Author, friend who promotes ‘water ethic’ to speak in Tallahassee

By Bruce Ritchie

Cynthia Barnett, author of “Mirage” and “Blue Revolution”, is coming to Tallahassee on Feb. 28 to give a presentation on developing a water ethic.

When she said she wanted me to help let people know, I couldn’t refuse. She has been my friend for more than 24 years and she introduced me to my wife.
12-19-11 Cynthia Barnett
But it’s not just that I wanted to help a friend. What she has to say is important to our region and our state. And she was a featured speaker in 2011 at the Society of Environmental Journalists conference in Miami and again in 2012 at the SEJ conference in Lubbock, Texas.

If you live in North Florida, you won’t have to get on a plane or go very far to hear her speak. Details on her talk can be found at the end of this story.

In a series of email exchanges this week, I asked her about how Florida government can lead the way in developing a water ethic.

Her answer in a nutshell: It can’t.

You are promoting the idea of a water ethic — what does that mean?

A water ethic means making sure the way we live with water today doesn’t jeopardize fresh, clean water for our children and ecosystems tomorrow. We’re not living ethically with water – either in Florida, or the United States as a whole. This is clear from the suffering springs and Apalachicola River here in North Florida to the thirsting High Plains Aquifer and Colorado River out west.

How would Florida water law and policy implement such a water ethic?

The water ethic is not law or policy; government has not been able to protect water in the way we might hope. It’s a shared ethic – a set of guiding beliefs among government, large water users, and citizens. It’s a new way of living with and valuing water in every sector of the economy.

That said, there is much state government can do. Georgia in 2010 passed the Water Stewardship Act that has saved multi-millions of gallons of water a day by promoting a “culture of conservation,” such as incentives for things like rainwater catchment. Oklahoma in 2012 wrote into its state water plan the goal that it will use less water 50 years from now than today – amid population and economic growth.

Florida’s State Water Plan, in contrast, says that by 2030, we’ll use 2 billion more gallons a day. In other words, we’re officially planning to be more wasteful in the future. That’s the old-fashioned approach to water. Many parts of the world, the U. S. and our own state have proven that we can prosper using a lot less water.

A new group called Florida Water Advocates, with corporate backing, supports spending more on water projects, reminding the Legislature that it provided $100 million per year after SB 444 passed in 2005. Is this the answer to a water ethic?

The smartest, demand-side water projects cost money – albeit far less than the largest infrastructure projects – so absolutely, part of the water ethic means investing. The key is making sure our investments are wise, ecologically and economically. Florida’s environmental history is full of well-intentioned projects that became boondoggles before they were even finished. The largest, costliest projects often come in over-budget, result in high energy costs and bring unintended consequences.

Florida’s Drinking Water State Revolving Fund provides money to communities for “alternative water supplies” including development of brackish aquifers. Is this the proper direction?

Alternative water supplies can be important to help wean Florida off unsustainable groundwater pumping. Again, the key is making sure the projects are right for future generations, for the economy and for our freshwaters. We want to avoid the two big mistakes of the past – over-tapping natural supplies, and over-relying on uncertain technologies.

Florida has rightly recognized conservation as an alternative water supply. Water efficiency costs between $450 and $1,600 for every million gallons it frees up. Every other alternative costs considerably more, with desalination the most expensive at around $15,000 for the same million gallons.

You pointed out that Georgia passed its Water Stewardship Act in 2010, but you also said a water ethic is not a law or a government policy. Can Florida develop a water ethic within its existing laws? If so, what should readers do to make that happen?

Yes, Florida has had the right laws on the books for 40 years. We’ve failed to carry them out.

Places that have developed a widespread ethic for water, such as Australia, or San Antonio and Seattle, have seen a cultural broadening, or democratization, of this issue.

My favorite model is how we changed littering behavior in just one generation. In 1969, half of all Americans littered. In 2009, it was 15 percent. Yes, government fines and regulations and education made a difference. But sociologists who’ve studied this found what changed the culture more than any other factor was a community-wide judgment about cleanliness – an ethic.

Once citizens had embraced this ethic, it was they who pressured government and industry to do their part. Public pressure, for example, convinced beverage companies to finally eliminate the pull-off tabs on cans that were such a problem.

The biggest barrier is the illusion of water abundance. Water has been made so easy and so cheap – gushing out of our taps and hoses for pennies – people have been trained not to worry about it. The connection between your hose and the Floridan Aquifer, or between fertilizers and a slimy spring, may be clear to your readers. But it is truly not clear to most Floridians and most Americans.

So what your readers can do is help lift the illusion, taking the conversation out of government and the courts where it has been confined, and into churches, college classrooms, etc. Water managers and water lawyers, engineers and environmentalists are no longer enough.

Water now needs the rest of us.

Cynthia Barnett is speaking on Feb. 28 at 7 p.m. at the Challenger Learning Center IMAX theater, 200 S. Duval St. Tickets are $6 for Tallahassee Scientific Society members and $12 for non-members. More information and a link to purchase tickets can be found here.

(Photo courtesy of Beacon Press. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by requesting to