For spring break in 2008 our college kids joined my husband and me aboard our sailboat: Wild Hair. We planned for them an eight-day roundtrip cruise from Ft Lauderdale to Key West. But our scheme fell apart and the trip turned out to be the worst of our family vacations (more miserable than any of our rain-soaked camping excursions or even the bug infested trek through the wilderness the kids lovingly nick-named the “death march”). The problem was Dave and I could not anticipate the thing that would strip wind from our sails: Florida’s century of misguided engineering decisions.
In a nutshell, after three days of bumping bottom in waters far more shallow than charted, we got stuck in a basin appropriately named “Cow Pen.” The path to safety required someone with local knowledge of water depths to come to our rescue, but no one wanted to help us for days because a bad storm raged. All the while, our daughter sniveled and vomited without the benefit of medicine. Yes, it was the worst vacation ever.
Why were the charted water depths wrong? What happened to the water that was once there? I had lots of time to search the web and answer these questions as we bobbed in the blow.
Long ago it seems farmers wanted to plant sugar in central Florida’s rich peat soils, so politicians launched what became a sustained campaign of diking, damming, diverting, and draining the fresh water resource. They constructed an unprecedented network of channels that spilled rain water as quickly as possible east into the Atlantic and west into the Gulf. In doing this, they also cleared the way for Florida’s population boom that has yet to let up.
But the state’s natural hydrology that evolved across eons of time had percolated the rain water from north to south. This natural course gave birth to pine and mangrove forests, sawgrass marshes and prairies, and wildlife that thrived in this habitat. In addition, because engineers short-circuited the state’s fresh water storage capacity, the land desiccated in periods of drought–regular occurrences in Florida’s climate cycles. The Everglades frequently burst into flames. But when they tried on a large-scale to retain water for the dry times, hurricanes brought a deluge and people and livestock drowned. It was impossible engineer a balanced solution more efficient than natural systems.
We floated in Cow Pen in what was the tenth year of a drought (a phenomenon that will increase in frequency in this time of climate disruption). There, in that soggy maze of land and water just south of the Everglades and north of the Keyes, the high water mark was a foot-and-a-half below the historically typical low water line. As we floundered, I considered the ethical wisdom ignored in society’s past decisions and how it might be honored in the future.
All spiritual traditions teach us to protect life. If this is a universal spiritual guideline, then it follows that humankind must respect the integrity of the ecological systems supporting life and not manicure nature to our own end. Ultimately, we don’t know what we’re doing; we can’t know completely because our scientific understanding of ecological systems is incomplete. Engineers had no way of anticipating the outcome of their actions, the breath of destruction that would follow.
The good new is there are many talented people working to stabilize the state’s water works by restoring the function of historic ecological systems. Sadly, the movement to un-do the damage struggles with turf battles, limits in scientific knowledge, high costs, waning political commitment, and delayed funding.
Going forward in the full light of a changing climate, it is time to consider anew the best course of action for protecting life. Finding our way will not be easy.
Large swaths of coastal cities lay within three feet of sea level. Already sea water infiltrates underground drinking water aquifers and city managers are forcing limited fresh water into them to push back against salt water intrusion. The Army Corps of Engineers predicts a sea level rise of five feet before the year 2100, so we can expect people moving out of low-lying coastal cities in what will likely be our nation’s earliest mass migration of “climate refugees.”
It is prudent to ask: does it make sense to spend billions to sustain Florida’s continued population boom and the sugar industry? Or, is it time to respect the integrity of ecological systems and finally stop manicuring nature to humankind’s end?
This is the ethical question for our time.