Story and photos by DOTTY NIST
The water that connects us “needs us now,” author Cynthia Barnett told the crowd gathered at South Walton High School on July 25.
Barnett, a Florida resident, award-winning environmental journalist, author, and world traveler, was inaugural speaker for a series of informational events planned by the local environmental conservation nonprofit organization Safe Water for Walton.
Barnett has reported on water topics and climate change around the world. She is author of several books, the latest being “Rain: A Natural and Cultural History,” which tells the story of rain from billions of years ago to the present.
Distinguishing Walton County as a place “shaped and defined by water more than any other part of Florida,” with the gulf, lakes and dune lakes, rivers, springs, and other water bodies, even the aquifer, serving to bind residents together, Barnett had a hopeful message for the local area.”I want to underscore that Walton County and the Panhandle can avoid the mistakes of South Florida by being proactive in protecting your groundwater and surface water supplies,” she emphasized.
However, she cautioned that, for the first time since the environmental laws of the 1970s went into place to address severe industrial pollution nationwide, the children of today, “are not inheriting water as clean and as abundant as the generation before.”
Barnett brought up some current challenges facing water resources, including the toxic algae blooms that are widespread in Florida and are expanding worldwide, pharmaceuticals in public drinking water systems, and plastics and plastic microbeads proliferating in the gulf and on the beaches.
She also spoke of problems that have become evident as a result of the draining of an estimated 11 million acres of wetlands statewide in Florida. “We set out to get rid of water and we got rid of too much,” Barnett said, explaining that only too late was the importance of wetlands’ role as storehouses for freshwaters and safehouses for floodwaters understood.
As a result of these water withdrawals, beginning in the 1950s springs in the state began drying up never to come back, Barnett told attendees, one of those being White Springs, previously one of Florida’s largest springs and a former spa and resort, located near the Suwannee River. With other examples being Peacock Springs north of Gainesville and Kissenger Elders in Central Florida, she said she has now calculated 39 “lost springs” in Florida.
The Floridan aquifer, source of our region’s drinking water, feeds more than 1,000 springs in Florida, Barnett told the group.
While observing that water management, government regulations, court action, technical innovations, and similar ways of addressing water scarcity and water quality challenges “have a place,” she identified “a new public ethic for water,” as indispensable in saving freshwaters for future generations and the ecosystems.
Such an ethic would hearken back to the environmental movement of the 1960s and 1970s, which, as Barnett discussed, signaled that industrial pollution was no longer acceptable to most Americans, spurred the creation of the National Environmental Policy Act, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the federal Clean Water Act, Florida water management laws to regulate groundwater pumping, and set in motion pollution “fixes,” to water problems that took decades and enormous effort.
She identified as a key part of the new ethic, “What we can do on our end to use less water and use less things that harm water?”
The goal, Barnett indicated, is for the community to leave a better environment for the next generation.
“The ethic is already underway,” she reported, citing declining water use in Florida. In 2005, Floridians used about 174 gallons of water a day per person, she noted, and within five years this was reduced to 158 gallons, with the latest data showing 134 gallons a day per person. Walton County’s usage is still higher than average at 143 gallons a day per person, Barnett added.
As sources for community leadership in the water ethic she identified: churches, which are already engaging in clean water and water use reduction projects; schools (with credit to the Walton County School District for hosting the night’s event); creative citizenry, professionals and business leaders; and local governments and developers.
While acknowledging that politics may create barriers to progress, Barnett remarked that in the past bipartisan coalitions and leadership from outside government have successfully addressed some of the toughest environmental problems.
“Water is not an issue of more government or less government, or Democrats or Republicans. It is an issue of good government,” she asserted
“Water really is a universal force,” Barnett observed, also calling water, “the deepest bond we share as Floridians.”
Also speaking briefly at the event were Walton County School Superintendent Russell Hughes, members of the South Walton High School Environmental Club, who were assisting with the sale of Barnett’s books, with a portion of proceeds to go to the club’s efforts, and Safe Water for Walton board members Kelly Layman and Steve Hall.
Hughes conveyed his excitement that the Walton County School District would be participating in Safe Water for Walton’s second annual Operation Medicine Cabinet event in 2019, focused on collecting unwanted pharmaceuticals from the public and thus keeping these substances out of the water supply. The school district had also been a partner with the inaugural 2018 effort.
Layman’s remarks included updates on the planned Operation Medicine Cabinet, along with the nonprofit group’s membership program initiated in March, several membership parties and events, and the formation of an advisory council for the organization. She also spoke about the group’s lobbying efforts and the “galvanizing issue,” related to the formation of Safe Water for Walton, the members’ opposition to a permit application pending with the state Department of Environmental Protection associated with a deep injection well proposed for the Springhill Landfill in nearby Jackson County. The well would be for disposal of leachate (waste liquid) from the landfill. Layman has warned that the leachate would contain carcinogens and harmful heavy metals that could pose a contamination danger to the region’s water basin.
The proposed well would be a mile deep, Layman noted, adding that the watershed that Walton and Jackson counties are part of includes six counties in all.
The application for the well, which would initially be a exploratory well, is currently in abeyance until after Oct. 1 at the request of the applicants in June 14 correspondence. The letter referenced ongoing negotiations with Jackson County and the city of Marianna to “develop solutions for managing the leachate.”
There had been similar requests in August 2017 and March 2018 from the applicants for DEP to keep the permit application on hold pending the above-referenced negotiations.
Hall announced plans by Safe Water for Walton to “be part of the (2018) election,” by putting out a questionnaire on water issues for Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) candidates. The nonprofit group will not endorse candidates but will strive to raise awareness on these issues to inform the public and the candidates, he explained.
Information on Safe Water for Walton is available on the website www.safewaterforWalton.org and on the nonprofit group’s Facebook page.