the horizon:
Evolutionary lag. All of our ancestors were anxious enough about a secure water supply to succeed in passing on their genes. Our brains have not have had enough evolutionary time to catch up with modern highly reliable water supply systems.
“If it bleeds, it leads.” This local television news motto helps people believe that crime is far more common than it is. Same for water supply. Water Crisis! Crisis! Crisis! is an easy story. (Details at 11.)
Inappropriate generalization. ”You ever been thirsty? Wasn’t nice, was it? Well, imagine thousands (no, millions!) of people running out of water one fine summer day in 2026. The taps going dry! That would be horrible!”
Not realizing that both supply and demand are usually elastic. When supplies do get short, water supply managers and users get busy augmenting supplies: New wellfields, diversion from low-value water users, new interconnections, etc. The same flexibility is even more true for demand.
Career safety. Water supply managers and politicians are extremely risk averse. Unfortunately, that aversion has a cost.
Concrete memorials. Many people just plain like to build large and durable capital facilities. (Maybe even with a nameplate.)
Schizophrenic socialism. Many Floridians demand that governments use tax dollars to provide all businesses all the water they want at at a price they can afford but are OK with hundreds of thousands of residents not even having health insurance. (Makes no sense but still true.)
Pricing failure. Often, the loudest cries for developing new water supplies are actually for getting some government agency (WMD, state, or federal) to pay for the project. Having customers pay the full cost of water tends to quiet the din remarkably.
To a large extent, our views on water supply are received from others without much thinking along the way. We should be careful to aim at the right water supply future or we might not hit the mark. Eilen Jewell explains: