Issues in West Texas follow journalist back to Florida


My return journey home last week began in a jet taking off over a West Texas landscape of brown cotton fields under circles of pivot irrigation.

It ended with a 20-mile-long descent over the tall pines and cypress trees in the Apalachicola National Forest — and a feeling of relief.

Relief at being back in a familiar landscape and familiar issues and away from a place that seemed so unrelated.

But was it really so different?

The Society of Environmental Journalists conference in Lubbock, Texas, had an agenda that seemed as distant to the Florida Capitol as the 1,200 miles between the cities.

Our Wednesday night opening dinner featured music and memories from the Dust Bowl that befell West Texas and the Southern Plains in the 1930s. Later during the program, we viewed excerpts from the upcoming “Dust Bowl” documentary airing on PBS beginning on Nov. 18.

The documentary ends by describing the region’s unsustainable use of the Ogalala aquifer, which may have only 20 years of water left. What will people do then? And will there be another Dust Bowl?

It’s a far stretch to compare the Dust Bowl to North Florida. But we once thought our water was plentiful here, even though the studies to prove that had not been done. Permits are still being issued.

Will we find out here that we are already using too much? Or do we know that already?

Back in Texas, I went on a tour of Muleshoe National Wildlife Refuge, home to 30,000 or so migrating sandhill cranes. The area is dotted with a few lakes and remnants of shortgrass prairie amid the expansive farms that cover the treeless landscape. A refuge indeed, even if the vegetation was drab from an early frost.

We have sandhill cranes in Central Florida, plenty of them. And we have wildlife refuges and expansive forests, an endless green landscape across North Florida.

But will those public lands become the last refuge amid agriculture and development, as in North Texas, when state money for buying new land dries up without support from the Legislature and governor?

West Texas with its many windmills, oil derricks and natural gas hydraulic fracturing also seemed distant from Florida. Here, we get our energy from somewhere else — usually coal and natural gas — and we don’t have to know about where it comes from.

And there was U. S. Rep. Randy Neugebauer, the region’s Republican congressman, on stage at the conference saying that fracking hadn’t caused any groundwater contamination there and that the causes of climate change are unknown. If climate change is caused by people, who’s to say we can do anything about it, or that we can afford to?

Just like the answers I hear at the Florida Capitol on the rare — very rare — times that climate change comes up. That’s only when there’s a bill to roll back the climate measures that the Legislature approved way back in 2008 under then-Gov. Charlie Crist.

Going somewhere else, such as West Texas, and learning about the environmental issues there can make  see your issues back home in a different light.

Other times, maybe you see your own issues in the same light as the place you left, even if you don’t want to.

I may have flown on a jet 1,200 miles, but unfortunately West Texas and the environmental issues there don’t seem far enough away — no matter how much the landscape changes.

(Story and photo copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy, reproduce or forward without permission, which can be obtained from