Sixteen years since my last visit, Florida is still struggling with water issues. In 1996, I learned that although Florida averages about the same rainfall as Portland, the rain comes in torrents, leading Florida stormwater management to send water east to the Atlantic as quickly as possible, starving the Everglades (that water’s natural destination) and the aquifers underlying the whole Florida peninsula.
Florida shows signs of great wealth and great poverty, depending on where you look. Florida is part agriculture and part tourist trap. The ag in north Florida is mostly pine plantations and cattle, at one point having more cattle than Texas—and a similarly arid landscape.
In early 2012, arid is putting it mildly. For the second year in a row, Florida is in a severe drought with 23 percent below normal rainfall. The potential for wildfires is great. Houses are sprinkled everywhere and a jillion small lakes and ponds are drawn down to reveal six feet of barren soil.
Poking around, we drove down a sand road to a fish camp near a lake large enough to show up on a state map. A fish camp is an RV park with no particular views or anything to do but launch your boat and fish. But this year there is no water in the little channel that usually reaches the fish camp’s docks. The proprietor said there was so little water, he couldn’t even run his airboat, which only required a mere slick on the surface. Instead, there was only mud.
The man’s eyes were Paul Newman blue and he spoke somberly without the angry edge his next statements could have engendered. He said county officials were corrupt and made an agreement with Nestle to allow the company to draw water from the aquifer to bottle and sell at Disney World. All the lakes and ponds in Florida are related to the aquifers below. Draw enough water out, soils collapse, creating sinkholes. Draw enough water out, springs slow their bubbling to the surface. The sadness in the fish camp man’s eyes told the consequences. His small business is being wiped out. His camp has operated since the 1940’s and only in the last two years has this problem emerged.
We can live without petroleum, but we can’t live, literally, without water. Water is becoming a politically charged issue. In a complex water deal in the Columbia River gorge, Oregon might swap half the spring water supplying a fish hatchery to the town of Cascade Locks in exchange for city well water. Then the city could sell the spring water to Nestle to bottle.
But it isn’t just the human community that suffers the consequences when a natural event, such as Florida’s drought, is exacerbated by human behavior, such as selling off water to a multinational corporation. Mr. Blue Eyes directed us to another spot where we might still glimpse the lake water. At a little wayside with a boat ramp, an isolated pool about 40 feet in diameter contained a dozen or so small alligators and one large one. Box turtles lazed on old logs or swam in the water that carried a questionable sheen. Given the trash that speckled the shore, my hunch was the sheen was from the many boats that would normally launch at the site. From this unattractive pool, a shallow stream about a foot wide headed toward the open water, at least a half-mile away.
A few days later, we camped at Silver River State Park so my husband could see a limpkin, a wading bird similar to a great blue heron. We were in the limpkin’s prime habitat, because it is a picky eater, only eating apple snails, which only live in absolutely clean water. Pumping out of Silver Spring at 550 million gallons/day, the water comes from a seemingly unfathomable aquifer, perfect for Nestlé’s purposes.
The amusement park that surrounds the spring hasn’t changed since the 1950’s and prohibited gasoline driven boats anywhere close to the spring. We were told that was true of the whole Silver River until recently, but as we watched the limpkin, a skiff came barreling past, the camo-wearing operator standing amidships, smoking a cigar, Limbaugh blasting from a radio, twin outboards roaring. It made me wonder what lobby forced those responsible to change regulations for the Silver River.
When it comes to water, whether environmentalist or fishing guide, we should be on the same side. A few will make a short-term killing, but the real killing will be long term and far-reaching.
Victoria Stoppiello is a freelance writer, and learned that Nestle, in a potential water deal in McCloud, CA, was going to pay about a third of what McCloud’s residential customers pay by volume. This essay was published first in the Chinook Observer, based in Long Beach, WA