Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Canary's Song

It’s a tribute to cave divers like the late Wes Skiles that photos of people swimming in the Floridan Aquifer have become common-place. Everywhere, we see pictures of divers in the most serene settings imaginable—swimming through dream worlds of icy-blue water and cream-colored limestone. They ease through grand, underwater passages and squeeze through the earth's pulsing arteries. In some photos they are drifting as though suspended in the ether, the quintessence, illuminated by celestial shafts of sunlight. Like modern hieroglyphs, these photos line our great halls and the corridors of our public places with depictions of legendary places and heroes doing heroic deeds. They are morality tales with a common theme; water is precious; never take it for granted; do all you can to protect it.

Wes once showed me a photograph of a cave diver drifting in a submerged cave. As cave-diving images go, it was relatively unremarkable. In fact, the only clues that it was taken in a cave were some limestone projections visible in the background. Judging by the diver’s enthusiastic “thumbs-up” and by his excited eyes, visible even through his mask,  it appeared to be a photo of a young man having the experience of a life-time.

Wes was quick to point out that he had not taken this photo; it was a self-portrait, taken by the diver of himself. Wes' emphasis on the fact that the diver was alone was my first clue that all was not right with this happy scene.

Pointing to the limestone in the background, Wes said “I know this place.”

He then pointed to the tanks on the diver’s back, “And those don’t hold enough air to reach that spot in the cave and make it back out. He’s already dead and doesn’t even know it.”

In that instant, with Wes’ guidance, I realized that I was not looking at a photo of a happy diver; I was looking at a man about to experience the last, and most horrifying moments of his life. As I stared at the photo, trying to corelate the tragedy I now knew to be happening with the happy appearance, I realized it was a perfect metaphor. Wes had devoted his life to sounding the alarm that behind the beautiful facade of the springs, a huge tragedy is unfolding.

Knowing that most of us will never dive in caves, he called our attention to the springs—the only part of the aquifer system we’ll ever see. He compared them to the celebrated coal-mine canaries, used by miners to detect dangerously low oxygen levels. The springs are our visible indicators of the aquifers health. And, it doesn't take an expert to see they are sick. Our canaries are gasping.


On a recent paddle tour down Santa Fe River, as our small group drifted over the fresh-water geyser called Poe Spring, feeling the earth’s pulse gently rocking our boats, we discussed Florida’s aquifer system.  I explained that rain water seeps slowly through the limestone to the underground system of channels and pockets; that some water is in the ground for many decades, maybe even centuries, before it works through the system and reappears from a spring; that the aquifer provides the vast majority of Florida’s drinking water.

I then explained to the group that the aquifer is in jeopardy. It's being degraded by over-extraction and pollution from agriculture and home owners who continue to over-fertilize and spray pesticides with reckless disregard. Pointing to the green-tinted water of Poe Springs, I described breath-taking blue water I knew as a child. I pointed to the barren bottom of the spring pool, where the only signs of life are clumps of brown algae, and describe the meadows of eel grasses and other plant species that grew here only a decade ago. A German boy added that he had learned in science class that Florida’s springs, when healthy, are among the most diverse freshwater habitats in the world.

We spent the next few hours paddling down-stream, stopping to admire every spring we passed. I felt like a museum docent leading tourists down vaulted green halls and showing them our amazing collection. I described each piece, gave a little history, and then moved aside to allow everyone a few moments contemplation before moving to the next piece.

In Blue Spring, a young girl asked, “What would happen if, by some miracle, pollutants were kept out of the ground from now on and only pure rain water was allowed to percolate through the limestone?” I smiled at her charming innocence, and tried to think of a way to break the news to her that adults are not that smart. But then it occurred to me waht a great question it was—not only because it’s a comforting notion, but because we need to visualize such possibilities. So, here we go--imagine if we really got serious about limiting extraction and restricting the use of fertilizers and pesticides. Of course, it would require sweeping changes to the way we do things like grow food and landscape our yards. Most importantly—and really the biggest challenge—is that it would require sacrifice. Food products would probably get more expensive, but they’d be healthier. Our yards might not be the exact shade of green we like, but they’d be healthier. All aspects of our lives would be much healthier.

Best of all, if we stopped polluting, Floridians could look upon the increasingly-green, increasingly-cloudy springs not as lost causes, but as healing wounds. Their toxic flow would be like a draining infection. Every ounce of toxins that flowed from the springs would mean one less ounce of toxins in the aquifer. Future generations of Floridians would be able to look at photos of clear, blue springs and divers in underground caves—those same timeless hieroglyphs that will surely line their great-halls and sacred chambers as they do ours—not as depictions of ancient history and poignant reminders of long lost wonders we called springs, but as touchstones. They’d flock to displays like the Blue Path exhibit now showing at the Florida Museum of Natural History and look upon them as beacons of hope--hopeful reminders of what will come when all of the toxins have been flushed from the system. They will be tributes to the sacrifices of their ancestors of the early 21st century who had the foresight to change the way they did things—fertilizing, spraying pesticides, spilling paints and oils, using water frivolously—so Floridians could, once again, have clean drinking water.

There really is power in the knowledge we have gained from people like Wes Skiles. And yet, we’re not acting on it. Our springs are already turning green, and most are already showing the obvious symptoms of too many nitrates in the form of a thick coating of algae on all submerged objects. And yet, there is no sense of alarm. The fact that the canary is dying doesn’t seem enough; maybe it will have to fall in our glass of water before we notice. I wonder if Wes ever looked out on a room full of legislators and saw only grinning fools in dive-masks giving a hearty thumbs-up.