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Paradise down the drain

Myopic state leaders turn the tap to a needless water crisis.

By Julie Hauserman, Special to the Times
Published October 14, 2007

Mirage opens with an intriguing line: "The crack crept just like ivy." Before you know it, a crack in the wall leads to a sinkhole that swallows a Central Florida house, and you are on a hair-raising journey into a shocking story that is unbelievable but completely true.

The book's full title is Mirage: Florida and the Vanishing Water of the Eastern U.S. Its author, Cynthia Barnett, is one of the best reporters working in the state today. She is a writer for Florida Trend magazine, a sister publication to the St. Petersburg Times.

With dead-on analysis, Barnett traces the wrong-headed policies and public delusions that have converted one of the world's wettest locales into a place running low on fresh water.

This is one of the most important books to hit our state in a very long time.

Barnett has an engaging style that's funny one minute - "Simply put, Florida's developers have the political power of a Category 5 hurricane" - and sobering the next - "Half of all water treated to meet federal EPA standards for drinking goes down the toilet." She asks, and answers, critical questions:

"Why is water so cheap? More mysteriously, why do those of us who are well-off pay so much less for water than those who are poor?

"Why do bottlers in Florida and around the nation get to pump groundwater for free, then sell it at an eye-popping profit, just as citizens are being asked to wean themselves off groundwater and spend money on costly alternatives such as desalination plants?"

But the most critical point in Mirage is that Florida's problem is largely one of attitude. Despite what you may have heard, water shortages here are not inevitable.

"One lesson Florida has not learned, and maybe it never will, is that increased growth and economic prosperity do not have to equal increased water consumption," Barnett writes. "Water use in the United States stopped rising in the 1980s, yet population as well as gross domestic product have grown steadily ever since."

She reports that water use in Southern California has dropped by 16 percent since 1990, even as the population has increased by nearly the same figure. In Seattle, total water use has remained constant since 1975, even though population has increased by 30 percent. Boston's water use has hit a 50-year low.

"That is not, unfortunately, the case in Florida," Barnett writes, where "both per-person consumption and total water withdrawals are on the upswing. Perhaps because they see so much of it, Floridians view their supply of water as endless."

In Mirage, Barnett is not just covering old ground. There are some journalistic scoops here, including news about shady off-the-books water trading schemes going on in Southwest Florida, where water rights are being sold to high bidders with no public disclosure.

Her investigation travels from the swamp-draining frenzy of the 1800s to the evolution of modern water policy to today's generation of failed wetland "mitigation" banks and modern wildcat bottling companies sucking profits from cold springs.

Barnett's careful investigation should raise many red flags. Right now, state officials are pushing a $1.2-billion plan to pipe water from North Florida's St. Johns River to feed Central Florida's exploding cookie-cutter subdivisions. Barnett points to the American West, which drained (and ruined) rivers before realizing its mistakes.

But Florida's elected leaders aren't yet paying attention. After the last drought, a 2002 statewide task force created a list of 51 water-saving measures. Five years later, not one has become state law. Florida farmers use most of the water, and half still use wasteful flood irrigation.

Without political leadership, Barnett writes, "users will waste free water even against their own interests, as in the case of Florida developers who in some areas drained water until there was none left for new growth."

Bottling companies, she notes, have found Florida officials "as warm and welcoming as a postcard from the Sunshine State: Come on down. The water's . . . free."

"Why should the $66-billion Nestle or other bottlers get their raw material for free?" Barnett asks. "One economist compares it to a food company that makes berry jam and gets the berries at no charge. In Maine, Nestle pays 6 cents a gallon to the state for the water it obtains from Poland Spring."

She points out, "Americans will plunk down a thousand times more for a pint bottle of water at the corner 7-Eleven than they pay for their tap water, even though there is scant difference between the two. Yet we fend off local governments' attempts to raise rates for water and sewage. Somehow we value the water in the plastic, but not from the tap. Why?"

Barnett's analysis of the no-holds-barred Florida growth machine and its political lap dogs is both entertaining and depressing.

"In Florida, like many parts of America, economic development trumps environmental protection. This is true whether the Democrats or the Republicans are in power," she writes.

Barnett has put facts together in a way that reaches new, important truths critical to Florida's future.

In the days before the Internet, books like Rachel Carson's Silent Spring and Marjory Stoneman Douglas' River of Grass were groundbreaking calls to action that made citizens and politicians take notice. Mirage is such a book.

Florida writer Julie Hauserman lives in Tallahassee.



Mirage: Florida and the Vanishing Water of the Eastern U.S.
By Cynthia Barnett
University of Michigan Press, 248 pages, $24.95

Festival of Reading
Cynthia Barnett will speak at noon Oct. 27 at the St. Petersburg Times Festival of Reading at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.


[Last modified October 10, 2007, 17:24:31]

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