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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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Florida. Flor-i-da. The three syllables trip gaily off the tongue. Florida, the land of flowers, the American Eden, a glorious confluence of sun, land and water. Florida has 1,000 miles of coastline, more than any state except Alaska. Florida has 10,000 miles of rivers and streams and more than 7,000 lakes and springs that well up from the great limestone bed underlying the peninsula. The only state except Hawaii that can be called tropical, it's a biological treasure-house, with more than 3,000 species of plants and a profusion of animal life.

Thirty-eight million tourists are expected to visit Florida this year, and some who like what they see will stay for good. There is a flood tide of people moving to the state. Every week some 7,000 people arrive seeking the good life. In 1950 Florida had a population of 2.7 million and ranked 20th among the states. By 1960 the population had almost doubled to 4.9 million, and Florida ranked 10th. Now the population has doubled again, to almost 10 million, and the state ranks seventh. By the turn of the century, Florida is expected to have 14 million people, and rank fourth.

Boosters and boomers see nothing but good in this population explosion. "Florida is the growingest big state.... On that basis the picture is bright," says a subscription appeal for The Kiplinger Florida Letter, while another business newsletter, Florida Forecasts, notes, in an item entitled "Music to Their Ears," that Governor Bob Graham has told the state's Industrial Development Research Council that his administration is dedicated to bringing in more industry. A special supplement in the magazine published by Eastern Airlines, which flies seven million people a year to the Sunshine State, reports that Florida is "turning into a state of euphoria for all who go there." A "striking example" of this giddiness is Tampa, where more new construction was announced last year than had been completed in the previous 50, and where one of "the most spectacular developments" will be an office/hotel/retail complex, starting with a 20-story office tower that will feature "a stunning lobby and a three-level atrium."

The sad fact is that Florida is going down the tube. Indeed, in no state is the environment being wrecked faster and on a larger scale. Some gorgeous places still exist, but there are few areas that aren't under siege, ranging from the Everglades in the south ("The Everglades—a Dying System," runs a headline in the magazine Florida Out-of-Doors) to the storied Suwannee River in the north, threatened by phosphate mining, housing developments and a pipeline to carry water to an adjoining county. And there are serious urban ills. Miami, which erupted in racial riots last year, has a soaring crime rate. Dade County, which includes Miami, had 580 murders in 1980, one of the highest per-capita rates in the nation, and many of the killings were drug-related. Drug smuggling may, in fact, be the biggest industry in the state. A skipper with a fast boat and a knowledge of shallow coastal waters can make $100,000 in a single night. The recent big jump in the price of real estate in south Florida is attributed partly to the laundering of drug profits. Last fall Governor Graham suspended the Monroe County state attorney after the attorney had been charged with using drugs.

On the environmental front, the basic integrity of the state's lands and waters is at stake. Florida, said ecologist Raymond F. Dasmann in his study No Further Retreat, "is a leading contender for first place in the nation's chamber of environmental horrors." Dasmann wrote those words 10 years ago, but since then the state's Department of Natural Resources, an ineffective agency at best, has conceded that Florida is undergoing "ecological disaster."

The key is water. For the last century, but particularly since World War II, federal and state agencies and a host of Floridians have been enthusiastically administering ecological enemas to marshes, swamps, wetlands and floodplains. Such areas cleanse water naturally, but now many have been drained to make way for cities, towns, housing developments, farms, industrial parks and shopping malls. This not only depletes the water storage capacity of the limestone aquifers below but also degrades the surface water. In many locations Floridians have, in essence, run a hose from their toilet to the kitchen faucet.

"The failure of the state to manage water sensibly is involved in virtually every environmental issue," says Charles Lee, 30, lobbyist and vice-president for conservation for the Florida Audubon Society. "There's no common body of state policy on water, and that's why we are in very real danger of losing all. The Water Resources Act passed by the legislature in 1972 calls for development of a state water plan, but we don't have one yet. Every environmental fight funnels into government for a hearing. If you can muster a coalition with clout to beat back a project, you have 'a chance, but it's a case-by-case treadmill. Proponents of development projects are well financed and usually politically well connected, while opponents are most often citizens groups that don't have the resources of the pro-development forces. Some concerned officials in government take an active role, others play Pontius Pilate. As far as the environment is concerned, we have a government of men, not a government of laws. If the right man happens to be in the right spot, you have a chance. Otherwise the battle is lost."

If Lee's words seem overwrought, consider the following:

•The volume of fresh water in the Biscayne aquifer serving Dade County has decreased so much that in times of drought wells have to be closed because salt water intrudes from the sea. Even when there is no drought, Miami's drinking water is one of the most chemically contaminated of any city in the country.

•The Miami Canal and others in the state are grossly polluted with dangerous levels of coliform bacteria. "Perhaps if people knew something about the water quality of our canals, they would hesitate before buying waterfront homes," Chris Pflum, an environmentalist, writes in Florida Naturalist. "A child can pick up less bacteria playing in a toilet than in many canals."

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