Monday, July 16, 2012

Florida’s Remaining Natural Environment - Death by a Thousand Pricks

A prick is defined by Merriam Webster as the act of piercing something with a fine, sharp point leaving a mark or shallow hole.  There are other meanings you’ll find in Encyclopedia Britannica Company’s Merriam Webster dictionary but for the sake of propriety I need to stick with this one, although one might find other definitions more applicable.

The significance of a prick is this.  The pain of one prick, while bothersome and certainly undesirable, is perhaps tolerable, but many pricks will cause serious pain, illness and even death.
The normal human reaction after the first prick is do what’s reasonably possible to avoid the pain of another.  Somewhere in the back of one’s mind, following a prick, a voice can be heard saying, “Do not disregard this seemingly minor irritation.  It could be the first of many, and many can be dangerous to one’s well being.”
Though Florida’s environment has suffered the damage of many pricks over the decades, that voice in the back of our collective minds seems to have been quieted.  As a society, it appears we have lost our ability to hear the warning, or perhaps for political reasons we have simply chosen to ignore it.
Florida’s limited remaining natural environment is suffering from many pricks.  There are many examples.  The vast Floridan Aquifer, to suggest one, can withstand the removal of its waters up to a certain point, but thereafter, will begin to suffer perhaps irreparably.  As the number of withdrawal points and removal rates increase, surface water bodies begin to disappear and, beneath the surface, salt water, which surrounds all fresh water in aquifer storage, begins to invade.
In the early 1920’s, the City of St. Petersburg lost its supply of fresh water to salt intrusion from the nearby Gulf.  Its wells were located on the Pinellas peninsular where the zone of fresh water was shallow and limited.  Knowing water would be found further inland, the city moved its wells to northwest Hillsborough County.
As St. Petersburg’s population grew and withdrawals increased, the population within the withdrawal area was also growing.  More and more people began to notice local lakes were declining and wetlands were drying out.  The problem worsened with the arrival of the Pinellas County utility system which also placed wellfields in northwest Hillsborough, as well as further north into Pasco County. There were wet years, but the ability of the system to recover grew ever slower until eventually even hurricanes could not replenish the aquifer enough to sustain the historic average surface water elevations. The endless pricks began to overwhelm the system and the effect was inevitable.
One of the lawyers involved in the ensuing water battles that lasted for decades was Ed de la Parte who worked for Pickens Talley, Pinellas County’s utilities director.  Talley often enjoyed pointing out how vast the Florida Aquifer was and how silly it was to suggest that the paltry millions of gallons per day the city and county were pumping might be harmful.  Fortunately, that pumping has been drastically reduced through the efforts of local activists and the SWFWMD, and the hydrologic system is recovering.  It was an expensive and near tragic lesson.
North Florida is known for having the highest concentration of first magnitude springs in the world.  Today, however, the groundwater system is suffering and the once unmatched beauty and clarity of the springs are showing it.  Too many straws are sucking the lifeblood from the vast underground system that feeds them and nutrients in the form of nitrates from septic tanks, agriculture and golf courses are enriching what remains of their flows.  Algal slime known as lyngbya is killing the native eel grass and clouding the water that was at one time so clean and clear one could drink it by the handful. 
Now, a Canadian billionaire wants permission to put ten thousand cows on 30,000 acres nearby and is claiming the hundreds of tons of manure that will be generated and the withdrawal of 13.2 million gallons per day of water from the same system that feeds Silver Springs will do no harm.  The same Ed de la Parte that believed Pickens Talley 25 years ago when he stated the Floridan Aquifer was so vast the pumping from northwest Hillsborough County was not causing harm is now claiming the same thing in Marion County.  Ed de la Parte is the attorney representing the Canadian billionaire.
Clearly, he does not grasp the concept of death that can be caused by a thousand pricks.  A single cactus spine is of little consequence, but one might not survive a fall into a bed of cacti.  De la Parte should remember the lesson and the cost to his previous client, and the near tragic impact upon northwest Hillsborough County.
It is an old problem when a user claims the impact of his use upon a “commons” is not the one that is causing destruction.  It is the collective use of others that is the genesis of the problem, and thus his use should continue to be acceptable.  This classic point was made by a biology professor of the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 1968, Garrett Hardin.  In his article, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” (Science Magazine, December 13, 1968) he wrote:

The tragedy of the commons develops in this way. Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. Such an arrangement may work reasonably satisfactorily for centuries because tribal wars, poaching, and disease keep the numbers of both man and beast well below the carrying capacity of the land. Finally, however, comes the day of reckoning, that is, the day when the long-desired goal of social stability becomes a reality. At this point, the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy.
As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain. Explicitly or implicitly, more or less consciously, he asks, "What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?" This utility has one negative and one positive component.
1) The positive component is a function of the increment of one animal. Since the herdsman receives all the proceeds from the sale of the additional animal, the positive utility is nearly +1.
2) The negative component is a function of the additional overgrazing created by one more animal. Since, however, the effects of overgrazing are shared by all the herdsmen, the negative utility for any particular decision-making herdsman is only a fraction of 1.
Adding together the component partial utilities, the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another; and another... But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit--in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.
Some would say that this is a platitude. Would that it were! In a sense, it was learned thousands of years ago, but natural selection favors the forces of psychological denial (8). The individual benefits as an individual from his ability to deny the truth even though society as a whole, of which he is a part, suffers.     (Emphasis added) 

Would it be unthinkable to consider that the environment of Florida may on the brink of suffering its own tragedy of commons?  Florida’s unique natural environment belongs to no one. It belongs to all. Yet we seem determined to abuse and neglect it to extinction.  We are suffering it pricks from a thousand wrongs and yet there are those who would prick it even more and claim it is not their prick that’s destroying it.  This is Ed de la Parte’s song on behalf of the Canadian billionaire and the “prick” he would brandish upon Silver Springs.
Pricks can come in all sizes.  Some are not small, such as the proposed Farmton Tract, a 59,000-acre, 50-year, planned community of 25,000 rooftops, millions of square feet of commercial development straddling both Volusia and Brevard counties.  Even though the project leaders have promised a sizeable portion of the total acreage (80%) will be “conserved forever,” it is still a prick on the larger body of environmental Florida and may have serious impacts on the very unique aquifer system underlying Volusia County.  How many more pricks like this can we stand?
Will it matter, though, if there’s no one to oversee and assure the good things this project proposes are actually delivered?  Hundreds of water management professionals who dedicated much of their lives to protecting natural Florida have been shown the door at the state’s five water management districts.  Those in charge of the store now, are all about firing the bag boys and decreasing the cost of running it and not whether customers will return, all in the name of cutting costs.  How is all the slicing and dicing of Florida’s environmental protections going to bring more business to Florida?  It is an ill conceived, systematic removal of the state’s nose in a misguided attempt to improve its face.
Our business-oriented governor stopped the acquisition of all environmental lands by the water management districts and told them to begin selling off “the surplus.”  Apparently, it is of no concern that the land’s cost to the public will likely be much more than what a fire sale might bring during the currently ongoing recession. Nor is there any concern that the purchases were demanded by a majority of Florida voters on two separate occasions in the first place and that selling any environmental land is something of a breach of public trust.  This is truly one of the dumbest pricks of all and an important one that could stunt Florida’s environmental quality of life for generations if not forever.  Some of the lands that could be purchased at bargain prices now are irreplaceable but will be lost forever if the opportunity to conserve them is allowed to pass.  Protests and plain attempts at persuading common sense are having the same effect as the sounds of falling trees in a forest when there’s no one there to hear.
The list goes on and on.  Tens of millions of acres of natural Florida has already been lost which will never be recovered.  Think Everglades. Think hundreds of miles of beaches covered with condos but no nesting Leatherbacks or Sooty Terns.  The state has already suffered the damning consequences of a million pricks, and yet, we hear everyday how the current administration has devised a new way to prick it again and again. 
He has ordered his regulators to “work with the business community” rather than seek out violators, but instead, they are giving away the store, according to would-be whistleblower Connie Bersok.  “Working with” has come to mean “grant the permit.”
Between the seemingly hellish intent of the legislature to revoke all sensible protections needed to sustain Florida’s natural systems and the mindless destructive policies initiated by a governor with no background in government or the science of ecology, Florida’s unique and once grand natural environment is destined to become a parking lot unless attitudes change, and the attitude I’m talking about is that of the voting public. 
That voice in back of our cumulative minds is speaking to us.  An awakening is needed before the store is looted, the “common” is destroyed, and it’s just too late.  Let us heed the warning.


  1. Sonny - you don't know me, but I watched you along side of Judy Williams and Gilliam Clarke for many years. I came on the scene just pre-TBW. I still live in Quail Hollow. I never knew the passion in your heart. But, now I'm watching you again and I am VERY glad you're out here saying it the way you see it. You have outdone yourself with "death by a thousand pricks". I am sending the link to everyone I can think of who gives a damn. Thank you.

  2. You have a remarkable way with words.

  3. Sonny, it has been a while since I read the "Tragedy of the Commons" but we Floridians are in the midst of the most careless administration in my memory.

  4. With the majority of our waters polluted; most freshwater fish contaminated with mercury; our springs green; sea level rise accelerating; paving going from coast to coast; water shortages in most districts; environmentally insensitive leadership in all branches of government undoing environmental laws and rules and a public that can't connect their lifestyles with our deteriorating climate...I think we are squarely in the tragedy of the commons!!! I think the brink is a happy memory.

    PS I loved your article.

  5. Sonny, I read it in its entirety and it is brilliant. May all Floridians read it.

  6. Great piece ... Keep at it.

  7. You are very much on target, Sonny. And so right that no one in Tallahassee is listening...they don't care as long as they please the money behind them.

  8. Very good to see you are still on the ball! Keep up the good work

  9. Wow, could not be said any better. Thanks for caring AND speaking out!

  10. Say, Death by a thousand CUTS.
    Save PRICKS as a euphemism for those who would visit this ruin on Florida.

  11. Listened with fascination to your interview on WMNF by Pat Kemp yesterday evening! I always enjoy listening to someone speak who did their homework and you have certainly done yours. Thanx for your humor and hard work. Please continue to have fun with truth and the facts as neither have an agenda and levity does help to open doors and minds

  12. Since Scott's arrival, the state natural resource agencies have been purged of their few remaining scientists and managers who had backbones. More purges are on the way to make sure these agencies cannot meet their mandate for decades to come. This essay is applicable from extreme south Florida all the way to the panhandle. Conditions will continue to deteriorate as long as we build our business models based on short-term profit margins derived from externalizing costs to the natural system.

  13. Cathy QuindiaganJuly 20, 2012 at 9:11 PM

    I will do my part to keep plugging away at the politician mindset. Thanks for so clearly stating the obvious.