Our Water Problems Are Political Problems

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People paddle on the Santa Fe River in High Springs. Photo courtesy of Gainesville Sun

Lucinda Faulkner Merritt has written an excellent opinion piece in the Gainesville Sun regarding our water problems.

Here are two phrases from this piece worth remembering:

Leadership on statewide mandated water conservation by everyone, for example, is missing in action.

Rather than protecting our natural systems, our current environmental laws codify how much harm we are willing to allow to them.

These phrases are loaded with power, knowledge and wisdom.  They should be placed on banners and hung on the Capitol building in Tallahassee and inside the meeting chambers of every water management district in the state, right next to the state flag.Scroll

Lucinda Faulkner Merritt: Our water problems are political problems

By Lucinda Faulkner Merritt

Special to The Sun

Published: Friday, May 6, 2016 at 6:01 a.m.

Last Modified: Wednesday, May 4, 2016 at 3:19 p.m.

Bob Knight of the independent nonprofit Florida Springs Institute says our water management districts use flawed computer models to make decisions that affect our drinking water supply. Steve Minnis of the Suwannee River Water Management District — whose directors are appointed by Gov. Rick Scott — says we shouldn’t worry because the district employs skilled staff members and its models are based on sound science.

Which of these two gentlemen should we believe?

Leaving aside the huge question of an independent scientist’s opinion versus decisions made by political appointees — and it’s those appointees, not staff members, who make decisions at our water management districts — it’s not unusual for different scientists to disagree about their findings.

When there is scientific disagreement, we must remember that science was never designed to make decisions for us. Science is a way to describe how the world works, not a system for considering the ethical, moral and legal implications of decisions.

Scientific findings, for example, are determined by the questions scientists ask and the data they choose to consider. You’ve heard the phrase, “Garbage in, garbage out,” and statistical analyses are only as good as the statisticians who prepare them.

So when it comes to making important decisions that affect our drinking water, we must consider not only science but also our ethical, moral and legal obligations to each other, to our children and to the natural world that sustains life.

One guideline is the precautionary principle: When in doubt — given different scientific opinions about the damage that could be inflicted on a natural system such as a spring or river — we should choose the most conservative course of action guaranteed to cause the least amount of damage.

More guidelines exist in the Florida water ethic proposed by Gainesville writer Cynthia Barnett: Are we valuing water appropriately? Are we working together to use less water or fighting each other to grab more? Are we making efforts to keep water local? Are we avoiding over-tapping our water supply? Are we avoiding over-relying on expensive fixes? Are we leaving as much water as possible in natural systems so our children can make their own decisions about water?

I’ve observed our water management districts for several years and my answer to most of those questions is “no.” Leadership on statewide mandated water conservation by everyone, for example, is missing in action.

Law is as big a factor as science in water decisions made by state agencies. As I hear public outcries about a chicken factory in southern Columbia County and a proposed phosphate mine in Bradford and Union counties, I’m reminded of what I learned at a presentation by the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund: U.S. laws have been stacked in favor of business and commerce since the time the Constitution was written. Rather than protecting our natural systems, our current environmental laws codify how much harm we are willing to allow to them.

I concluded from the presentation that we must level the playing field in courts of law between business/commerce and the natural systems needed to sustain life. Fortunately, organizations such as Barry University Law School’s Center for Earth Jurisprudence are working on this issue. New Zealand, for example, recently granted legal rights to the Whanganui River. Closer to home, the Ichetucknee and Santa Fe rivers might be better protected if our courts recognized their legal rights to exist and if they had official guardians to represent them in court.

Florida is at a water crossroads in this election year. Because our water problems transcend science by involving considerations of ethics, morals and laws, the people we choose to represent us in the public arena are the ones who will decide whether we restore waters such as the Ichetucknee and Santa Fe or continue to witness their decline.

Our water problems are political problems. Elections matter because water matters. It’s our collective responsibility to educate ourselves; checking out Florida Conservation Voters is a good place to start. Find out what water needs to win. Vote for water in 2016.

— Lucinda Faulkner Merritt lives in Fort White.

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