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And Not a Drop to Drink

The Salting of Florida

by ALAN FARAGO

Drought, wildfires, floods. The first three minutes of network news is like a TV primer from the Book of Revelations. Al Gore, in Rolling Stone, was inventor of that line, but at some point in the not-so-distant future, destroyed drinking water wells in South Florida could be on Nightly News. And if Al Gore is still with us, the shot wells scattering chaos in the nation’s presidential bellweather state will not go unremarked. Florida’s threatened drinking water supply is a stark reminder of Gore’s 2000 loss in Florida. Fearing dissent in his own ranks on policies governing growth and the environment, Gore retreated. Today there is no doubt, none at all, that water management has put South Florida property owners into the path of fresh water at the price of gold or a modern Exodus. This is the dirtiest little secret in Florida and why the dying Everglades are a potent symbol of politics in America today.

For decades in Florida, elected officials supported more growth and development and agriculture than our aquifers could reasonably sustain. It is not conjecture. It is not smarmy, feel-good ethos. Within government agencies, scientists, policy makers and attorneys treaded on the subject like walking on egg shells. Early on, it was established that standing up to the destroyers on water supply or water quality issues was the fastest way to lose one’s job. Sugar billionaires, their lobbyists, builders and developers and trade associations like Miami’s Latin Builders Association had the inside track in the inside hallways of government: from the White House to the lowliest office of the county commission. It is still going on. Last week, Florida’s Jack-Ass-In-Chief Barney Bishop– the Associated Industries leader, a self-described “life-long Democrat” (who led the successful effort to dismantle Florida’s growth management agency), appeared on Fox News, calling out the U.S. EPA for “killing jobs faster than President Obama can create them”. Bishop, a carpetbagger if there ever was one, has prevailed on Florida Governor Rick Scott to push back against federal authority to regulate nutrient pollution where the state won’t: overwhelming Florida’s valuable rivers, estuaries and coastal real estate values. To round up the disaster, after so many decades, in a pithy “killing the goose that lays the golden egg” puts an unforgivable smiley face on abject corruption.

Water managers stuck wells and routed water to serve an unsustainable volume of growth. This secret is at the heart of government in Florida and has been known within government offices in South Florida for at least 40 years.

Once drinking water wells are pumping salt, the facts will emerge. Reporters will scan the blogs, for where to start. One story worth recounting is Gary Pesnell’s. Pesnell, a retired District wildlife biologist, worked for the South Florida Water Management District in the early 1970’s. He was given a remarkable assignment; to take as much time as necessary to inventory and catalog the natural resources of Lake Okeechobee. In the course of his work, he began to expose how the Everglades would be sacrificed– willfully– for the political imperatives for growth. Scientists were fearful for their jobs then, as they are today. Now that he is retired– watching from a distance the drought disaster unfold in South Florida– Pesnell spoke out, last week, on a Sierra Club listserve. Perhaps more will speak out, a kind of chorus in a kind of Greek tragedy that is Florida.

Lake Okeechobee, locally referred to as The Lake or The Big O, is the largest freshwater lake in the state of Florida. It is the seventh largest freshwater lake in the United States and the second largest freshwater lake contained entirely within the lower 48 states. Okeechobee covers 730 square miles (1,890 km?), approximately half the size of the state of Rhode Island, and is exceptionally shallow for a lake of its size, with an average depth of only 9 feet. The lake is divided between Glades, Okeechobee, Martin, Palm Beach, and Hendry counties. Maps of Florida show that all five of these counties meet at one point near the center of the lake.

Historically, the entire southern Florida peninsula was influenced by Lake Okeechobee and seasonal flooding. It is still the sick heart of the dying Everglades. To one extent or another, water management uses Lake Okeechobee as a key determinant in canal levels for all the counties south of the lake, comprising millions of water users. Here is what Pesnell has to say:

Pesnell writes:

“I have a degree in Wildlife Management from Louisiana Tech and a masters in fisheries biology from LSU. I was hired by the district right out of graduate school. I was an Environmentalist for the South Florida Water Management District from June 1971 until November 1979. I was the district’s biologist for the Lake Okeechobee marshes and later on for various projects in Conservation Area #3 and Conservation Area #2. I covered pretty much everything from the Lake south to Tamiami Trail. For eight years I practically lived on the Lake or in CA3. I worked primarily with the ecology and taxonomy of marsh vegetation.

Shortly after I went to work with the district I landed the Lake Okeechobee project. The district published a vegetation map that Bob Brown and I put together on the marshes of Lake Okeechobee and a small publication that was primarily descriptive that we did regarding the relationship of marsh vegetation and land elevations in Lake Okeechobee. I was promised a Cadillac operation and I pretty much got it. Everyone was aware that the littoral zone of the lake was big and valuable, but it was largely unknown. I was told that Lake Okeechobee was going to have to hold more water and that the proposed increase in the regulation schedule was a foregone conclusion. However, they wanted the littoral zone documented. If it was going to be destroyed they needed to know what was being destroyed. That is why Bob Brown and I prepared the vegetation map of the lake’s marshes. Up until the end my position was one of the best research positions in the country.

The district and the corps (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) knew in the late 1970s the predicament (as in now) south Florida was facing. They were developing a water use plan. Both ran separate routings and tried to calibrate the routings by plugging in historical data to try to duplicate historical records. I do not know how close they came to duplicating what happened in the past. I do know that every biologist, engineer, hydrologist, whatever that reviewed the routings saw what they showed under the proposed higher regulation schedule with projected increases in water use. They showed higher stages during wet periods and lower stages during dry periods, the proverbial yo-yo effect at ranges far beyond anything previously seen.

The effect on the Conservation Areas and water supply in general were quite obvious. Environmentalist, yes me too, were campaigning against the higher schedule. We have no way of knowing what would have happened if the regulation schedule had not been raised in the face of increased demand. I do not recall seeing an alternative routing like that. It did not happen so the point is moot. As I remember it this water use plan was supposed to determine the mode of operation into the foreseeable future until something else was needed..

I had a source at the corps Jacksonville office of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers who would periodically send me copies of the Corps routing attempts so I had been following the situation long before it was made public. This was top secret stuff. This person sent them to me in mailing tubes with the address in box letters cut out of magazines. They were probably even wiped for finger prints. I managed to keep it quiet for a while. Eventually, I had to respond to what I was seeing and did so with a memo to the director of our division at the time. It was Bill Storch. He tried to fire me and would have had not Walt Dineen done some fast talking on my behalf.

The bottom line is that, the water managers knew what demand was going to do many years before it happened, not only to the environment, but to the water supply in general. They actually predicted what is happening right now. And nobody did anything.

I can tell you what happened to me. This is how the water managers thought at the time and just one small indication of why south Florida is in the mess it is in. No one wanted to face the music. I was supposed to have been supplied with a routing from which to work on the data from years of research involving water levels and marsh vegetation. It was to be a treatise for evaluating environmental impact for the water use plan and eventually go to peer review for publication. One day out of the blue I was handed a routing in a meeting of the Environmental Resources division and told I had two weeks to write an entire volume of the water use plan on the environmental impact of the plan on Lake Okeechobee. I stood up in front of 140 people, said a few choice words and walked out.

When I walked down the hall after that, most district employees walked over to the other side. When I sat down in the coffee shop, suddenly everyone had places to go and things to do. I did write the document in two 80 hour weeks. It was not a very scientific work, but I did the best I could. A number of people convinced me if I did not write it, the truth would never come out. I was accused of writing with a negative attitude and the district did not like it.

I can guarantee that same thing that happened to me happened to people all down the line. Just nobody else said anything. Everything went to hell with that water use plan.

I practically lived on the lake for several years, staying at the Clewiston Inn, camping on the islands, sometimes just sleeping on the levees. I would be out for several days at a time. After the Okeechobee project I was looking for another job when the Area 3 projects came up. I could not resist that. Again, I would be out for days at a time. At that time there were no cell phones and we had no radios. I could leave Holiday Park fish camp on Tuesday morning and no one would see or hear from me until Thursday night or Friday. I would not be missed unless I did not show up at the house when I was supposed to. Fortunately, it seldom happened and my wife had little reason to panic. That was one of the most complete, the most satisfying feelings of freedom, heading out on Holiday Park trail for the 30 or so miles to the gap in the levee where the Big Cypress was and where I would stay at a camp when working in the lower part of the pool. 45 gallons of aviation fuel and three days to roam. I think there is not a tree island or a slough or saw grass flat in Area 3, or Area 2 for that matter that I have not seen, air boated or traversed in some form or fashion. When the northern part of Area 3 got really dry and I was tearing up my airboats trying to get around, the district bought a Roll-a-gon. That roll-a-gon could go just about anywhere when there was no water. I often went alone in the airboat to keep weight down. I knew better than to try to manage the Roll-a-gon by myself and usually had a couple of people with me on that.

Needless to say, I had some very interesting experiences. I had a photographic memory for my field trips and wrote trip reports for each trip.”

Why would a enduring, severe drought wreck South Florida’s drinking water wells? It’s simple. Once salt water gets into the aquifer surrounding a well, it can’t be forced out by fresh water. Four years ago, the drinking water well in Homestead serving the entire Florida Keys came perilously close to being contaminated. Just like you don’t always hear the stories about fighter jets scrambling to meet a perceived threat of unidentified, potentially hostile aircraft; most Floridians are oblivious to the scrambling that goes on, through a persistent drought. Water managers measure the threat and meet in war rooms to plot out responses with gates, locks, and canals. They are tracking the rapid march of salt water inward as, year-by-year, the growth and water consumption of South Floridians sucks more and more water out of the aquifer.

Think of Florida’s water supply and demand as an elastic band, with the competition for water resources being stretched tighter and tighter by serial assaults on the supply by Big Sugar and developers insisting that the primary purpose of water managers is to deliver as much water as they need, whenever they need it.

These are the politics– backed by unlimited campaign contributions– a rain of toxic cash– that forced environmentalists and civic activists to the fringe over the past 40 years, in no small part because the mainstream media refused– and still refuses– to give weight to the ethical lapses that will ultimately determine whether we can afford to live in South Florida.

Alan Farago, conservation chair of Friends of the Everglades, lives in south Florida. He can be reached at: afarago@bellsouth.net