By Bruce Ritchie
Author Cynthia Barnett of Gainesville says she traces the start of her focus on water issues to a St. Petersburg Times page 1A story written in 2003 that she says made her “insane.”
Barnett is author of “Blue Revolution: Unmaking America’s Water Crisis.” It’s an important new book that challenges Americans to transform their views of water to protect and sustain a resource that is so important to people, the economy and the environment.
Her book follows her 2007 book “Mirage: Florida and the Vanishing Water of the Eastern U.S.” Mirage created the realization that water wars, droughts and vanishing supplies are issues no longer confined to arid Western states.
Four years before Mirage, Barnett had just earned her master’s degree in environmental history at the University of Florida. Among the books she had read was “Land into Water — Water into Land: A History of Water Management in Florida” by Nelson Manfred Blake.
Barnett said the book, published in 1980, described how developers throughout Florida’s history had “got rid of water, got rid of water, got rid of water.”
She also was working as an associate editor at the business magazine Florida Trend (which is owned by the Times). She said she was “writing stories about how developers are desperate to find water, find water, find water.”
“It was with that specific irony that the same guys who got rid of it all got desperate to find it,” Barnett told the attendees at the Society of Environmental Journalists national conference in Miami on Oct. 25.
But it was the St. Pete Times article — and watching the loss of her clear, bubbling springs in north Florida, that provided that extra motivation to focus on water threats, she said.
Times writers Craig Pittman and Julie Hauserman wrote the page 1A story “North has it, South wants it” telling how the Florida Council of 100 business group in 2003 was working on a recommendation to then-Gov. Jeb Bush to redirect water from slow-growing, water-rich North Florida to booming Central and South Florida.
“They wanted to move water from the north to South Florida or Central Florida to replenish what they had drained,” Barnett said. “That single story got me so insane that I went on to spend the next eight years of my life writing water books.”
In researching “Blue Revolution,” Barnett traveled around the United States and the world exploring places where people are conserving and protecting water or are looking for more. She paints no one as saints or villains, just players in a system where too much authority has been turned over to utilities, power companies and engineers. We use water with wasteful abundance in some areas when it is tragically lacking in other areas.
It’s an amazing book and is amazingly well-written. It ties history and policy-making with water disasters around the world, such as the disappearing Aral Sea in Central Asia or the Colorado River as it disappears, never making it to the sea.
In the Netherlands, she explores how the Dutch created engineering marvels and disasters along its coastline. In Singapore, the island nation has created a water ethic that led to reducing pollution, reusing treated wastewater and cleaning up waterways. But farmers were moved off their lands and the nation’s residents lost touch as their natural waterways were viewed as enemies.
Barnett drills down into the politics, economics and seeming corruption that drive the “water-industrial complex” in this country. The water industry drives us towards engineered solutions rather than low-tech adaptations towards living lightly on the land.
In her firm but polite and well-researched way, Barnett touches everyone’s lives, making us think about how our ignorance or how our religious views of the end of the world may shape our living now. And she makes us think about how our hurried lives separate us from knowing life’s crucial resource and where it comes from.
But she offers so much more for the reader to take away than self-loathing or condemnation of others.
Her writing encourages us all to learn about our sources of water — to explore our own neighborhood frog creeks from where they begin as a trickle on the land to where they end in a bay or ocean.
“The blue revolution is a reconnection to water,” she writes. “It gives children more natural waters to play in — 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-lined retention ponds. More green roofs, less asphalt. More shade trees, less open lawn. More plant buffers to filter rain, fewer stagnant stormwater basins. More community farms, less industrial irrigation.”
Her idea of a “water ethic” is borrowed from Aldo Leopold’s “land ethic” in his landmark conservation book “A Sand County Almanac.” The land ethic was first applied by his hydrologist son, Luna, to water.
And Barnett ends her book by acknowledging Luna Leopold’s “acid test of leadership” on environmental issues and describing how that begins with the individual, be they a homeowner, a water engineer or a member of Congress.
“The water ethic begins with that one, brave steward,” she writes. “Then, it spreads out into the community, building collective courage among citizens, businesspeople, church members, political leaders. Just like ripples of children playing in a wide, free river.”
Inspired by the journalism of others, Barnett is creating a new brand of environmental journalism that will inspire others.
DISCLOSURE: On p. 234 of “Blue Revolution,” author Cynthia Barnett acknowledges and thanks me for my water reporting and for our quarter century of friendship. As always, she is kind and generous. I cannot imagine writing a bad review of anything she produced nor has she ever given me reason to consider it. Instead, she inspires me to improve my own writing and to contemplate a higher journalistic calling.
(Photos courtesy of Beacon Press. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Floridaenvironments.com. Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained from email@example.com)