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Florida's race to save its fragile natural resources

By Gil KleinSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / March 21, 1984

Tampa, Fla.

Every day moving vans rumble south across the Florida border bringing as many as 1,000 new residents. Florida population forecasters predict that rate will continue, day in and day out, for the rest of the century. Planners say by the end of the century an additional 5 million people will have been added to the nearly 10 million already here. They are coming to live and work on a flat peninsula where swamps, estuaries, uplands, and climate have created a diverse but fragile balance of nature that does not adapt easily to human development.

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For a century, people moving into Florida drained and filled swamps, cut down coastal mangroves, leveled sand dunes, paved over sandy soil, strip-mined phosphate deposits, and dumped their sewage into bays, lakes, and rivers. They created attractive property for housing, tourist attractions, and agriculture, and a vibrant fertilizer industry. But they also were destroying the natural resources that brought people to Florida in the first place.

By the early 1970s, the state government recognized the damage that was being done to the environment. Since then, it has passed protective laws and purchased endangered lands. But with the huge influx of people expected in the next decade , many environmentalists and legislators say those laws are not stringent enough and that tens of thousands more acres need to be acquired.

And they say that a better plan must be drawn up quickly or the peninsula will be covered with haphazard, damaging development.

''I think we can probably take care of pollution-related problems in the state, but it's going to be tough,'' says Victoria Tschinkel, director of the state Department of Environmental Regulation. ''But even if we do that, I'm not sure this is going to be a very pleasant place to live because of the densities of population and lack of sense of community. Florida could end up as just one convenience store after another. We have to decide as Floridians, is this going to be a classy place or not? If we can't come up with an image in the next couple of years of what this state should be, we can protect the environment, but will we still be glad to live here?''

Much of Florida's 400-mile-long peninsula is a drainage basin, bordered by the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. The state has enough dry land to contain most of the population. The peninsula is flat, rising to about 300 feet at its highest point.

More than 72 percent of the people live within 50 miles of the coast, and 90 percent of their drinking water comes from aquifers beneath the state.

The south-central part of the state has been diked and channeled to create dry land for farms and housing. Those man-made barriers have altered the natural flow of water that once drained from a point south of Orlando, through Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades, to Florida Bay, which once teemed with marine life. Altering that flow has dried up the wetlands, endangered what remains of the Everglades with periodic floods and droughts, and decimated marine life in Florida Bay by altering its nutrients and salinity.

Masses of people moving to the coast have enticed developers to level the sand dunes and fill in the mangrove swamps on the state's shoreline and barrier islands to build high-rise condominiums and hotels. The mangrove swamps provided the nutrients and shelter for young fish to reach maturity, and when they were removed, a large percentage of the marine population disappeared.

Sewage and chemical wastes dumped into bays and rivers have further reduced the marine inhabitants. The masses of shellfish that were plucked out of the bays by early pioneers now have largely disappeared in such places as Tampa Bay. Construction of advanced waste water treatment systems still have not brought them back.

Barrier islands are shifting spits of sand, and the state and federal governments have spent millions of dollars to rebuild beaches that have eroded. So many people now live on barrier islands that state officials are concerned that they could not be evacuated in the face of a major hurricane. With the National Weather Service promising only an 18-hour warning of a hurricane, some of the islands would take more than 24 hours to evacuate.