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Only nature is to blame in pollution of our wells

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© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 9, 2001

We are a society, especially here in Florida, almost constantly in search of an environmental bogeyman to blame when things go wrong.

Too much radiation in your cornflakes? Blame Chernobyl, Three Mile Island or the CIA.

Find the air quality so bad that you can improve yourself by hanging around bars full of cigarette smoke? Blame steelmakers, power producers and SUVs.

Have to chew your water before you can swallow it? Blame developers, people with poodles and industrial waste.

Nine times out of 10, all of those villains really are the bad guys, and there is no reason to let up on them.

But sometimes, as is believed to be the case in recent pollution of the Withlacoochee River and some wells near it, the villain is nature itself.

There can be too much radiation in your house because of the building materials and ventilation design.

Temperature inversions and naturally produced ozone can result in lousy air quality and, in the case of the Withlacoochee's high fecal coliform bacteria counts, a combination of drought followed by flood just might be the culprit.

We all laughed at Ronald Reagan in 1980 when he said, in criticizing anti-pollution legislation, that trees and volcanoes were the real threats. But trees are major producers of nitrogen oxide and volcanoes do produce large amounts of sulfur dioxide, the cause of acid rain.

Nature is self-regulating in the long haul but can get sloppy in the details on its way.

The Withlacoochee is a recent case in point.

When fecal coliform bacteria, the kind associated with animal and human waste, start turning up in rivers, lakes, wells and even oceans, the usual suspects -- septic tanks, stormwater runoff full of dog poop and malfunctioning sewage treatment plants -- are rounded up and examined.

And sometimes they are guilty.

But this time it may well be the Green Swamp, the birthplace of the river, that is responsible.

The swamp's ecosystem, under normal conditions, flushes itself regularly with the ebb and flow of seasonal rains, meaning some of its runoff is slightly tainted, but at manageable levels that are also lowered by rainfall, springs and the natural filtration that occurs as a river flows toward the sea.

But years of drought have allowed animal waste to pile up in the swamp, and most of that has been washed downriver all at once by recent torrential downpours over the swamp.

People who live near the river, which had dried in some places to a series of unconnected ponds, say it has been flowing so rapidly recently that it looks as if a dam has burst.

The water moved so fast and had so little time for the normal oxygenation processes brought about by contact with marine plant life, that fish actually were reported to have drowned in it because of the lack of oxygen in the water.

Some of the bacterially contaminated water was discovered to have seeped into a couple of wells near the river, causing some concern, although most wells have tested safe so far.

Although the sudden downpour over the swamp undoubtedly contributed to the river's problems, it is probably not safe to indict nature and only nature.

The delicate ecosystem that will in time heal itself hasn't been helped any by tampering with aquifer levels brought about by overdevelopment and over-pumping.

Wells that are only days away from sucking air are wide open and vulnerable for being suddenly filled with whatever water makes itself available, and plenty of wells along the river in both Hernando and Pasco counties fit that description.

Or, to slip in one last quote from the Gipper, and, in fact, from the same campaign speech where he badmouthed volcanoes and trees: "People are ecology, too."

For better or for worse.

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