Defining the Geopolitics of a Thirsty WorldSM
Fight Over Florida Water Has Some Surprising Winners

Via Christian Science Monitor, an article on how – when it comes to decisions affecting Florida’s groundwater – business interests usually trump environmental concerns, but that may be changing:

Burt Eno peers down through the surface of the Rainbow River, examining the sea grasses below. Even though the water has changed over the past mile from cobalt blue to deep green, it is still transparent enough to see the brown algae coating the waving foliage. 

He shakes his head.

“It’s covered,” he says of the underwater grass. “It shouldn’t be like this.”

When it comes to decisions affecting Florida’s groundwater, business interests usually trump environmental concerns, but that may be changing. Grassroots conservationists are starting to fight back – and win.

The others on the pontoon boat nod in grim agreement. As volunteers with Rainbow River Conservation, an environmental group focused on protecting this unique waterway, they know how to spot trouble hiding in what looks, at first glance, to be a picture-perfect image of central Florida.

Alongside the kayakers and families on inner tubes – and the anhinga drying its spread wings on a Spanish-moss-draped branch – the conservation volunteers recognize the impact of some of Florida’s biggest environmental challenges: nitrate pollution, water shortages, and over-development. The spring that feeds the Rainbow River, where fresh water from the Floridian aquifer bubbles to the surface in swirls of blue, is releasing fewer gallons of flow each year – a sign of the severe pressures on the state’s underground water system.

But the volunteers see something else happening here as well.  

In a state where business interests regularly trump environmental concerns, the Rainbow River is a site where grassroots conservationists have fought against development – and won. Environmentalists here have joined forces with others who care about the unique springs ecosystems, and now the Florida Springs Council sends a lobbyist to Tallahassee. Longtime environmental activists say they are noticing a growing public recognition of the urgency to protect Florida’s water, spurred, perhaps, by a new documentary on state public television about threats to Florida’s aquifer. 

Volunteers with Rainbow River Conservation inspect Rainbow River in central Florida. Although they recognize the impact of some of Florida’s biggest environmental challenges, including nitrate pollution, water shortages, and over-development, they’re also noticing a growing public recognition of the urgency to protect Florida’s water.

“We’re seeing exponential growth in the number of people paying attention,” says Ryan Smart, the director of the Florida Springs Council, a nonprofit coalition formed in 2014 that coordinates advocacy efforts among more than 50 local conservation groups. “I don’t want to say that things are improving on the ground yet – we’re still a long way from that. But we have had successes.”

Some of this new focus has been sparked by recent environmental traumas, says Justin Bloom, founder of the Suncoast Waterkeeper conservation group. 

“I do think that there is a growing awareness and concern,” Mr. Bloom says. “Unfortunately, it seems that it is born of crisis.”

Development at the expense of water

Earlier this year, the operators of Piney Point, an abandoned phosphate plant in Manatee County, dumped more than 170 million gallons of radioactive wastewater into Tampa Bay to relieve pressure on the walls of a 77-acre holding pond that officials worried was about to break and flood surrounding neighborhoods. Over the past month, a red tide algae bloom has inundated the bay, killing aquatic life and leaving swaths of St. Petersburg reeking of dead fish. In June, Florida wildlife managers reported that 750 manatees had died so far this year, the most deaths ever recorded in a five-month period. Many of the animals, officials said, starved to death because the sea grass they eat has been dying off.  

For Florida conservationists, this spate of environmental disasters is unsurprising, yet still devastating. For a decade, many environmentalists claim, Florida officials have supported developers and other business interests at the expense of the state’s ecosystem – particularly its hydrology.  

Although Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has called protecting Florida’s “vital water resources … one of the most pressing issues facing our state,” and has proposed using some $625 million for restoration projects in the Everglades and elsewhere, critics say these are scant efforts in the face of policies that systematically create water and environmental problems. 

This is particularly apparent in Florida’s springs and connected waterways, like Rainbow River, says Bob Knight, founder of the Florida Springs Institute, an education and advocacy nonprofit. The state’s springs ecosystems – the glass-clear, 72-degree water and the unique aquatic life that lives in it – are a product of Florida’s geology. 

Not terribly long ago, in geologic time, Florida was itself underwater. Today, much of the peninsula is limestone, formed from the remains of ancient sea creatures. As sea levels retreated, scientists say, acidic rain bored holes in the rock, creating a formation regularly described as akin to Swiss cheese. Rainwater seeping into the ground filled up these pockets; as more rain came, some of the water was forced back to the surface and created springs. The springs then fed rivers, which, in turn, watered the state and supported other freshwater ecosystems, such as the Everglades.  

When Dr. Knight first saw these springs as a child in the 1950s, he was awed. The sites hadn’t changed much from the descriptions he’d read of them from a century earlier, he says: crystal clear, blue water surrounded by lush forests. All of the springs produced voluminous amounts of fresh water, with hundreds of millions of gallons bubbling up from the aquifer.  

Before Disney World opened in 1971, the more than 1,000 springs in north-central Florida were among the top tourist draws in the state. As early as the Civil War, visitors flocked to Silver Springs, taking glass-bottom boats across the aquifer-fed pool; later, movie makers used the springs for scenery in films such as Tarzan.

The Marion County Sheriff’s office patrols the Rainbow River near Dunnellon, Florida. Fed by one of central Florida’s largest springs, Rainbow River is threatened by fertilizer, aquifer stress, and overuse, conservationists say.

But once air conditioners became accessible to everyday homeowners, Florida’s population boomed. Between 1960 and 2010, the state’s population grew from about 5 million to 19 million. Now, nearly 1,000 people move to Florida every day, according to state officials. The most recent census data puts Florida as one of the country’s fastest growing states by population – about 15 percent since 2010. Many of the fastest growing cities in the country are located in Florida – including Ocala, in the center of the state, near Rainbow River. And all of these new residents, of course, use water – not only to drink, but for landscaping.

“Florida has been very heavily developed,” Dr. Knight says. “And in the process, millions of wells have been put in the ground. … It’s like putting needles in a balloon or air mattress. The pressure in the aquifer fell.” 

When the aquifer is tapped in too many places, he and others explain, the flow of nearby springs decreases. That not only means less water, but less flushing of pollution, such as runoff from lawns and agriculture, and that can result in algae and other contamination. Some springs in the state have dried up completely.

“They do die,” says Mr. Smart, director of the Florida Springs Council. “They can die because the flow stops, or because they become so choked with algae.”

Jayantha Obeysekera, director of the Sea Level Solutions Center at Florida International University, notes that as the aquifer pressure decreases, not only does the spring flow lessen, but there is less resistance in the ground to what is called “saltwater intrusion,” ocean water pushing into the aquifer. Already, numerous wells in coastal areas have been made useless by seawater. 

All of this has created water shortages in the state, and residents are regularly reminded to conserve water. But homeowners are not the only ones tapping the aquifer. 

Agriculture draws thousands of millions of gallons from Florida’s aquifer every day; so do the mining industry and other industrial sectors. And while the state’s water-permitting process is supposed to protect river flow, environmentalists have long complained that local officials almost always approve water-use permits for developers and other businesses. Last year, for instance, a state water agency gave Mosaic, a large phosphate company, authority to pump 70 million gallons of water a day for the next 20 years out of a region whose residents have been under water restrictions. Earlier this year, community members protested a request by the company Nestlé to pump a million gallons of water each day from Ginnie Springs for its bottled water business. The state water board ended up approving the company’s plans.

The fight at Rainbow River

So when the Rainbow River Conservation volunteers heard that Jim Gissy, a senior executive with Westgate Resorts, had plans to develop a large swath of land he owned on the banks of Rainbow River into an eco-destination, they panicked, knowing that developers tend to get what they want in Florida. 

Burt Eno, president of Rainbow River Conservation, an environmental group, looks out over the river. Dr. Eno was part of the group that fought against development of a new resort on the banks of Rainbow River – and won.

Along with others, Dr. Eno, president of the Rainbow River Conservation Board of Directors, decided to fight. Gretchen Martin, whose home is on the river, knocked on every door in Dunnellon, talking to residents about what the added traffic and pollution from the resort might mean for the water, not to mention the draw on the aquifer. 

“We didn’t believe that most people in our community knew what was going to happen,” she says. “And really, 98 percent of people either didn’t know about it or didn’t want it.”

More than a hundred protesters packed a city council meeting – a rare occurrence for a municipality with a population hovering around 2,000 people. The volunteers distributed yard signs and took to social media, working with the Florida Springs Council to spread the word about the development to environmentalists outside the area. Thousands of people signed a Change.org petition opposing Mr. Gissy’s plans. 

Late last summer, the developer withdrew his proposal. He has told media outlets that he had been assured by the city council that the potential for jobs would make the project popular, and that he was frustrated by the opposition. But he also told residents that if they didn’t want the resort, he wouldn’t build it.

Instead, he said, he would attempt to sell the land into conservation.

At the next election, in the fall of 2020, Dunnellon voters ousted two of the council members who had supported the development. The mayor, Dale Burns, also lost his reelection campaign.

He looks out over the water and sighs. “There is a lot more to do,” he says.



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