National Geographic

VOICES Voices Icon Ideas and Insight From Explorers

Menu

How a Lost Rope Swing Captures Everything Wrong with Water Policy

Photo: Rope swing
Rope swings are a rite of passage for many, but water officials have some in their sights. Photo: Phil Kates, Flickr Creative Commons

 

Although water is always with us — sitting on the desk in a bottle, splashing from the kitchen tap, at-the-ready to be flushed in the toilet — water problems often seem remote.

Drought…somewhere else. And how many of us are farmers, anyway? The lettuce and tomatoes always appear in the supermarket.

Fading aquifers…but who can envision an aquifer? You turn on the hose, the water arcs across your lawn.

And water policy decisions are even more evanescent. Who can really stop and grasp the details of withdrawl permits or irrigation allocations?

But how about when the local water authorities quite literally cut down the rope swing your kids use to plunge themselves into a peaceful, slow-moving Florida river? When officials tell you it’s to protect the river your kids have so enjoyed plunging into over and over? That they are, in fact, protecting the river from your kids?

There’s a water policy decision that smacks you in the face like a badly executed cannon-ball.

Florida is home to some of the most vividly short-sighted water policy anywhere. Rain delivers more than enough water to Florida, in a typical year, that it needs. Florida systematically collects that water and throws it away, right into the ocean — then to supply its vast farms and sprawling cities, Floridians pump furiously from an aquifer that underlies most of the state, and which is seriously over-used.

Florida is also home to some of the most beautiful river and spring landscapes in the U.S. It’s hard to believe that one of the keys to protecting the state’s waters is excluding children in swim trunks from those springs. Isn’t the point of the protection precisely to let us enjoy the water?

The same state that cut down the rope swing out over the Suwannee River last year allowed a new permit for a power plant in Jacksonville to take 163 million gallons of water a day from the same river system — that’s 6.8 million gallons of water an hour, enough for a city of 1.5 million people.

At least that old rope swing won’t slow down all that pumping. Thank goodness.

Florida is also home to one of the nation’s finest water journalists and authors, Cynthia Barnett, and in an essay in yesterday’s Tampa Bay Times, she tells the story of her kids’ lost Suwannee River rope swing, and the larger Florida water decisions that surround it.

Barnett is the author of a book about water in Florda, Mirage, and last fall a second book, Blue Revolution, which is about the need for a whole new attitude about water in the U.S., a new water ethic.

Both are elegant, inspirational, indispensible.

But water has the most impact on us when it is immediate, even intimate. Barnett’s short story in the Tampa Bay Times is about getting the small things right while getting the big things terribly wrong; about disconnecting ourselves and our kids from nature; it’s about Mother’s Day. And it’s about the unaccountable loss of the exuberance that comes right at the moment you let go of the rope and plunge for the water.

 

Charles Fishman is an award-winning investigative journalist and New York Times bestselling author who has spent the last four years traveling the world to understand and explain water issues. He is the author of The Big Thirst.