Florida’s Fragile Environment

Gulf of Mexico – off the coast of Cedar Key, Florida

By Patricia Zick @PCZick

I lived in Florida for nearly thirty years. Its landscapes and wildlife still inspire me. Its fragile environment serves as a canary in the coal mine for ecosystems everywhere. Here’s my view of Florida through my camera and words.

I often imagine what the early inhabitants of Florida saw as they fished in the rivers, hunted in the forests, and lived on the prairies. Breathtaking beauty exists in the Panhandle, on both coasts and in the central rolling hills of the peninsular state.

Unfortunately, wherever perfection exists, man attempts to perfect perfection. Nowhere is this practice more evident than in the Sunshine State. Yet when we destroy one thing in an ecosystem, we are not just destroying a part; we are working on the erosion of the whole.

The wholesale destruction of mangroves for most of the twentieth century along the southern regions of the state should have sounded a warning. Without the mangroves, the entire southern coastal zone would be in danger of disappearing. Studies conducted by the Florida Marine Research Institute show that in the Tampa Bay area alone, forty-four percent of the coastal wetlands acreage — including salt marshes and mangrove forests — have been destroyed over the last one hundred years.

mangroves in the Keys

What does this have to do with the ecosystem in which the mangrove lives? Plenty. The mangrove roots trap organic material and serve as surfaces for other marine organisms to attach and thrive. The forests themselves serve as the home base for marine life, and animals shelter themselves from the elements within the protective cover of the mangrove arms. The salt marshes serve as the lifeblood to the mangrove – a tree that revels in a salty environment.

woodstork in the Everglades

Efforts to protect some of the last of rural Florida include the government buying lands at the federal, state, and local levels. However, places such as St. George Island in Apalachicola Bay, with its nine-mile stretch of state park, cannot fight the development that is creeping up on the entrance to the park.

dunes of St. George Island in the Panhandle of Florida

Even with the purchase of these lands for public use, ribbons of asphalt roads and ropes of boardwalks make an impact upon the pristine nature of the land. However, they are unavoidable if we are to enjoy the rawness of nature without doing more destruction, such as destroying the sea oat from its protective berth upon the dunes.

sea oat roots help hold the sand in place

Those little wisps of stalks sitting upon the sand shoot deep roots into the dunes helping to keep the sand in place and thus preventing erosion. Without their presence, the coastline would begin disappearing back into the sea at an alarming rate.

In the middle of the state the connectivity to all that happens in every part of Florida is seen in the appearance of pollution in the rivers and springs, which lead directly into the Floridan aquifer and the drinking water.

manatee in Wakulla Springs near Tallahassee

Ichetucknee Springs, a long time local favorite for tubing and canoeing, appears to be one of the last pristine locations left in north Florida. Floating down the fast-flowing river past the great blue herons feeding on the banks, the turtles sunning on the rocks and the live oaks hanging low over the river, it is impossible to imagine that trouble lurks all around.

great blue heron – St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge

Yet recent studies from Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Geological Survey show pollution from Lake City’s wastewater spray field is making its way down into the underground water system to the headspring of the Ichetucknee nearly fifteen miles away. The discovery of DEET traces in these waters should sound the alarm to wake up.

Studies show that an underwater highway beginning at Alligator Lake in Lake City connects to the headspring of the Ichetucknee, a completely spring-made river. The Ichetucknee River eventually flows into the Santa Fe River and the Santa Fe, several miles later, reaches the Suwannee River, which then flows into the Gulf Mexico.

If we can make the connection from Lake City to the Gulf of Mexico, is it such a giant leap to connect the dots between the Keys, the Everglades, Tampa Bay, Miami, and the rest of the state and beyond? Florida’s example is one of the most visible, but the connections exist in every single ecosystem in the world.

We can’t live in oblivious ignorance regarding the world around us any longer. If we continue on the same path, our water and food, contaminated with our irresponsibility, will cease to exist.

 

Water Woes in the High Desert

Bamboo pond at Denver’s Botanic Gardens

By Patricia Zick @PCZick

Sometimes I can’t keep my mouth shut; sometimes I need to say more. Recently, I might have found a balance between the two.

Recently we traveled to Denver. This region suffered a nearly rainless summer. They receive an average of 15.47 inches of rainfall each year, but as of September 26, they’ve only had 6 inches fall. This year is dry even for this high desert region.

The urban residential areas are on watering restrictions, and while the roadsides were brown and burned, home lawns were lush greens. Evidently, the restrictions mean they water as much as possible on the three days per week of allowed sprinklers.

A couple rode in the shuttle with us from the airport. They were returning home after a month in Europe, and they were worried about their lawn.

“It’s terrible around here,” the wife said. “We spend $250 per month on 16,000 gallons of water for our lawn. It’s a crime.”

“I think it’s a crime anyone would use that much water and spend that much on a lawn,” I said before I could stop myself. “Have you thought about planting something that’s more native that wouldn’t require all the watering?”

“If I wanted a lawn that looked like I lived in the desert, I’d move to Arizona,” she said. Then she pointed out a house we passed with no front yard or plants – just rocks. “See that’s just plain ugly.”

“There are other ways to make your yard look nice without filling it with only rocks,” I said.

Water Smart Garden – Denver Botanic Gardens

My husband decided to change the subject to something in his area of expertise.

“Where does your water come from?” he asked.

“We don’t pay attention to stuff like that,” she said.

Why should they as long as the water is there when they turn on the faucet? The next day I spent wandering one of Denver’s largest bookstores. An entire section was devoted to the problem of Colorado’s water and the diversion of it into urban areas lacking in the resource.

They both became silent when I mentioned I was an environmental writer. Then the husband surprised me as he pointed out the watering going on in the median of the roadway we passed.

“Now that is absolutely wasteful,” he said. “No one should ever be allowed to water at noon. And they certainly shouldn’t have the water spraying on the asphalt like that.”

A few days later, I wished I’d gotten their contact information so I could send them some photos. I visited Denver’s Botanic Gardenswhere whole areas are devoted not to lawns and landscaped perfections, but to beautiful flowers attracting bees, birds, and butterflies.

Dryland Mesa at Denver Botanic Gardens

The original mission of the Botanic Gardens is evident as a showcase for native plants that thrive in the arid climate of the region. The Rock Alpine Garden, Water-Smart Garden, and Dryland Mesa provide excellent examples of how residents can live with beautiful yards while contributing to the environment. Native plants do more than flourish in the climate; they are a part of the symbiotic nature with the land and wildlife.

I spoke to another longtime resident of Denver who keeps a beautifully manicured lawn and green grass. I asked her if she’d ever been to the Botanic Gardens.

“I have to admit, I’ve never visited them,” she said.

Let’s hope I said just enough to convince her to go.

Denver Botanic Gardens