Wetlands To Wastelands Water woes still plague West Coast of Florida

Most people will never stand in a wetland as the sun rises. The sunshine is a rheostat that moves ever-slowly, illuminating the world as it transitions from darkness to daylight, waking the living things that thrive there. The sounds of frogs and crickets give way to birds and buzzing insects. There is a symphony of life.

At dawn and dusk, wetlands are alive with wildlife. There are bellowing alligators and splashing otters, singing birds, and the occasional fish flop. There are raccoons and rabbits, squirrels and turtles, and more. Snakes, too. And butterflies. Some wildlife lives in the wetland full-time while some birds and butterflies stop to rest there on the way to South America in the fall or points north in the spring.

Wetlands are prime breeding areas for many native and protected species, too. There are crawdads and cicadas, spiders, and dragonflies. Water plants, land grasses, trees, and shrubs all provide habitat and food. Natural wetlands don’t require any maintenance. They adapt, storing vast quantities of water during Florida’s notable rain events and hurricanes while mitigating flooding at the same time. Then, they use that water during the dry season. Until they can’t.

It can take hundreds or thousands of years for a wetland to mature. With development, ditching, and other activities—like locating massive water wellfields near them—humans can destroy them in single-digit years. Recovery, depending on the damage, is measured in decades or longer. Or never.

No water in Pasco Trails. Damage to the Cypress dome is clear.

Most important, most people will never connect wetland health with their water supply. They have no idea that when they turn on the tap, that water comes from somewhere—somewhere in nature. This is a story about water and the wetlands that tell us how we’re managing the resource on which we are most dependent.

Over the years, state and federal government policies regarding wetlands evolved. Florida spent years trying to dredge, dam, and drain the Everglades in the early 1900s. They failed. While the large-scale government plans to dry wetlands were mostly unsuccessful, developers and farmers had better results on a smaller scale throughout the state. Governments allowed it. They used concern about mosquitoes breeding in standing water as a rationale for turning wetlands into dry land. But it was really about creating more dry land for economic development.

Once scientists realized that wetlands provide many critical services, and the public demanded environmental protection, policies slowly shifted. Diminished flood mitigation, reduced water storage, reduced aquifer recharge, reduced habitat for native plants and animals, and migrating wildlife are all affected when a wetland is destroyed or diminished. Peat and muck wetlands also bind carbon underwater in dead plant material, reducing the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere. A dry wetland can’t do that.

For some wetlands, there was no hydroperiod. Cypress domes that survived drought and inundation for hundreds of years couldn’t survive the pumping from water wellfields. Some converted to upland over time.

Even as scientists documented the value of wetlands and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had the authority to prevent them from being filled for “progress,” variances and permits were routinely issued. Experts thought if they impacted a wetland in one location, they could build another somewhere else, as long as it was in the same water basin. Few constructed wetlands are as healthy as natural wetlands, so protecting them makes sense if we want them to store and filter water and provide food and habitat for living things.

***

In December of 1993, I became Director of Communications at the Southwest Florida Water Management District (the District) when west-central Florida faced one of the worst droughts on record. The District is the regional regulator for water supplies in west, central Florida. Tampa Bay’s regional drinking water is mostly from a vast underground reservoir called the Floridan Aquifer. Rainfall replenished the aquifer, but there was little rain in the early 1990s, so aquifer levels dropped along with lakes, rivers, and wetlands.

Peter Hubbell, a hydrologist, was the Executive Director of the District. “Wetlands can be tens of thousands of years in the making,” he told me. “There are wet periods and dry periods. The wetlands have withstood that natural variation forever.” He explained that removing large water quantities from the underground aquifer—accomplished through massive wells, pumps, and pipes—coupled with the ongoing drought, drove water levels lower and lower. The system never reached stasis—a state where water levels are lower, but the environment sustains essential functions. Pumping and drought devastated the lakes and wetlands in Northwest Hillsborough and Central Pasco Counties. Some would never recover, he feared.

One of my first meetings at the District included Peter Hubbell and West Coast Regional Water Supply Authority General Manager Harold Aiken. The Authority is a regional water supplier to the most densely populated region in the District—Tampa Bay. The District regulates water in the region, and the Authority is the largest public water supplier.

Wildlife that could escape, did. Some couldn’t get away.

Peter told Harold that water levels were as low as they had ever been, that he was concerned about the wetlands, and he wanted to work together on a water conservation program. He asked me to explain our new program, “Do Your Part,” to highlight what businesses, residents, and governments were doing for conservation. I told Harold I would work with his staff to promote it. Even though I didn’t know him, it was clear he was disinterested. I don’t remember his response, but I remember my impression of it, “Yeah, yeah, sure, sure, whatever.”

***

Steve Monsees was a Green Beret Colonel. He completed a tour of duty at Tampa’s MacDill Air Force Base and decided to stay because Pasco County had water. He bought a seven-acre parcel in central Pasco that was his retirement paradise. It had a 100-acre lake out front and a pond in the back. There were lots of trees, but places where the sun shone through. There was wildlife, too. He dreamed of great fishing. He periodically visited MacDill and his property but noticed changes, like lower lake levels. He didn’t think about what it meant since periodic drought happens everywhere, but by the time the Monsees moved in around Christmas three years later, the 100-acre lake in his front yard was nearly gone.

Steve had heard his neighbors talk about the “effects of the Cross Bar water wellfield,” but had paid little attention. As water levels continued to drop, he suspected the problem was something more than the drought.

He turned to government agencies for answers. “For a time, the Water Authority answered my questions,” he said. But they claimed the water level drop was because of drought. “They blamed it on development. They blamed it on drought. They blamed it on everything but the wellfield,” he said. “It was obnoxious, and I got mad.”

Two years went by. Nothing changed. It was Steve’s January 24, 1994 presentation to the District Governing Board that shifted the debate. They had given him three minutes to speak. His voice quavered as he introduced himself. His hand shook as he showed pictures of turtles belly up, baking on his dry, cracked lake bed, then he said:

The purpose of my comments today is simple—they are to inform you of the devastation caused by present water pumping practices at the Cross Bar Ranch wellfield and to implore you to make the necessary changes to return our private property to its natural state in the shortest period possible…I am not complaining to you today of lowered lake water levels—but of the total and complete destruction of all water resources in our community. There is not a parallel in the recorded history of this area, under any drought condition, that approaches the totality of this destruction. All surface water is gone. All wetlands and marshes are gone. Most wildlife has disappeared. The fish and the alligators are gone, and now even the trees are dying. No man or woman or government has this right…I have not attempted to provide you with mountains of statistical data to support my comments, as this data is available from your own staff, who I believe support and share my concerns…We ask we implore, we demand that you do what is right and provide the protection of government to us…There has not been a day during the past two years that I have not felt violated and angry because of the loss of our lakes, ponds, wetlands, and wildlife. Please restore what is lawfully and rightfully ours.

The room was silent.

The Chairman thanked Steve for his comments and moved on to the next agenda item when several board members objected. Hours of debate ensued, concluding with direction to staff to “do something.”

If you weren’t in the room or watching a screen elsewhere, you’d think it was just another meeting where the “problem” was discussed. On January 25, 1994, the minutes noted, “Mr. Steven Monsees of Shady Hills Homeowner’s Association addressed the Board regarding the effects of the Cross Bar Wellfield. With the aid of photographs, Mr. Monsees illustrated the destruction of lakes, ponds, and wetlands in the community…”

Powerful and wealthy, Pinellas County owned Cross Bar Wellfield. Pinellas was a member of the West Coast Regional Water Supply Authority. Other members included Hillsborough and Pasco Counties, where the wellfields were located. Tampa and St. Petersburg were members too, though Tampa relied mostly on the Hillsborough River and a water reservoir. The Authority was established decades earlier by the Florida Legislature because of disputes between “donor” and “receiving” communities—those with water and those that needed it. If they were part of a single entity, they would more collaboratively develop new water supplies to meet the needs of an exploding population and vibrant economy. They never did.

In the 1900s, St. Petersburg and Pinellas County had to seek freshwater supplies elsewhere, their own contaminated by saltwater. They bought property in Northwest Hillsborough and Central Pasco Counties and built their water wellfields. But there were problems from the beginning. Even as the District issued water withdrawal permits, the Florida Geologic Society expressed concerns. But the permitting system was new, and everyone was adjusting to regulating and being regulated. When they renewed, St. Petersburg’s permits would be subject to new rules that said they cannot affect wetlands—on or off their property.

The average annual rainfall for west-central Florida is about 60 inches. During the 17 years before and including Steve Monsees’ move to Pasco County, only six years met or exceeded the average rainfall. In short, the system was naturally dry, then it was unnaturally pumped to extract water.

After Monsees’ presentation, the District staff prepared a summary of the science. Technical Report 94-1, The Effects of Water Table Changes on Fresh-Water Marsh and Cypress Wetland in the Northern Tampa Bay Region was published in February 1994. It was an effort to collate the relevant data. It said, “(research) conducted by the District beginning in the early 1970s and extending until the present time, shows that groundwater withdrawal can affect the depth and duration of surface water in freshwater marsh and cypress wetland in the northern Tampa Bay region. The evidence further indicates that wetland plant and animal life are adversely affected when water depth and duration is significantly altered…Vegetation on meter-square plots at Cross Bar…was more upland in character compared with earlier years.” The wetlands were less wet, allowing plants that preferred drier soils to grow. The landscape was changing.

Even before Monsees’ presentation, District staff had been educating Governing Board members, laying the groundwork for regulatory changes that must come and the fight that would inevitably result. The District’s first tool to manage the challenges of the drought was to issue Water Shortage Orders. These orders can include anything from limiting lawn irrigation to promoting a water conservation program or reducing the pressure in pipes. Some items are behavioral, while others are technical management strategies. If a Water Shortage Order is challenged, it’s on hold until a court affirms it. The District issued Water Shortage Orders. The Authority, Pinellas County, and St. Petersburg filed a legal challenge to the Water Shortage Orders putting them on hold.

***

It’s one thing to read a report of a drying or dead wetland, or to have someone tell you about it. But I needed to see for myself. Ted Rochow was the District lead monitoring wetlands in the field. He said I could visit a wetland with him. On the way, Ted explained the changes saw over a decade. He expressed concern for the wetland we were about to visit and its chances for survival. Ted’s job was data collection. He was the author of Technical Report 94-1, The Effects of Water Table Changes on Fresh-Water Marsh and Cypress Wetland in the Northern Tampa Bay Region. His data were factored into engineers’ models to tease out the distinction between pumping and drought impacts.

We hiked through a park-like setting that morning, the day already starting to warm. We stepped into a Live Oak hammock punctuated with pine trees and palmettos. The ground was sandy; a gardener would call it “well-drained.” The locals would call it too well-drained. Vegetation was not consistently thick, and there was a trail, likely created by Ted, with his periodic visits to monitor the site. We didn’t talk. Ted led the way as I trailed behind.

He stopped at a massive Cypress tree. We were getting close to water or where water should be. He pointed to the tree, and I could see a watermark.

“The water’s been that high,” he said.

“Where’s the water?” I asked.

“This site hasn’t had a real hydro-period in a long, long time.”

By definition, wetlands are wet most of the time. This wetland was dry. The collection of cypress trees, the dome, provided shade from the sun. We had to step carefully through the cypress corpse because the subsidence, where the land sank below the roots, left the cypress knees exposed. Knees grow out of the ground above the roots. With subsidence, roots are exposed, so the knees were an uneven obstacle course on the way to the water. We pushed through to a sunny, open field covered with knee-high grass. It crunched under our feet. But for that, it was eerily quiet. There was no buzzing or squawking of any kind. In the middle of the field, sticking straight up out of the ground, was a water gauge. It looked out of place because the water it should have been measuring was gone.

***

The intertwined regulatory and legal tactics dragged on. Hillsborough and Pasco Counties, with the District, responded to the lawsuits filed by the Water Authority with St. Petersburg and Pinellas County. The District looked for administrative power that couldn’t be challenged. Frustrated residents went to the media. News coverage was divided. The Tampa Tribune was the dominant newspaper in the communities where water was extracted. The St. Petersburg Times was popular in Pinellas and St. Petersburg—the communities receiving the water. When the St. Petersburg Times ran a special section about water on May 15, 1994, it was a significant step toward a shared regional understanding. The headline story, Sucked Dry, began, “Giant wellfields pump billions of gallons of water from beneath Pasco County each day, shipping most to Pinellas County. For years, residents complained that pumping was drying up their lakes and wells. It’s the drought, water officials replied—until recently, when they admitted what landowners have long suspected: the wellfields share the blame for draining thousands of acres of wetlands, leaving Pasco ‘on the verge of an ecological catastrophe’ as it is slowly sucked dry.”

***

Betty Tillis wasn’t homeless, but the place she lived was hardly a home. Located near retired Green Beret Colonel Steve Monsees, her home was nestled among tall trees, far from the noise of busy streets. When her water well went dry in July 1994, she blamed the 30 million gallons per day of water withdrawn from Pinellas County’s nearby Cross Bar wellfield.

Betty and her husband couldn’t afford $7,000 to dig a new well deep enough for drinking water. Betty would have been without water altogether if it weren’t for the hose running from her mother-in-law’s house. She cooked, cleaned, washed dishes, showered, and flushed the toilet—with water from a hose.

If she could prove the Cross Bar wellfield caused her well to fail, Pinellas County or the Water Authority would have to buy her a new well through the Good Neighbor Policy. The policy provided that private wells within a specific geographic distance around a wellfield would be replaced if they went dry. The neighbors called it the “magic circle.” Outside the circle, people had to hire experts to prove their well failure because of the wellfield. Experts are expensive. And Betty was outside the magic circle, so she and her husband were without their own water source for four long years.

“It’s not so bad,” Betty told me with just a twinge of bitterness. “…we know when they wash clothes, they know when we go to the bathroom. We can’t shower at the same time…but we’ve worked it out. It could be worse.”

The District expected a decrease in water levels when the Cross Bar pumps started up. But an anticipated rebound within the cone of influence—the magic circle—never materialized. The effects were severe, and the cones of influence from the wellfields overlapped with devastating environmental consequences and impacts on residents. When pumping, coupled with drought, the environment could not withstand it.

The District prepared a comprehensive report to explain where the region started, where it was, and how to recover. They needed to determine “safe yield,” the amount of water that could be taken from nature while ensuring natural functions continued.

That report: Northern Tampa Bay Water Resources Assessment Project (WRAP), contained a bombshell. When a St. Petersburg Times reporter put in a formal request for the document, the District decided it was time to make it public, explain it, and mitigate the hysteria sure to come from the local governments. To save the wetlands, the report asserted, the amount of water taken from the wellfields would have to be reduced. It didn’t say how or when that would need to be achieved.

It jolted the region when St. Petersburg Times Environmental Reporter Sue Landry filed her story in June 1994. The headline was stark: Area’s water bill may be coming due: A new study says that pumping of wellfields would have to be cut 75 percent to halt environmental damage.

Days later, another headline declared: Water Authority, Pinellas Sue District. In the article, the District asked local governments to voluntarily reduce pumping by four percent—about one toilet flush per day per household. The Authority and member governments refused. Pinellas County claimed a resulting building moratorium would ruin the economy. The District believed if people really understood, they would do their part. The public responded to the media coverage by reducing use from 140 million gallons per day (mgd) to 105 mgd.

But the problem demanded a systemic solution.

The only power the District had left was to issue an Emergency Order. Unlike the Water Shortage Orders, an Emergency Order goes into effect, forcing permittees into compliance until a court overturns it. Failure to comply has fines of up to $10,000 per day per violation. The District issued that order calling for the Authority and its member governments to reduce use.

***

Beyond the suggestion of a 75 percent cutback, the Water Resources Assessment Project (WRAP) report contained descriptions of the environmental decline on and around the wellfields. “…it can be concluded that as surface-water hydroperiods become increasingly short, the use of wetland areas by fish, amphibians, many reptiles and birds such as ibis, herons, anhinga, duck, and wood storks will be curtailed or eliminated.” Without enough water, wildlife must seek new habitat and alternative food sources.

Judy Williams and her husband dreamed of a home on a lake where they could water ski. They searched until they found the house on Daiquiri Lane in Central Pasco County. The house sat on 150-acre Bird Lake. Most of that was wetlands, according to Judy. The family included a six-year-old girl and a newborn boy. “I wanted my kids to grow up on the water,” Judy said. To complete their family, they visited the Humane Society and rescued a dog. “Lady was a pale, golden color,” Judy remembered, “so sweet.”

Life was sweet. A beautiful new home, a beautiful family, and a beautiful lake to enjoy.

Judy noticed lake levels dropping. She didn’t think about it at first; she’s a native Floridian, and Florida has periodic droughts punctuated with drenching rains. This seemed different. As the wetlands shrank, Judy noticed one other thing: the alligators that lived in the wetland were increasingly seen along the far lakeshore. Neighbors told her that the lake had never been so low.

The regional water regulating body believed that the system would reach “stasis” but it never did. Tens of thousands of acres of wetlands were affected. After 20 years of investment, some have recovered.

“Don’t forget to bring Lady in,” Judy told her daughter as she headed to an evening meeting. When she came home a few hours later, Sarah was distraught. Lady didn’t come when called. She always came. The next day flyers went up, and they called neighbors. Two days later, one had news.

“I saw a huge gator dragging a dog,” the woman told Judy. “I was so mad, I got my canoe and followed it, but it was too late. It was Lady.”

When it took Lady, the youngest of the Williams family, was an 18-month-old who loved the water just like his mother hoped. “It could have been my toddler,” Judy thought. “No. This had to change.”

***

It’s not just the wildlife affected by lower water levels, it’s the geology. The WRAP reported, “Wetlands with decreased hydroperiods and average water levels are subject to various indirect impacts, which can severely alter wetland structure and function. These wetland impacts include the invasion of competitive upland species, land subsidence and loss of overstory, destruction by fire, and wildlife loss.” It also affected human habitat.

Gilliam Clarke was startled awake in the middle of the night. It wasn’t bad dreams that shook her from a sound sleep; it was a waking nightmare. Her entire home was sinking into the ground, not in the dramatic way that Florida’s giant sinkholes swallow a car, road, or sometimes a house…but slowly. Each tremor indicated that the wellfield’s water withdrawal was causing the underlying limestone layers to fold in on one another, lowering the entire area. Sometimes, the tremors were so strong they jolted Gilliam and her husband, Silbourne, out of bed at night. Gilliam coped by laughing. “If I didn’t, I would cry,” she said. Her house sank eighteen inches in as many months.

Gilliam and Silbourne Clarke bought their house the year after and a few miles from Steve Monsees. Like Monsees, this was their retirement home, where they could enjoy a quiet, country lifestyle.

“One day in the spring, I was working in the garden, and a bee was dive-bombing me,” Gilliam explained. “I’m deathly allergic to them, and as I tried to get away, my foot caught between two roots that weren’t there the summer before. I stared at the roots and thought, there’s something wrong here.” When she looked closer, she could see subsidence everywhere. The ground was retreating, leaving tree root exposed.

Gilliam, like Steve Monsees and others, called the Authority.” We have terrible subsidence,” she reported. “I think it needs to be investigated.” The Authority sent someone over.

“Well, what’s causing the subsidence?” Gilliam asked.

“I don’t know.”

“Lack of water, maybe?” Gilliam offered, hopefully.

“No, no, that’s not it.”

“Then what?”

Gilliam posted hundreds of flyers around her neighborhood: “Something’s up in Quail Hollow. Let’s meet and talk about it.” About 75 people showed up.

***

Pinellas County was tired of getting hammered in the news. In January 1996, the commission sued a handful of the most vocal activists arguing that it wasn’t to silence their criticism but to beat them to court. Among others, Gilliam Clarke and Judy Williams. This is called a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP). Typically, it’s a corporate strategy. Lawsuits are expensive and scary. They frighten vocal opponents into silence and keep others from speaking out. Commonly, the person sued signs an agreement not to counter-sue in exchange for being dropped from litigation. It’s unheard of for governments to do it. The same day, the commission voted to spend $300,000 for a public relations campaign to convince people that any problems with wetlands resulted from the three D’s: ditching, drought, and development, not the wellfields.

The next day, the St. Petersburg Times opined: “…The stubborn and uncooperative attitude of Pinellas officials already has turned off local legislators…This latest move (the SLAPP suit), coupled with the high-priced propaganda initiative, will do little to win over anyone. Once again, the lawyers win, and the public loses. When will this end?”

***

It was June 26, 1996, it was morning, but it was already hot. I got to the site early and waited for others to show up. I parked my car on the dirt road and hopped the fence into the field. The grass was yellow and dry, mowed short. It crunched under my boots. Unlike the wetland in the middle of nowhere, this lake was on a private ranch, so it was mowed. It was dusty, too, clouds raised with each step—dry, dry, dry. But for my footsteps, there was no sound, just like the wetland I visited with Ted Rochow. No birds, no bees, no flies, no sound. I walked to the middle of what used to be a 400-acre lake. Circling the lakebed were Cypress and other trees, trees that should have been in or near water. It was too far to see any subsidence or treefall, but I knew enough to know what it would look like close up. This place in Florida shouldn’t crunch. Even though there were trees ringing the site, it seemed more desert than lakebed.

The staff arrived carting a small boat, some paddles, and fishing rods out to me. This location was a demonstration of the “after” effect of the wellfields. We had pictures to show “before.” The elected officials planned to sit in the boat, unable to use their paddles and reels. The largest bass caught in Florida came from Big Fish Lake. But the lake was gone. The ranch owners said it departed when the pumps to Cross Bar Wellfield were turned on. It had been dry since 1990.

I stood back from the crowd, sweating and watching the cameras and microphones and print reporters cluster around the boat and commissioners. At some point, one commissioner “paddled” in the sand while another grabbed a rod, saying he was going for “sandfish.” A couple dozen public officials showed up. Four Commissioners represented Hillsborough and Pasco Counties; the others were leaders in the Cross Bar Wellfield impacts’ legal and moral argument.

On one level, I felt the event trivialized the issue. On the other, there was a lot of media, and without this kind of event, the story would be print-only. ]Hillsborough Commissioner Ed Turanchik came up with the idea right after the Pinellas County Commission voted to spend that $300,000 to convince the public there was no environmental crisis.

With the event, the TV stations, and even radio showed up. By any measure, the event was a success. It fostered a regional outcry against Pinellas County for its PR campaign, and it brought the reality of water withdrawal to the attention of people who used that water. It made them care.

***

After delays and negotiations, the hearing over St. Petersburg’s water use permits began in September 1996. The fight had been ongoing for over two years. Months later, when the hearing officer decided, it was almost anti-climactic. The judge said that environmental degradation had occurred due to wellfield pumping, but it was no worse than the last time the permits were approved more than six years earlier. He ordered the District to issue the permits at existing amounts but pointed out that any future increases were unlikely. The Authority could keep access to their current permitted quantities, but they couldn’t have any more. The region was still growing. They would need more water.

With more than $10 million tax dollars spent in litigation, the legal decision was broad enough to let all sides declare victory—but there were no winners. I thought back to that first meeting with the Water Authority. “Yeah, yeah. Sure, sure. Whatever.”

Before anyone saw the judge’s order, the politics had shifted. The District didn’t want to issue the permits, and by now, St. Petersburg Mayor David Fischer didn’t want them, anyway. District Chairman Roy Harrell believed there would be no resolution to the water wars and no cutbacks from the wellfields until local governments could ensure that replacement supplies were available to them. He called this a “supply-side solution.” His idea was for the District to share the cost. It would be impossible for the Authority and its member governments to resist what the District felt were necessary cutbacks.

The Partnership Agreement to develop new water supplies (between the District and the Authority) and Governance (the reorganization of the Water Authority) was adopted in September 1998. The Authority became Tampa Bay Water.

At the time, one of the elected leaders said, “When entering the room, you must leave your ego and your logo at the door.” Later he admitted, “We never really left our logos.” Pasco always represented their interests and Pinellas theirs. But somewhere along the line, those interests converged. That convergence resulted in regional investment in more new water supplies and recovery of wetlands.

***

Over more than a decade, as new supplies were developed, pumping from the wellfields decreased from a peak of 151 million gallons to 90 million gallons per day. And it started to rain and rain and rain. Monitoring stations were installed throughout the affected area. In December 2018, nearly 25 years after Steve Monsees addressed the Governing Board, Tampa Bay Water produced a Recovery Assessment Plan Preliminary Finding of Results. They describe the relationship between the increase in pumping, the decline of the wetlands, and the lakes’ disappearance. They noted the effects of “deficit” water on plants and animals—the things Pinellas, St. Petersburg, and the Authority spent years and millions of dollars denying.

There were 378 monitored wetlands. Data (new and historical) was consolidated, new measures and processes were developed, and new technology was deployed. In the triage of recovery, wetlands were classified into Recovered, Improved, More Detailed Analysis Needed, Not Fully Recovered, Continuing Impacts.

While all 11 water wellfields were included in the lawsuit and the resolution, Cross Bar was ground zero for the fight. The Cross Bar Ranch section of the report lists 32 monitored wetlands on or near the wellfield. These wetlands are separately identified and categorized by type: Cypress, Mesic, Xeric, Marsh (isolated, connected). The listings alone show the breadth of wetland diversity. The report says that 13 of the wetlands have recovered, the vast majority are improved or have not fully recovered, while one needs “more detailed analysis.” There are another 158 wetlands associated with Cross Bar that are not monitored.

Mostly the wetlands are wet again. Throughout the report, the before and after pictures contrast caked dried mud bottoms with crystal water reflecting the sun and ringed by lush cypress and pine forest. They show vegetation necessary to support native wildlife from alligators to the Zebra Longwing, the Florida State Butterfly. There’s suitable habitat for migrating birds heading north or south. There is recharge to the aquifer and flood protection from the heavy summer rains or hurricanes or the occasional El Nino.

Recovery took too long for the people who fought the ground war. Steve Monsees sold his house at a loss and moved to a more rural community, saying, “If they push their pipeline up here…well, let’s just say…pipelines can disappear. I know people.” Steve died without seeing the resolution, let alone the recovery.

Gilliam Clarke sold her house at a loss and moved to North Carolina, where she wrote poetry and painted until cancer took her. She felt that District funding of new water resources was “a cave” to the Authority and the local governments.

Betty Tillis’ financial situation improved, and she was able to drill a new well. Life was better.

Judy Williams and her husband sold their home, but Judy still has trouble letting go. She wants to re-litigate the agreements that settled the Water Wars and initiated recovery.

Pinellas County dropped the SLAPP suit paying $150,000 per person and publicly apologized.

Ted Rochow died recently, but his knowledge of the wetlands was taken long before as dementia stole his memories and his passion.

People cause these problems. Only people can fix them. West-central Florida should never have fought over water. But as the facts of Flint, Michigan; Newark, New Jersey; Camp Lejeune, North Carolina; and too many other places are revealed, we know that corners are cut, sight is short, and real people pay for it.

***

Twelve years later, I was on a call, parked on my front lawn in a heavy Florida rainstorm. Two young otters scampered in front of my car and toward the back of the house. I hung up and called my husband, asking him to meet me in the backyard with our cameras. We stood on our neighbor’s dock, where we watched the young otters swim across our pond and crawl up the slope on the far side of our property—presumably to get to the wetland at the back of another neighbor’s yard, beyond our fence. Two cranes challenged them. The young otters charged up the bank of the pond together, facing the threat of the very territorial cranes who flapped their wings and honked. This went on for nearly 30 minutes until, in a burst of bravery and energy, they made it through. How hard they worked, I thought, to get to an unmaintained, unmonitored urban wetland of poor quality.

The rain had stopped, and the sun was setting when those little otters slipped through the fence. The frogs and crickets started their nighttime symphony as the sun set, and we headed into the house while the wetland transitioned from day to night.

I have been a writer since I could hold a pencil. My very first story, The Bear, remains unpublished, though it is nicely framed and hangs on a wall in my home office. Mostly I write about science and nature and have been published in journals, magazines, newspapers and elsewhere. I am the author of Water Wars: A Story of People, Politics and Power. Lately, I’ve been writing about personal experience and observation. I live in Tampa, Florida with an adopted 90-lb labradoodle named Jasper who is taller than me.