Monday, March 10, 2008

Losing Our Way With Water

The following essay by Bill Belleville, author of River of Lakes,appeared in today's Orlando Sentinel.

Fort Drum Creek was hardly a creek at all. My paddling partner and I had lugged a kayak down to it from the edge of a country road to explore. But the creek, hidden in a dense hardwood swamp north of Lake Okeechobee, behaved oddly, sluicing off into shallow rivulets.

Finally, we gave up on finding navigable water and forged ahead on foot. This was, after all, close to where historic maps told us the giant St. Johns River actually began its 310 mile crawl northward to the sea.

We walked until our calves sunk into water and mud. We crawled over the deadfall of sabal palms and large hickories. We stepped around deep furrows of wild-hog ruts. Just when we were ready to give up, the creek coalesced into a single channel -- bucolic, tea-colored, almost sure in its flow. And then without warning, it dissolved again, as if unable to catch its breath.

It was a good reminder that true "management" of water on this peninsula is tricky work. Human-driven conceits fool us into thinking we understand what this universal element is about. Yet, trying to engineer "hydrology" without having a deep and abiding respect for water is a dangerous presumption -- one that ordains us with more wisdom than we actually have.

The Native Americans who preceded us here by 12,000 years or more had a reverence for this water, as they did for all of nature. Their deities were woven into it, and not separate from it. Water held fish and snails, fed wildlife, watered crops, floated dugouts, gave life. In storms and in drownings, it also took life away.

Water was enchantment, certainly. But it was also deeply feared and honored, held close to the heart in both mystery and awe. It was sacred.

When they settled here, Europeans chose natural harbors on the coast, and along high river bluffs or atop ancient Indian middens inland. Florida was one big swamp and marsh and the best and surest roads were its waterways. The ether that others once worshiped became utility. Florida became a place to be sopped up, trimmed and tamed.

Perhaps nature as religion may have had a chance in Florida. But when technology developed to allow "submerged bottomlands" to be drained and sold for as little as 25 cents an acre in the l9th century, then Florida's destiny -- which was once to flow -- began to ebb.

Humans have done more to disconnect themselves from Florida's water in the last century than they did in the 12,000 years that came before. Water has become a visual Muzak, a background to our clever hardware-driven lifestyles, a solvent to be turned on or off, ditched away or drained. Once a noun and a verb, once a giver of life -- once a muse to writers, artists, musicians -- water in the 20th century became an expletive. It was called "flood control."

Today, our lack of connection has caught up with us. The feature that most shaped Florida into a singular place is being transformed. Now, lakes are drying or turning eutrophic; the springs declining in magnitude; the coastal estuaries becoming cloudy with sediment. The reefs, those miraculous living berms of color just offshore, are ailing. Even when we have the best intentions, we seem to forget that water is guided by gravity. We all live downstream.

And we have a tremendous thirst, far beyond any sustainable use the Timucua or Mayaca or Tequesta may have imagined. Floridians use 170 gallons of water a day -- compared to 110 gallons nationally. Uplands that might recharge aquifers with rain disappear under hard surface.

As if these insults weren't enough, we are preparing to siphon 260 million of gallons of water a day from the St. Johns system simply because developers bully water districts into doing so. Forget that half our residential use irrigates non-native landscapes that, in Florida, are simply impractical.

Our innate affinity for natural places -- what Pulitzer-winning biologist Edward O. Wilson calls "biophilia" -- is thwarted. The ability of our spectacular landscape to nourish us and to provide solace is diminished.

For the first time in the history of Florida, the liquid energy that once shaped us is now being shaped by us. We have taken ownership of water away from the gods. Fort Drum Creek, which a century ago, would have floated a dugout, struggles to catch its breath. As do we all.

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