The Florida Humanities Council brings together two of our state’s top environmental authors for a joint discussion Thursday (Sept. 27) in the USC Grand Ballroom on the University of South Florida St. Petersburg campus. The free event Our Water, Our Florida will spotlight Cynthia Barnett, the author of three lauded books on people and water (the most recent, Rain, received a National Book Award nomination) and Dr. Jack Davis, winner of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for History for his tome The Gulf.
Barnett, a veteran journalist, teaches environmental journalism and writing at the University of Florida’s College of Journalism and Communications, where Davis is a professor of history. Not surprisingly, the two have been friends for years – they’re also writing partners who edit, review and critique one another’s work.
“It’s been a great partnership,” Barnett enthuses, “because I was seeking that depth of history, and he was seeking the storytelling abilities of a journalist. And we’ve really learned from each other. I think we both see that we’ve made each other’s writing better over the years.”
With an annual average of 54 inches of rain, Florida is the wettest state in the U.S. But its watershed – perfected by nature over the millennia – has been battered, beaten and severely tested by humans, who altered the filtering flow of the Everglades, allowing fertilizers and other pollutants to pass into rivers and into the Gulf of Mexico.
Deep beneath the surface of Florida is the Floridan Aquifer, a vast reservoir of fresh water; it is, essentially, the tap from which all things flow.
Florida’s beloved “aqua jewels,” the mostly-pure artesian springs (flowing directly from the aquifer) that pepper the north and central part of the state, are in peril, due in no small part to the interference of man, determined to re-shape the natural state to suit his own purposes.
What’s to be done? We asked Ms. Barnett that very question.
In a nutshell, what’s wrong with water in Florida?
Barnett: Overuse and pollution. So the answers are in using less, and polluting less. And it may sound weird to talk about overuse in a place that has so much water, but White Springs and Kissengen Springs have completely dried up, and they’re examples of how water can vanish, even in a wet place. It comes down to living more ethically with water than we have been.
Is it possible that the Floridan Aquifer is just going to go away?
Barnett: The interesting thing about our aquifer is that it is replenished, it is renewed with this wonderful rainfall that we get. There are other places in the world and in our country – like Ogallala, in the Great Plains – where the aquifer is fossil water. It’s being depleted to extinction.
So our aquifer is renewed, but when we alter the landscape so extremely, we can also alter the flow of water underground, and in our rivers, springs, wetlands and estuaries.
Sinkholes and red tide. You hear people say ‘Oh, these are natural occurrences.’ Yes, sinkholes would happen whether humans were here or not. Red tide would happen whether humans were here or not. However, our actions can very much aggravate the opening-up of sinkholes, and the deadly bloom of red tide. With sinkholes, it’s the mass excavation of land, and with red tide it’s the intensity of pollution – it’s flowing off our lawns, and farms and roads.
It’s not so much black hats and white hats. This ethic for water really needs to change. It’s all of us; it’s the choices we make, the people we elect to office. It’s the agricultural products that we buy. We’re all involved in all of it, so seeing all this finger-pointing is ironic. We all have a responsibility, I think.
The bigger picture, of course, is climate change. How does that affect water in Florida?
Barnett: It’s my sense that all the earliest impacts of a warming world in Florida are being felt first through water. So it’s sea level rise, it’s more extreme rains, and scientists also think that climate change is making the impact of hurricanes worse. It’s not that we would see more hurricanes in a warming world, it is that the hurricanes we see could be more severe, and especially could contain more severe rainfall. Which is what we saw in Harvey, and in Florence.
Another thing to think about is that climate change makes droughts more severe. So wet times get wetter, and dry times get drier. The rivers get low, springs get drier, people can’t water their lawns, all of those things. There’s a real possibility that climate change will bring future droughts to Florida unlike any we’ve seen in its developed history.
With regard to the disappearing springs, if we put the brakes on overuse, well-drilling and the other factors, will they come back?
Barnett: That’s a really big question that no one knows the answer to. Obviously, neither White Springs nor Kissengen Springs came back, even given the resilience of the aquifer. Because of the dramatic changes in land use that had taken place around the aquifer in both of those places.
The idea, going forward, is to try to restore to natural systems, instead of all of the human-made systems, like those in the Everglades. I do have a lot of hope that the springs could be restored.
Thursday’s event begins at 6:30 p.m. Doors open, and book sales start, at 5:30.
Admission is free; RSVPs are recommended here.