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Diane Roberts: Bad science is not good for state’s waterways

in Statewide/Top Headlines by

You’d think that a state where they launch rockets into space, a state which houses the world’s most powerful superconducting magnets, a state with several perfectly good universities, would embrace science.

Or at least not be so thoroughly hostile to it.

But this is Rick Scott’s Florida, where there’s still legislative resistance to teaching evolution (“just a theory!”), the Agency for Healthcare Administration doesn’t understand how doctors determine pregnancy, and climate change is the impending disaster that Dares Not Speak Its Name.

Scott has fired or forced out members of Florida’s water management district boards who actually know something about hydrology, replacing them with hacks-cum-hatchetmen such as Pete Antonacci.

Political appointees at the Department of Environmental Prostitution, unencumbered by knowledge or the ability to give a damn, have gotten rid of many environmental experts.

Those dang botanists, biologists and wetlands ecologists got in the way of allowing Big AG and Big Construction to make money. Indeed, DEP once tried to change the definition of wetlands to accommodate a rich developer. They only stopped because they got caught.

Under the circumstances, you will not be shocked to hear that the state is using bad science to decide on permits for water use.

A recent letter from the Florida Springs Council to DEP’s Drew Bartlett, Deputy Secretary for Ecological Restoration, asserts that the models used to assess groundwater pumping are inaccurate. They haven’t even been peer-reviewed.

See, most of Florida sits on karst, limestone full of holes large and small. But the state’s models assume that under the grass lies sand and gravel. Water (and pollution) will move a lot faster through karst than through sand.

It’s important that the models be accurate. The water management districts are supposed to use them to see how much water can be pumped out of the aquifer without damaging nearby springs, rivers, lakes and wetlands.

The models should also help track pollution — all that nitrate-laced cow poop from giant dairy operations, chemical gunk from paper mills, leaking septic tanks and construction runoff for which Florida is becoming ever more famous.

But the models are no good. Dr. Robert Knight of the Florida Springs Institute wrote recently in the Gainesville Sun: “Gross overestimates of groundwater availability appears to be the norm.”

“For example,” he says, “the St. Johns River Water Management District’s best models estimate that Silver Springs flow has been reduced by about 5 percent by groundwater pumping while actual average flow reductions are greater than 30 percent.”

Only off by 25 percent. Guess that’s close enough for (Florida) government work.

It gets better — I mean, worse: the state knows that its models are rubbish. They’ve known it for some time, as the Tampa Bay Times reported in January 2013.

The state shrugs and says they “tweak” the models to account for karst — which is really nothing like sand or gravel.

Here’s how well that’s doing: The flow in many Florida springs has slowed or stopped altogether. The St. Johns and the Santa Fe Rivers (among others) are slimy with toxic green algae. Silver Springs and Wakulla Springs are dark with fertilizer pollution. In 2010, farmers in Plant City pumped so much water out of the ground, the aquifer dropped by 60 feet and 140 sinkholes opened up.

The “tweaked” model did not predict this. DEP has not done anything about it.

In 2007, Coca-Cola created a good model, one based on geological reality. The corporation eventually offered it to the state. For free. The state declined.

See, if DEP and the water management districts use correct scientific information, they might have to stop throwing permits like Mardi Gras beads to the drain-and-pave crowd or the barons of Big AG, the great polluters of our age.

Good science might force DEP to stop pimping out Florida’s environment. And that would never do.

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Diane Roberts is the author of Tribal: College Football and the Secret Heart of America. She teaches at Florida State University in Tallahassee.

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