Florida's race to save its fragile natural resources

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.

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.

While the state is inundated with water, and an average of 54 inches of rain falls every year, water may be the limiting factor for the state's development, planners say. Protecting a supply of fresh groundwater is one of the state's prime concerns. Salt water has seeped into some of the fresh groundwater along the coast because municipal water suppliers are pumping so much water to meet demand. Plenty of water is available in rural counties, but proposals to pump water from rural areas to urban centers have led to political battles.

South Florida, with a population already exceeding 4 million, depends on Lake Okeechobee for its water supply. During a drought in 1981, the lake level fell dangerously low. A lot of drinking water is pumped by individuals from shallow wells, which are vulnerable to toxic wastes and pesticides that seep into the ground from landfills and agricultural lands. In the past year, scares of pollution from agricultural pesticides Temik and EDB have caused many private well owners to have their water tested.

Florida has as many hazardous waste sites identified by the federal Environmental Protection Agency as many northern industrial states, and environmental regulators say they are concerned about those sites because they can easily contaminate nearby drinking water.

''Certainly a vast majority of the people see what is coming and want to take steps to do something,'' says Florida state Rep. Lee Moffitt, a Tampa Democrat who is Speaker of the state House of Representatives. ''A couple of laws won't change anything, but I think we have created an awareness of the problems growth is bringing to Florida.'' Mrs. Tschinkel has come up with an eight-point plan to protect the environment with which most environmentalists and many legislators agree. That plan includes:

1. Restricting urban sprawl by limiting the size of urban areas and by encouraging developers to fill in the land nearer urban centers.

2. Stopping all state assistance for development in environmentally sensitive areas.

3. Regulating development on barrier islands and purchasing as much beach-front as possible for public access.

4. Allowing natural systems to function as naturally as possible by protecting the state's wetlands. The plan would curtail public works projects designed to manipulate the environment and strengthen regulations on the phosphate industry, which strip-mines hundreds of acres in central Florida annually.

5. Acquiring more lands for public use, including land for urban parks, watersheds that feed the rivers, swampland throughout the Everglades, and beaches. Florida spent about $54 million last year to buy environmentally significant land, and the private Nature Conservancy is buying thousands more acres.

6. Recycling waste to protect water supplies from contamination. Ways must be found to store and dispose of hazardous waste, which now must be shipped to federally approved dumps in Alabama or South Carolina. Use of pesticides would also be more tightly regulated.

7. Setting up appointed regional levels of government to deal with such problems as hazardous and solid waste disposal, water supply, and sewage treatment.

8. Enacting a statewide sign ordinance that would eliminate the billboards that now line the state's highways.

The state already has launched an ambitious project to try to restore the Everglades to the condition the region was in before people began to fill and drain them early in this century. Known as Save Our Everglades, this project will include buying thousands of acres and removing some of the man-made barriers that impede the natural flow of water south to Florida Bay. At the same time, the state still must protect agricultural lands that had been carved out of the swamps.

As part of the project, the US Army Corps of Engineers will be undoing the work it had done in the 1960s to straighten out the Kissimmee River, which runs through central Florida and empties into Lake Okeechobee. In the name of flood protection for pasture land, the corps dug a straight channel down the center of the meandering river.

But after the work was completed in 1971 at a cost of $41 million, environmentalists complained that the channel drained the wetlands in the center of the state and sped pollutants into Lake Okeechobee.

Within five years, the Legislature was demanding the work be reversed, and the first attempt to put the river back into its former bed is scheduled to begin in April.

Many of Mrs. Tschinkel's proposals will be addressed in the coming session of the Legislature, which has slated more environmental bills than the state has considered since the early 1970s.

And environmentalists say this action is coming none too soon. ''We have to do it now, this year, in this Legislature,'' says Marjorie Carr, a longtime environmental activist and president of Defenders of the Environment. ''With the number of people coming in, we are losing more land to development faster than we can plan for it. And the majority of voters who remember what Florida was like is being diluted by newcomers who don't realize what is happening.''

Slated now are bills that would better protect the wetlands, slow construction on barrier islands, control urban sprawl, further regulate pesticides, limit billboards, and encourage bottle recycling.

Also, an environmental group known as the League of Conservation Voters is gathering petitions to put an ''environmental rights'' amendment to the Florida constitution on the ballot in November.

That amendment, known as ''Clean Up '84,'' is gaining the support of some legislative leaders. It says every Florida resident has the right to a healthy environment; that anyone who contaminates the environment has a duty to report it; and that every citizen has legal standing in protecting the environment.

Industry and agriculture groups are alarmed at what they say is overly broad and loosely defined legislation that is being considered.

''In its initial form, the wetlands bill is too broad,'' says Earl Wells, speaking for the Florida Citrus Mutual, an association of citrus grove owners. ''The legislation is not definitive enough for us to even know what it will do to agriculture.''

And Homer Hooks, director of the Florida Phosphate Council, says his group is watching the legislation closely.

''We're the only industry that restores wetlands after we mine,'' he says. ''We have an interest in making sure our special use of the wetlands is understood.''

The housing industry is most concerned.

''There's a demand for housing that we're not even keeping up with,'' says Richard Gantry, speaking for the Florida Home Builders Association. ''It's hard to prevent urban sprawl because property values close to the cities are high. You have to go farther out to build homes that middle-income people can afford.''

And the home builders say they can't live with the wetlands bill as it now stands. ''The home builders association is not against conserving wetlands, but we don't feel we can live with the preservation of all of them,'' Gantry says. ''This bill says preserve all of them, and that takes in a huge portion of the state.''

The phosphate and citrus industries as well as developers oppose the environmental rights amendment.

'' 'Clean Up '84' is beyond anyone's comprehension,'' says Florida Citrus Mutual's Mr. Wells. ''It looks like motherhood and apple pie on the surface, but it would have dramatic impact on private property rights and personal property rights. If a guy in Pensacola doesn't like what you're doing in Orlando, he will have legal standing in trying to stop you.''

But environmentalists say they have popular support behind the major issues, and votes taken in this Legislature will be bellwethers for coming elections.

''Either the wetlands legislation will pass this year or the voters of this state will be given a clear choice to separate the good guys from the bad guys, '' says Charles Lee, vice-president of the Florida Audubon Society.

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