Water, Land, Humans and Nature in Florida
By Kelly Dean
If you live in Florida, there is a constant debate going on about water, land, human encroachment and its effect on the natural environment. Frankly stated, Florida is mostly a swamp until man comes along and changes that. These changes are largely done for human habitation, especially at the coasts, but also include water management inland for purposes of building homes as well as agriculture. Flooding is not an option; freshwater has to go somewhere and developers plan retention areas for this purpose. Unfortunately, the impact on the environment and wildlife go hand in hand with development.
From the other side, when land is impacted so much that legislators, both statewide and local, start mandating impact fees and the like, things can become more tricky – and expensive. Suddenly, the homeowner is seen as the bad guy and has to pay the freight. These impact fees might have little to do with what is being done, especially in the here and now, but must be paid, nonetheless.
Coastal canals used to be a popular way to increase waterfront property and manage water so homes could be built there. It also made sailing, motor-boating, kayaking and other water activities a backdoor thing.
It did little for inland run-off, however. During the 50s and 60s, canals were dug, the dirt was put on the bank, and a house was built on top of the dirt to raise it above the flood zone, thus raising the elevation and managing the water for those homes at the same time. Shore areas were then dredged for an opening, and voila, lots and lots of waterfront property. But this has a variety of environmental problems. Marine animals that used to be abundant began dropping in number as mangrove forests and vegetation began to decline. Manatees, sea turtles and sawfish are just a few examples of this decline. And the land loss to man moving in takes space from animals like the Florida panther.
At estuaries and coastal areas, rain creates an instant freshwater infusion into brackish or saline marsh water naturally. Yet when man diverts additional water into this ecosystem, it gets out of whack. This varying salinity is not always good for marine life who have adapted to nature’s balance, not man’s balance. The natural estuary habitat that has evolved over time can be thrown off and it’s potentially injurious to aquatic wildlife.
Ponds and Lakes
Inland, man-made ponds and lakes are popular ways to control runoff for new communities. There are inland freshwater canals designed in a maze-like fashion, but these are more expensive to create so they are also less common in new construction today; if it’s pretty much a freshwater lake anyway, why not just build a lake and avoid the digging, concrete and impact expenses.
Freshwater inland canals were also more popular years ago and did afford residents a water view. But they are less frequently developed these days in favor of a simple lake or pond. Also, developers can build a golf course community instead and offer expensive homes in lieu of increased land tracts and the associated infrastructure needs that come with more people. So long as there’s drainable land, this seems to work for them.
Government Managed Reservoirs
The big problems emerge when excess rain and flooding occurs in Florida. Retention lakes and ponds swell and that water must go somewhere. We’re back to the original problem again. An overactive rainy season in summertime makes this is an issue every couple of years or so, but sometimes more frequently. Government entities choose when to release water from inland lake reservoirs, which goes downstream and eventually meets the brackish estuary. If water isn’t released, holding structures could burst and that would cause serious flooding.
Unfortunately, retention reservoirs also collect runoff from agriculture that can contain chemicals, such as pesticides and fertilizer — not to mention human and animal waste — which are also harmful to the estuary wildlife. Water levels go up, salinity goes down and some fish species are affected; water color is darkened and somewhat foamy on top and algae increases as well. All this spreads to the estuary communities and nearby sandy beaches.
Downstream, communities see their water levels go up, the estuary and nearby beach water gets funky looking and folks question the quality of the upstream water being released — and its effect on tourism. People complain to their officials; the state blames the federal Corp of Engineers; the feds blame the state and local authorities; and that’s the usual routine until some water-diversion tactic is employed. That’s the way it usually goes down, but in the meantime, the water is less pleasant.
In broad brushstrokes, this is an overview of some of the water issues in Florida. It’s well established that anywhere man goes, something else gets pushed out or is otherwise affected in some way. Offering solutions is even more difficult, because like all solutions, it’s good for some but not for others. So long as it rains in Florida, and man wants to live here, it will continue to be an issue.