Florida doesn’t have a ‘culture of clean water.’ How do we get there from here?

2021 photo shows a widespread bloom in Lake Okeechobee near Clewiston. Image by Ralph Arwood of LightHawk Conservation Flying.

In Florida our iconic waters are central to our quality of life; perhaps even our culture.

But we do not have a “culture of clean water.”

The phrase was coined by Dr. Paul Gray of Audubon Florida, speaking at a June 23 Rivers Coalition meeting in Stuart.

Audubon, he noted, was founded in the late 1800s to end the senseless slaughter of birds. It took decades to get laws passed, to get enforcement. But today, Gray noted, if you shoot a snowy egret on your dock you’re going to be in trouble. The culture has changed.

But when it comes to clean water, said Gray “people are still allowed to pollute, and we put up with it.”

The culture hasn’t changed.

Imagine if it did.

Imagine a Florida where the further degradation of our precious waters was unthinkable, and regulators were prepared to do whatever it takes to prevent it.

Imagine a Florida where regulatory agencies like the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services had the explicit authority, resources — and political will — to go after polluters.

Imagine if agriculture, a major source of nutrients in our waters, wasn’t given a free pass. So long as farms are enrolled in “best management practices,” they’re afforded the “presumption of compliance.” That means regulators don’t do any actual testing — they just assume pollution reduction goals are being met.

Investigative reporting has shown that’s not the case.

And imagine a Florida where that was the scandal it deserves to be.

Go further. Imagine if discharges from Lake Okeechobee to the coasts, particularly when the water is laced with harmful algal blooms, were simply not an option because of the effect those blooms were likely to have on aquatic ecosystems — and human health.

Imagine if the big sugar farms south of Lake O were required to hold and treat runoff on their own land, rather than filling up the taxpayer-funded stormwater treatment areas to the extent that water managers have no choice but to shunt excess lake water to the coasts.

Imagine if coastal Florida’s loss of seagrass and the resultant manatee deaths were deemed so critical that legislators worked to curtail coastal development — rather than facilitating it with bills like the “seagrass mitigation banking” proposal earlier this year.

Indeed, imagine a Florida where your local county or city officials consistently voted against proposals to expand the urban development boundary or other projects that could have a detrimental effect on local water quality — and where it didn’t require a tooth-and-nail fight to get them to do the right thing.

We would have a Florida where special interests weren’t allowed to dictate the rules. We’d have a Florida where polluters might be regarded with the same contempt as the guy who shoots a snowy egret on his dock.

That’s the Florida VoteWater seeks; that’s the culture your advocacy, and your support, can help create.

A culture of clean water would include an expectation that our waterways will be clean and protected. Not a hope; not a request; but an expectation.

We’ve got a long way to go before we get there.

But we’ll keep pushing — and we’re counting on you to do the same.

P.S. The generosity of VoteWater supporters has already made a difference in Florida’s fight for clean water. If you can, please click here to make a donation or become a member, and help us win a solution that works for all Floridians.