Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater Naples

March 25th2012

Justice Sunday/Earth Day Service

Cynthia Barnett, author,Blue Revolution: Unmaking America’s Water CrisisandMirage: Florida and the Vanishing Water of the Eastern U.S.


“The case for a water ethic”


Good morning! It is such an honor to finally be with you at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater Naples. I say finally, because it’s been four years since Barbara Glasgow first asked if I would give an Earth Day service for your congregation. I searched back in my emails for our initial exchange, which followed the publication of my first book, Mirage. I really wanted to speak here, but I had a request:

“May I speak from the pulpit on a Sunday,” I wrote, “without mentioning God?”

Barbara wrote back that she thought I’d get along just fine with the Unitarians. But in the ensuing years, as I worked on my next book, Blue Revolution, I changed my mind about not wanting to talk about God.

As a journalist covering water issues for many years, I’ve come to feel a responsibility to expose the devastating story of our vanishing water. At least, I thought it a devastating story – the sort that might prompt people to give up watering lawns with potable water; wake up to destructive agricultural practices; and vote out politicians who would disregard our most important resource.

I first told the story in Mirage, which recounts the strange tale of vanishing water in one of the wettest states in the nation. We Floridians get more rainfall than all but one other state – an average 54 inches a year. At statehood in 1845, the entire peninsula was half submerged. The Cliff’s Notes for Mirage are that we set out to get rid of water, but we got rid of too much. In the 19thCentury, we perfected the art of draining swampland. We’ve drained a total 9 million acres of wetlands statewide, not realizing – at least at first – how much we would miss these store-houses for freshwater, safe-houses for flood water.

In the 20thCentury, we became really good at pumping groundwater up from the Floridian Aquifer. Today, the pumping continues to dry up springs in Florida. The drainage continues to create man-made scarcity in South Florida – even as the Everglades plumbing system shunts 1.7 billion gallons of freshwater a day into the sea.

My second book, Blue Revolution, makes the case at the national level. Just as Florida had enormous water wealth compared with other states,America, too, was blessed with water riches compared with other continents: 3.5 million miles of rivers running across the country, another estimated 60,000 trillion gallons of groundwater stored beneath our feet in aquifers.

Now, these freshwater habitats have become the single-most degraded of all America’s major ecosystems.  And more than any other threat, our harnessing water for human use – flood control, power production, agricultural irrigation and water for our homes and businesses – is largely to blame. This is as true for the great waterways of the eastern United State as it is for those in the West.

To be sure,America’s water woes do not hold the same urgency as the global water crisis and its victims, 3.5 million of whom die each year of water-related illnesses. On this, Justice Sunday, we must remember the 1.2 billion people globally who do not have access to clean drinking water and the 2.4 billion who lack basic sanitation. But we must also ask ourselves what makes us so complacent to the water problems of our home and the water problems of our world. I’ve come to believe it is America’s illusion of water abundance.

The last time American citizens got truly engaged in water, in the 1970s, the U.S.began to move away from the Age of Big Dams toward a more ethical water age, what we might call the Age of Restoration. This is the era when the nation passed the Clean Water Act and created EPA and other environmental safeguards, and when Florida created its water-management districts and began trying to rein in unsustainable water practices.  But, nearly forty years into the restoration age, we still haven’t been able to wean ourselves from something that turns out to be just as damaging as the dams. That is our illusion of water abundance.

Despite evidence to the contrary from saltwater intrusion into wells in Florida’s coastal counties, to the shrinking Colorado River, Floridians and Americans still view water as an endless resource. Some half of all farmers east of the Mississippi River still flood-irrigate their crops. We still flush toilets with potable water that has been treated at great expense to meet drinking-water standards. We still pour large amounts of this same potable water on lawns.  In fact, the lawn is America’s largest crop. NASA scientists using satellite imagery have found the nation covered with 63,240 square miles of turf grass, an area larger than most individual American states. InBlue RevolutionI call this turf our 51ststate.

The conveyance of clean water into our cities, and the movement of wastewater out, was among the greatest scientific achievements of the 20th Century, one that saved countless lives. But today, our great American water achievements have grown into entitlements. Water flows from our taps like magic. We enjoy an endless and cheap supply of clean water. And we are more than happy to be absolved of the realities of wastewater. But the resulting ethos has helped lead us to ecological degradation; insufficient supplies; enormous energy consumption to move water around; financially unstable utilities; and other problems.

The best symbol of our great national illusion may be iconic Hoover dam. The Colorado River is, impossibly, more than 100% allocated through legal agreements among seven U.S.states and Mexico. There is no longer enough for all human legal users, much less fish and wildlife, during droughts.  America’s largest reservoir,Lake Mead, has a 50-50 chance of drying up by 2021, according to climate scientists. By 2017, they say, there’s an equally good chance that water levels in the reservoir will drop so low that Hoover Dam will be incapable of producing hydroelectric power. Yet millions of Americans who visit the dam each year have no concept of this vulnerability.

The Midwest reflects another side of the illusion. We look at the region and see the bread basket of America. Yet, the massive High Plains Aquifer that irrigates an entire fifth of the country’s agricultural harvest is being depleted to extinction.

Likewise in Florida, we think of our agricultural harvest as bountiful – citrus, strawberries, winter vegetables. But agricultural irrigation is so over-permitted that our state faces a bounty of water problems. During the 2010 freezes, 140 sinkholes cracked open in the Plant City region – under homes, highways, and an elementary school – when farmers pumped a perfectly legal billion gallons a night from the aquifer. Meanwhile in the Everglades Agricultural Area south of Lake Okeechobee, we continually pump massive amounts of water off the land in normal conditions, and pump irrigation water to the area during dry times. Ideal for farms; not for ecosystems here in southwest Florida and on the opposite coast, suffering the consequences of the artificial releases.

These situations, and others like them around the nation, make clear that neither water-management and government regulation; nor the courts; nor costly technical fixes; nor various other solutions, are working to save our freshwaters for future generations and ecosystems.

All of these answers have a place. But what is needed, now, is an ethical framework for water. When you see the Caloosahatchee River choked with toxic algae during what can only be described as man-made drought, it is clear that society must lift water above politics and the permitting hydrocracy – to a moral and ethical issue.

For some, it may be in the language of organized religion, or God. I have come to see it as a water ethic.

In 2009-2010, I took a year off from my day job to travel around the U.S.and the world to report on what this ethic might look like for my new book, Blue Revolution. Various academics and human-rights activists have sounded the call. The Global Water Policy Project’s Sandra Postel defines a water ethic as making “protection of freshwater ecosystems a central goal in all that we do.” Oregon writer and ethicist Kathleen Dean Moore makes the moral argument that taking whatever we need from the world to support our comfortable lives, while leaving unreliable freshwater supplies to the future, “is not worthy of us as moral beings.”

The voice that resonated most with me was that of Aldo Leopold. Founder of the field of wildlife ecology, Leopold was also intensely interested in figuring out how to help people see their connection to the natural world. He believed the answer was “an extension of the social conscience from people to land.” – the land ethic. Sixty years ago, he described this land ethic in his bookA Sand County Almanac, which helped inspire real change in the way Americans treat the land and the soils.

Leopold defined his land ethic as a community instinct in the making that would build an ecological consciousness among everyone who uses land. He was a direct inspiration for our water ethic too, as father to his son, Luna Leopold. Luna, former chief hydrologist for the U.S. Geological Survey and later a distinguished professor at UC Berkeley, is often called the father of modern hydrology. His is important to southwest Florida’s environmental history as well; it is Luna’s name on the report that halted an enormous jetport proposed for the middle of what is now Big Cypress Preserve.

Luna Leopold also built upon his father’s ideas to call for an “ethos for water.” He wished foremost for a “reverence for rivers.” Most Americans do not know where their water comes from, what’s in it, who’s in charge of it, what it really costs us, where it goes after we use it. The reverence encompasses understanding – a cultural lifting of the illusion of water abundance.

But for Luna, that would not be enough. He tried to help people understand that technology could not fix all our water problems, and that indefinite expansion of water supply was not possible. With nature’s lessons in mind, he wanted to find the “steady state” – the balance point at which our water use today would not jeopardize fresh, clean water for our children and ecosystems tomorrow.

He articulated this water ethic as aset of guiding beliefs for government, large water users and citizens. The shared nature is key: We know that agriculture and energy each drink up about 40% of the U.S. water pie. So the ethic is much bigger than asking citizens to not water the grass. It’s a new way of living with and valuing water in every sector of the economy.

The question before us is how to make this transition. For an answer, I looked at countries that were a lot like the United States in other ways, but that had come to have a tangible, widespread ethic for water.

The Dutch are intriguing for our divided times because they show how people with different points of view, different financial interests and different political stripes can come together on water. For 1,000 years, the Dutch evolved a system called POLDERING where all sectors of the community build consensus on water, both the most important asset and the biggest threat to the country. Most recently, Dutch compromise has led to a national program called Room for the River that has torn down dikes and restored floodplain with fair compensation to farmers, applying the lessons of ecological restoration to climate change.

Australia is another country that now sees water as a matter of national urgency. 15 years ago, Australia entered a drying period that seemed much more severe than normal drought cycles. The first sign that something was different was that water levels in dams across the continent dropped below 35% capacity, which had been unheard of in previous droughts. Scientists say that Australia was feeling the water-supply impacts of climate change much earlier than the rest of us. Today, there’s an urgency to keep as much water as possible in natural systems, restoring wetlands, managing forests for water supply – and returning water to nature as a water-supply strategy. Most dramatically, people use about half the water every day that they used to – and they say they would not go back. Most homes have a little rainwater tank in the backyard. Aussies have stopped drilling their backyard boreholes to pour precious groundwater on lawns.

Here in the United States, I wrote a chapter on San Antonio as a good example of a wasteful city that made a tremendous turnaround on water. I don’t have time to tell you the whole story, but I want to say here that churches, and colleges, were two institutions that answered the call to help the entire metro region embrace a new ethic for water. We have seen the same trend closer to home, in Atlanta.

This is part of what changed my trepidation about a journalist harkening God. In the biblical account of creation God says: “Let the waters teem with countless living creates, and let birds fly above the earth across the vault of heaven.” The Harvard systems ecologist E.O. Wilson points out, “Whether you believe that there is a God who touched the universe with a magic wand or not, it’s a command – one scientists could respond to as well as religious folk.”

Dr. Wilson has the right idea when he calls for the science and religious communities to come together to reverse the decline of creation – the decline of our Eden– in a mutually respectful way.

Whatever their religious persuasion, Americans are absolutely capable of significant ethical change, and we are capable of it in one generation. In 1969, for example, half of all Americans littered. By 2009, it was 15%. Drivers included inspired political leadership; private industry buy-in by way of packaging and other changes; successful educational campaigns; and government fines and regulations.

But littering studies show what changed the culture more than any other factor was a community wide judgment about cleanliness – an ethic. Once citizens had embraced this ethic, they pressured industry. As just one example, beverage companies finally eliminated the pull-off tabs on cans that were such a problem. This is the precisely the pressure we’re beginning to see in agricultural water use. Once citizens become more aware of issues like subsidies that flow to the crops doing the most damage to water supplies, they can influence national policy. We saw that last year in the debate over elimination of subsidies for corn ethanol.

A water ethic for America, and for Florida, begins with a reconnection between people and water. It means more natural waters for children to play in – clean-flowing springs and rivers. It alters the way our communities look:  More meandering streams, less concrete. More natural wetlands thronged by living things, fewer chain-linked retention ponds. More green roofs, less asphalt. More shade trees, less open lawn. More community farms, less industrial irrigation.

Once we begin to make the small changes, the larger ones come into reach: Not subsidizing crops that are irreparably harming aquifers. Water-efficient power plants. Reusing water and harvesting rain for irrigation, cooling towers and toilets before building more river pipelines and energy-intense desalination plants.

Many of these choices are politically and socially difficult. But I’ll end with a prediction that ultimately, water will unite us. The initial impacts of our changing climate all involve water – changing rainfall and storm patterns, more-extreme flooding, more-severe drought. These are issues people love to talk about – even people who don’t want to talk about climate change. They are issues that make people stand up and take notice.

This is why I’ve come to believe water will be the issue around which the shouting match over climate change finally becomes a conversation.

Scholars analyzing trans-boundary water interactions over human history have found that water more often leads to peace than to fighting. Water brought the Dutch together to forge their unique polder method of compromise. Literally a chemical bond, water is, more than anything, one of the deepest bonds among people. The water ethic will strengthen that bond as it brings to the fore our shared circumstance, and our humanity.

America’s congregations have a key role in creating this shared ethic. I thank your congregation, the Unitarian Universalists nationwide, and the UU Service Committee that works so effectively on behalf of water, for being some of the first to reach out. Thank you so much for having me.

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