Rapidly Growing ‘Water State’ Confronts Urgent Need to Better Treat the Environment

You could call us portents in paradise
Illustration by Lindsey Masterson

Uriah Oblinger was a Union Army veteran who, tempted by the opportunity to stake a 160-acre homestead, departed Indiana in 1872 with his brothers-in-law to find a home for himself and his wife Mattie in the 5-year-old state of Nebraska.

Florida author Cynthia Barnett tracks Oblinger’s ramblings and travails in her landmark book, Rain: A Natural and Cultural History, an achievement, which, coupled with her previous work, Mirage: Florida Water and the Vanishing Water of the Eastern United States, had led some reviewers to a weighty ratio: Barnett is to fresh water as Rachel Carson was to birds.

America’s Great Plains, once viewed as an inhospitable, uninhabitable desert, were visited by above-average rainfall during the 1870s.

Advanced was the theory that settlers unleashed the water cycle by tilling ground that had been trodden into hardpack by countless buffalo. Rain, it was said, followed the plow.

“Surely, the hand of Providence must be in this,” Oblinger wrote to his wife in a letter quoted by Barnett. “It seems this desert, as it has been termed so long, has been specially reserved for the poor of our land to find a place to dwell in and where they can find a home.”

Oblinger built a house of sod and survived the Easter Sunday Blizzard of 1873, news of which development interests sought to suppress.

Oblinger downplayed the seriousness of the blizzard in sending word for Mattie to join him: “It seems as though we are destined to help make what was once called the Great American Desert blossom as the rose.”

For the seven years Mattie lived in Nebraska, the rains held out. She died during childbirth in 1880, leaving her husband with three daughters.

And, then, Nebraska’s typically arid conditions returned.

Lack of rain caused Oblinger’s crops to fail in 1880. By the end of the decade, a prolonged drought had overtaken the Great Plains. “Between 1888 and 1892,” writes Barnett, “half the population of western Kansas and Nebraska gave up and moved back east.”

Oblinger moved to Minnesota, where he worked for a railroad surveying company and remarried, then returned to farming.

In succession, his farms in Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri and back in Nebraska failed. Exploded was the notion that human activity and a nod from Providence could cause optimal rains to fall.

Still, humans try to subjugate nature to their purposes.

We have turned arboreal environments into cattle ranges and croplands at the expense of biological diversity; sought to bring rain by concussing the skies with explosives; and channelized rivers, preventing them from nourishing flood plains and delivering healthful detritus to destinations including the Gulf of Mexico.

Barnett’s books are collections of cautionary tales.

She reminds us that a couple of millennia before the Florida-Georgia water war developed and oysters began to vanish from Apalachicola Bay, ancient Rome, otherwise capable of getting by on natural water supplies, developed aqueducts to divert water to cities largely to fill imperial baths and to keep fountains flowing.

About the efforts by humans to deny nature its course, Barnett demonstrates that we should know better by now.

From Mirage:

Floridians are not so much defined by the sun. They are defined, instead, by the water. It surrounds the peninsula on three sides. It seeps into the skin from the heavy, humid air. Depictions of Florida … are usually waterfront: vistas of the state’s beaches, its wide bays, its 10,000 miles of rivers and streams, its 7,800 lakes. Like ancient Rome, Florida sits in a water-rich part of the world; it is blessed with an extraordinary supply of groundwater; and it is home to hundreds of springs — 700, to be precise. As much water as you can see in Florida, there is even more of it that you cannot. More than 1 quadrillion gallons pulse through deep cracks and channels in the state’s limestone core. But, like the Romans, Floridians are not satisfied with their natural water wonders. They like to show off, to play in, their artificial ones. Fountains grace the wealthiest city centers, the entrances of the best of gated communities and the finest resort hotels. Canals cut through subdivisions so middle-class residents can enjoy the waterfront lifestyle of the rich. Florida is second only to California in its number of swimming pools, with 681,340 installed in 2004 alone. Residents and tourists not content with beaches and pools can visit water parks, and plunge down steep water slides or surf machine-made waves to a thumping beat of classic rock.

In short, we treat water like bison or passenger pigeons — inexhaustible.

In Northwest Florida and elsewhere around the state, issues related to the quantity and qualify of the water supply proliferate …

  • In November, the Florida Springs Council and other springs advocates, at a seven-day administrative hearing, contended that the state Department of Environmental Protection’s Basin Management Action Plans do not sufficiently protect springs from pollution.
  • Abandoned landfills in Bay and Walton counties have not been adequately closed out.
  • A judge serving as a special master has recommended that the U.S. Supreme Court side with Georgia in its long-running water dispute with Florida. In so doing, U.S. Circuit Judge Paul Kelly Jr. said the high court should reject Florida’s request to limit how Georgia uses water from rivers that flow through both states.
  • Panama City will require hundreds of millions of dollars to redo its sanitary sewer system, whose lines were built from clay in the 1950s. “The infrastructure is crumbling beneath us,” City Manager Mark McQueen said in August following a sewage spill of more than 300,000 gallons.
  • The Florida DEP has granted a Texas company permission to sink six exploratory wells in the Apalachicola River basin. The permits allow the company, which prospects for oil and natural gas, to drill through the Floridan aquifer at locations in Calhoun County between the Dead Lakes/Chipola River and the Apalachicola River.

Such state and local issues are apart from the global impacts of climate change. Those effects should not be confused with the naturally occurring climate cycles that repeatedly did in Oblinger’s farms.

“Skeptics,” writes Barnett, “use the great climate swings of Earth’s history — the civilization-crushing droughts and whatever epic deluge may have inspired our flood myths — to argue that the heat-trapping gasses of modern life are not to blame for today’s global warming and the rise of extreme rains, storms and floods.”

But, in truth, she later asserts, “The warming world has revealed how the emissions we send into the atmosphere … can wreak global havoc. A warmer atmosphere and oceans mean more energy left aloft must be dissipated; it finds release in extreme weather. Dry areas get drier, rains falls in torrents rather than gentle downpours. Proof that the strangest rains of all are wrought by humans.”

It has become increasingly difficult for today’s Oblingers to find a sweet spot.

Begged, then, is the question of sustainability. In this edition of 850 Magazine, we touch upon several aspects of that issue and find evidence that the region’s environmental awareness is increasing.

Transportation planners are working to design arteries that better allow for bicyclists and pedestrians. Utilities including NextEra Energy, which acquired Gulf Power in January 2019, are working toward sweeping clean energy goals.

Cities including Pensacola, anticipating effects of climate change including sea level rise, are roughing in mitigation and adaptation plans. And, cities and counties are working to remove recyclables from the waste stream.

In all of this comes the realization that the implications of “sustainability” for how we make livings and how we live cannot be overstated.

Categories: Green/Sustainability