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There's Trouble in Paradise
Robert H. Boyle
February 09, 1981
The channelized Kissimmee River, once a meandering stream that nourished a wide floodplain, symbolizes Florida's dilemma: too many people demanding too much of the state's fragile land and water systems
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February 09, 1981

There's Trouble In Paradise

The channelized Kissimmee River, once a meandering stream that nourished a wide floodplain, symbolizes Florida's dilemma: too many people demanding too much of the state's fragile land and water systems

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•Forty states have one or more sites containing potentially hazardous wastes with no barrier to the groundwater. Florida is by far the worst offender in the country, with 103 such sites.

•Tampa Bay, once a glory of the state, is also filthy. "It's a mess," says Dr. Robert J. (Skip) Livingston, a marine ecologist at Florida State University. "There will never be an oyster in Tampa Bay-again. It's unsafe to swim in Hillsborough Bay, as the northeastern portion of Tampa Bay is called, it's so polluted."

•All told, only 38% of Florida's estuarine habitat is still in a near-pristine condition. Miles of mangrove stands, which shelter fish spawning and nursery grounds, have been ripped up and smothered, and fish populations have dropped alarmingly. Snook are in such short supply that the establishment of a hatchery is being considered. Great numbers of shellfish grounds have disappeared since 1950. Of those left, only 23% are safe for harvesting.

•More than half the fresh waters in Florida, reports the state's Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission, "have been negatively altered or degraded.... Basically, the natural habitat that is crucial for fish and wildlife species has shrunken dramatically and what is left is being destroyed on a piecemeal basis. We are casually destroying an annual $1 billion freshwater sports-fishing industry." The St. Johns River in northeast Florida, the state's largest waterway and once the most famous bass river in the country, is perhaps too far gone to save. It's plagued by industrial waste, municipal sewage and uncontrolled urban runoff. In two major kills last year, 15 million fish went belly-up in the St. Johns.

•Central Florida's Lake Apopka, once one of the state's most celebrated bass lakes, is now a septic tank of pollution, and Lake Tohopekaliga, another sport-fishing mecca, may soon be destroyed by runoff from farms and developments and discharges from two sewage plants on Shingle Creek, a tributary called "an environmental time bomb" by the Orlando Sentinel Star. Last March biologist Vince Williams of the Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission reported that Lake Tohopekaliga will probably be lost within the next decade. "If Lake Tohopekaliga goes, the other downstream lakes in the chain, including Cypress, Hatchineha and Kissimmee, will undoubtedly do the same," says Williams. Lake Okeechobee, one of the largest lakes in the U.S., is polluted by farm wastes and pesticides.

The loss of habitat is continuing at such a pace that John C. Jones, executive director of the Florida Wildlife Federation, tells his 50,000 members that he doubts there will be any need for hunting licenses in 20 years. The same, he says, could go for fishing licenses. There simply may not be any game or fish to go after. Jones, who 10 years ago gave up a successful plumbing contracting business to work fulltime toward saving his native state's wildlife, believes that the most endangered species in Florida is not the well-publicized manatee or the Everglades kite but the Florida sportsman. The marsh where Jones once hunted ducks is now the Palm Beach Auditorium; a housing project is situated on his dove-hunting grounds; the Florida Turnpike runs over another favorite spot; Century Village, a condominium complex with 15,000 residents, covers still another; the field in which he used to train his dogs is filled with litter, broken glass and abandoned cars; and the meandering Kissimmee River, where Jones and his wife, Mariana, once fished for bass, is now a channelized and polluted ditch. A Mormon convert, Jones likes to quote Isaiah 5:8: "Woe unto them that join house to house, that lay field to field, till there be no place...."

Even some of the state's most famous natural assets are being destroyed. "If there's any one thing that makes Florida unique from an environmental standpoint it's the coastal areas," says Tallahassee attorney Jay Landers, former secretary of the state's Department of Environmental Regulation. "To me the biggest environmental tragedy in Florida is the fact that so many of our beach areas have been ruined. Until 10 years ago, it was common practice to bulldoze sand dunes to put in a development. That has changed dramatically since the passage of the Beach and Shore Preservation Act in 1965 and the subsequent establishment of coastal construction setback lines on a county-by-county basis. No construction is allowed seaward of that line except through special permits. But for many areas of the state it's much too late. Had we had a law like that 50 years ago, Florida would still be a remarkably beautiful coastal state. There's not much left. There are a few stretches here and there where we can still go and see what it was like 100 years ago. Some stretches along the panhandle, which is relatively undeveloped, are just magnificent."

Miami Beach is a classic example of the destroy-and-develop concept of building. Nelson Blake, historian and critic of urban water systems, describes in his recent book, Land into Water, Water into Land, how developers "transformed a swampy island into the glittering resort of Miami Beach. Armies of laborers hacked away the mangroves with machetes, and great dredges pumped sand from the bottom of the ocean and spread it over the swamp to provide land for hotels, polo grounds, golf courses, tennis courts, yacht basins and bathhouses." Yet as destructive as the creation of Miami Beach was to the immediate environment, it did not, in the view of most ecologists, create the kind of long-term problems caused by the filling, draining and development of other coastal and interior wetlands.

Last September, the Orlando Sentinel Star, in a special 10-page supplement entitled "Florida's Water: Clean It or Kill It," reported, "Waters are befouled by farms, developers, industry, cars and homeowners.... When compared with 20 years ago, the picture is bleak. Once-pristine lakes and streams run dark from years of use as convenient septic tanks in the growth-at-any-cost philosophy. What the future holds is uncertain. Some experts foresee a crisis of major proportions by the year 2000, a teeming Florida choking on its own wastes, a paradise lost, the legacy of public officials unwilling to protect the environment that attracted them and their neighbors here in the first place." In an editorial, the Sentinel Star described local governments, particularly its own Orange County Commission, as negligent and guilty of political cowardice and concluded, "Florida will wither and die if it is continually choking on ever-increasing amounts of human and industrial waste. It is, it always has been, a case of life or death. It is only now that we are finally realizing that."

As bad as the mess is in Florida, it would be a lot worse were it not for the local environmentalists who have been battling this degradation since the 1960s. In Miami they've included attorney Alice Wainwright, later president of the Tropical Audubon Society; the current Florida Audubon vice-president, Lee, then a 15-year-old sports fisherman whose mother chauffeured him to environmental meetings; Jim Redford, now a Dade County commissioner, and his late wife, Polly; and Marjory Stoneman Douglas, author of The Everglades: River of Grass, who's still active at 90. Working in various combinations, these pioneers scored some stunning victories in the '60s and early '70s. They stopped a refinery project on Biscayne Bay, fought off development of the northernmost keys and got Congress to establish the Biscayne National Monument, a 96,000-acre preserve of small keys, coral reefs and bay shore. This was followed up with the defeat of the Everglades jet-port and a corollary effort that resulted in the acquisition of the Big Cypress Swamp as a national preserve. To the north, Marjorie Carr of Gainesville, a fisheries biologist and mother of five, and Bill Partington, a jazz pianist from Winter Park, helped stir up such a commotion about the Cross Florida Barge Canal that President Nixon finally halted construction of it in 1971.

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