A number of years ago, I wrote a column titled, “Florida, a Paradise Lost.” Not long afterward, in 2005, a book titled, Paradise Lost: the Environmental History of Florida, was published. My first experience in peninsular Florida was during the summer of 1952 when I and several others were hired by the state to monitor commercial fishing crews operating on Lake Okeechobee. The interior of the state, except for “the great citrus desert,” was truly a naturalist’s paradise. It was sparsely populated with an abundance of undisturbed habitats. The state was blessed with about 1,000 crystal clear springs, a concentration found nowhere else in the world. The springs flowed to the surface from the Floridan aquifer, described as one of the most productive on earth.
I spent week-ends exploring and was astounded by the diversity and abundance of birds, reptiles, and other critters I encountered. The Atlantic coastal area near the small town of Okeechobee, my headquarters, was largely unspoiled, and the towns of Vero Beach and Ft. Pierce were about like what Auburn was in the early 1950’s.
My next explorations in the state were during the late 1950’s and early 1960’s when I was a graduate student at the University of Florida. My research required me to travel throughout the state and except for some of the coastal areas and a few interior cities, the state retained most of its appealing natural features. The springs had healthy flows, were crystal clear, and teemed with fish and other aquatic animals. Many of my old stomping grounds remained undeveloped, but there were ominous indications of impending development. Drainage ditches and for-sale signs were visible from roads traversing low-lying flatwoods. Houses and hotels were being built on or close to dunes along previously previously unspoiled stretches of the beaches.
Twenty-five years later I revisited central and southwestern Florida and was shocked at how development and overpopulation had ruined so many formerly pristine places. The Orlando metro area had spread like cancer, extending outward in every direction. A bridge had been built connecting Sanibel Island with the mainland. I first visited Sanibel Is. before the bridge was built. There was one facility offering accommodations, the Casa Bell Hotel, consisting of some rustic cabins and a restaurant. Thousands of beautiful seashells, some in piles, were present on the beach. The last time I visited, developments were underway and desirable seashells were few and far between. Today Sanibel Is. boasts 25 hotels and the Casa Bell no longer exists. Everywhere I drove on my last trip to central Florida the traffic was horrendous, and I swore I’d never visit anywhere else on the peninsula south of Gainesville.
Almost every day now, TV stations have featured the sinkhole that swallowed a man’s bedroom, and the sleeping man, in a subdivision near Tampa. The sinkhole problem in Florida is destined to become worse as the level of water in the Floridan aquifer continues to decline. Much of peninsular Florida is underlain by a layer of limestone and would be less likely to subside if water in the aquifer was high enough to exert pressure against the limestone ceiling. But problems associated with the occurrence of sinkholes is minor in comparison with others associated with the declining water level in the aquifer. The Floridan aquifer recharge area extends northward into southwestern Georgia and southeastern Alabama. In those areas, problems became apparent decades ago. Radiam Springs, near Albany, Ga., was once the largest spring in the state. I noticed that 25 years ago the spring’s output was declining. In July 2011, the spring ceased flowing and in Jan. 2013, it’s still not flowing.
A study of a creek basin near Albany revealed that ground water level since 1977 has declined by 23 feet. In November, 2012, the Tampa Bay Times published a report, “Florida’s Vanishing Springs,” citing a study showing that in some places in northern Florida, the aquifer has dropped as much as 90 feet. The report was lengthy, and stated that a number of springs had ceased to flow, that three-fourths of those tested had abnormally high levels of nitrogen and that in many others, incursions of sea water were occurring resulting in saltiness. The largest spring in Florida, Wakulla Springs near Tallahassee, once had an output of between 200-300 million gallons per day. By 1973, its output had dropped to 14,324 gallons.
Problems are believed to be caused by fertilizer from lawns and farms seeping into the aquifer and over-pumping for municipal and industrial supplies and irrigation of agricultural fields and orchards. Despite the prospect of a diminished supply of drinking water looming on the horizon, the Florida chambers of commerce and real estate developers continue to welcome new arrivals with open arms. Florida is, indeed, a paradise lost.
Bob Mount is a Professor Emeritus with the Dept of Zoology and Entomology, Auburn Univ. He is also chairman of the Opelika Order of Geezers, well-known local think tank and political clearing house. He writes about birds, snakes, turtles, bugs and assorted conservation topics.