Friday, April 25, 2008

'Endangered' label for St. Johns an embarrassment to this state

'Endangered' label for St. Johns an embarrassment to this state
By David Guest
Daytona Beach News-Journal
April 25, 2008

The environmental group American Rivers has named the St. Johns River as one of the top 10 endangered rivers in the United States. This is embarrassing for a state that's struggling to be seen as an environmental leader. It's doubly embarrassing because the reason that the St. Johns is considered endangered is simply because of bad politics.

How bad? Florida water managers are considering a ridiculous plan to build the largest pipeline in the state to suck water out of the St. Johns and send it to fuel more Orlando sprawl. Never mind that this type of water transfer has proven to be an environmental disaster in other parts of the world.

Never mind that Central Florida is so historically wet that Walt Disney had to drain the land 40 years ago to develop Disney World. Developers, and their friends in government, want to build even more sprinkler-guzzling lawns and golf courses, and they insist they can't provide as much future water as they need.

So now, taxpayer dollars are being used to decide whether Seminole County, Orlando/Orange County's next-door neighbor, should be granted a permit to pump 5.5 million gallons daily from the river. It is the first step in a larger plan to pump as much as a quarter-billion gallons daily from the St. Johns and its tributary, the Ocklawaha.

"Imagine the Empire State Building flooded nearly to its trademark lightning rod," David Hunt wrote in the Florida Times-Union, when the plan was announced. "That's about how much water the St. Johns River could lose each day under plans to quench a thirsty Central Florida."

It is worth noting that the St. Johns is so revered that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency designated it years ago as one of 14 American Heritage Rivers worthy of special attention from the federal government. Why mess with a good thing?

Florida is a naturally soggy place with plenty of water. But we have to work smarter to make sure water is available at the right places and times. That doesn't mean sucking your place dry then sticking your straw in your neighbor's river when your water runs low.

The solution is common sense: If your water is low, conserve it and stop adding new taps for a while.

Water conservation should always be our first choice, and we have plenty of examples elsewhere to guide us. Even with measures like odd-even-day watering, Floridians use 160 gallons of water per person per day, six gallons per person more than the national average. California uses a third of that. We know that most of our water is lost to water-intensive landscaping and agriculture. Both problems have readily available fixes. Using drought-tolerant landscape plants and installing efficient landscape irrigation is one place to start.

Florida agricultural corporations are major guzzlers, using half the water in the state. But many still use inefficient flood irrigation. Agricultural operations should be using drip irrigation, which has been used elsewhere for more than 30 years, and cuts water usage by 50 to 80 percent. (Plastic tubing with small holes delivers water near the plant's roots, with little waste.) These and other widely used water conservation solutions are available right now. All it takes is political will.

The other preposterous scheme -- tapping the nationally renowned St. Johns River to feed more sprawl -- should get the boot.

Guest is an attorney for Earthjustice in Tallahassee. Earthjustice is a nonprofit organization dedicated to enforcing and strengthening environmental laws.

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