(Un)Natural Consequence

Are we helping or hurting Florida’s natural environment?

As a place to call home Florida ranks close to the top. So much so that roughly 1,000 people move here each day. Only Texas and California have more residents than the Sunshine State.

In 1910, the state’s population was barely 1 million. According to the United States Census Bureau, Florida’s population as of July 2016 was estimated at 20,612,439. And studies predict a population of 27 million by about 2030.

Florida is a large state covering 58,560 square miles, but 27 million is a lot of people, and as the population grows, so do environmental concerns, many of which involve water.

Water Concerns

We know what you’re thinking: What’s the big deal? After all, Florida’s a peninsula. We’re surrounded by water, and the state has plenty of surface water, right? Not so fast. Given our rapidly expanding population, experts say we’d better be paying attention.

“I think the greatest water-related environmental issue facing Florida is simply ensuring an adequate supply of water for all water users,” observes Kelly A. Grogan, Ph.D., associate professor in the Food and Resource Economics Department at the University of Florida.

“With (the) predicted population growth, demand for water will only be increasing in the future. Our natural drought cycle also makes us prone to shortages, and climate change predictions suggest that we may face more frequent and/or more severe droughts,” adds Grogan. “The combination of population growth and climatic factors means that we need to increase water conservation efforts now and make sure new urban development is designed with water conservation in mind.”

Although you often hear people mention “the” aquifer, the fact is there isn’t just one aquifer beneath the Sunshine State. The largest is the Floridan aquifer, which is located beneath not only Florida but also parts of Georgia, Alabama and even up into South Carolina.

Think of the aquifer as an underground river. Just like rivers on the surface, the aquifer is replenished by rainfall, which is why fluctuations in rainfall—and droughts, like the one Florida had this spring—can have a detrimental impact on water supply.

“People look around and see all our surface water and think there’s plenty of water here, but that doesn’t tell you the condition of the aquifer. You have to consider the amount of rainfall over a long period, not just a year,” notes David Holmes, county extension director in the UF-IFAS Marion County office.

“Many people don’t really think about how sensitive our Floridian environment is and aren’t familiar with our very sandy soils,” adds Holmes. “Anything that goes below the root zone of grasses and plants eventually reaches the aquifer. Even if you’re not on a well, you need to be concerned about water quality and quantity because what we do on the surface affects the aquifer, and this is where our drinking water comes from.”

In the early 1970s, Florida established five water management districts, and in 1989, the state adopted legislation to improve water resource management and required each district to evaluate water needs and sources.

“A major concern is nutrient load, which can be caused by fertilizer, waste (human and animal) and storm water run-off,” Holmes explains. “Basically, it’s caused by everyone living here, so it’s our responsibility.”

“About 90 percent of Floridians rely on groundwater for drinking water, either through wells or through city water systems that rely on groundwater,” says Grogan. “Increasing groundwater contamination will increase the costs incurred by (public) water systems to clean drinking water for household use. Excess nutrients in our groundwater also negatively impact surface water fed by our groundwater, like our many beautiful springs.”

“Farmers don’t tend to overuse fertilizer, but overuse is common in landscaping; people want their grass to be greener than their neighbors’,” notes Holmes. “A lot of people blow lawn clippings onto the street; those clippings contain nitrogen, and once they get washed into the storm drain, the nitrogen breaks down and goes into the water system. Instead, you should blow clippings back onto your grass to keep the nitrogen on the turf.”

And those “deposits” your dog makes in the yard? Pick ‘em up.

“It may seem like a small thing, but it’s a nitrogen source and goes through the soil,” says Holmes.

One major study, Water 2070, concluded that, “The single most effective strategy to reduce water demand in Florida is to significantly reduce the amount of water used for landscape irrigation.”

Grogan agrees.

“Recent studies have shown that about 64 percent of the freshwater used by the average Central Florida household is used to irrigate lawns,” she notes. “Lush, green lawns are not naturally occurring features of our landscape and require a lot of water to maintain. Installation of Florida-friendly landscaping, utilizing native plants and, in particular, drought-tolerant plants, could substantially lower household water use.”

What You Can Do:

  • Respect water restrictions when in place.
  • Turn off water when brushing teeth, etc.
  • Shorten your shower time.
  • When replacing appliances, choose water-efficient models.
  • Run washers and dishwashers only with a full load.
  • Don’t over-water or over-fertilize landscaping.
  • Switch to Florida-friendly vegetation that require less water, and/or be more accepting of having a less-than-perfect lawn.
  • Pick up pet waste, and dispose of it in the trash.
  • If you have livestock, remove waste from pastures and have it hauled off or compost on-site where it can’t create runoff.
  • Reduce your use of fertilizer and pesticides.
  • If on a septic system, have it inspected and maintained regularly.
  • Follow water conservation recommendations from University of Florida experts (http://bit.ly/2vjBgI3).

Rising Sea Levels

Science supports the evidence of rising sea levels, which will definitely impact a state that is surrounded by water. No one can say precisely how quickly this will occur over the coming years, but effects have already been identified in low-lying coastal communities.

“We will actually see a rise in the ocean level, and we are already seeing the effects of this in places like Miami-Dade County where they are already experiencing high-tide flooding,” says Grogan.

The Florida Chapter of the American Institute of Architects is recommending that building designs, codes and infrastructure accommodate 3 feet of sea level rise for projects in all low-lying areas, even those farther inland and up tidal rivers.

“In addition to flooding, saltwater intrusion is another problem that will be exacerbated by sea level rise, and we are already experiencing contaminated wells in Fort Lauderdale and Miami,” observes Grogan.

Saltwater is found throughout the aquifer but is typically far below the freshwater. “Saltwater intrusion” is the movement of saline water into freshwater aquifers. This natural occurrence has an exponentially negative impact when too much fresh water is pumped from an aquifer, when a well is drilled too deep and, as Grogan points out, with rising sea levels.

What You Can Do:

  • Seek professional building advice before buying or building in a low-lying area, even inland.
  • Follow permitting requirements and building codes with new construction or renovation.

Waste & Recycling

All those people calling Florida home… well, we generate a lot of waste. According to 2014 statistics (the most recent available) from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, each resident generates an average 9.12 pounds of solid waste per day, which translates to 1.66 tons per year per person. That’s a lot of trash.

And where does it end up?

Again going with 2014 statistics, 47 percent of Florida’s solid waste ended up in landfills; 39 percent was recycled and 14 percent combusted.

In 2010, Florida legislature enacted a bill that established a statewide recycling rate of 75 percent to be achieved by 2020. Recycling statistics are in for 2015, and there’s some good news. Although it varies widely by county, the state’s overall recycling rate climbed to 54 percent in 2015. Twenty counties exceeded 50 percent, Marion and Citrus Counties among them.

What You Can Do:

  • Recycle at home to avoid waste ending up in landfills.
  • Start a recycling program at your school or workplace.
  • Visit earth911.com and dep.state.fl.us for recycling tips.

Invasion Of Non-Natives

Things tend to grow well in Florida’s temperate climate—even species that aren’t supposed to be here, which is why our state is facing an invasion of non-native species, in both flora and fauna. In fact, over 500 non-native fish and wildlife species and 1,180 non-native plant species have been documented.

“Hydrilla (Hydrilla verticillata), water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes) and water lettuce (Pistia stratiotes) are the most serious aquatic pest plants in Central Florida,” notes Carli Segelson of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC).

“Hydrilla can grow at a rate of up to 1 inch per growing tip per day, with many more than 10,000 growing tips per acre of surface water,” Segelson explains. “Likewise, water hyacinth and water lettuce, which both float on the water’s surface, can double in size within 30 days. [These] species can block navigation, crowd out diverse vegetation, and, because of the respiration phase of their life cycles, even deplete available dissolved oxygen in the water column at night or on cloudy days.”

Boat trailers are one of the most common ways that exotic aquatic weeds are moved from one water body to another. Dumping aquarium plants into Florida waters is another way imported plants can become nuisances.

In upland areas, Cogon grass (Imperata cylindrica), Chinese tallow (Triadica sebifera), air potato (Dioscorea bulbifera) and Brazilian pepper (Schinus terebinthifolia) are invasive, fast-growing species that exclude almost all other plant species, altering the habitat and reducing diversity.

In transitional and wetland areas, West Indian marsh grass (Hymenachne amplexicaulis), Para grass (Urochloa mutica) and torpedograss (Panicum repens) quickly take over and establish nearly complete dominance.

Invasive Critters

You’re probably already aware of one of the state’s most alarming invasive species: the Burmese python. Native to South Asia, their presence in the Sunshine State is attributed to escaped/released pets and the destruction of a breeding facility during Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Although the population is established in South Florida, individual Burmese pythons have been spotted near Naples and experts suspect the population is moving northwest.

These pythons prey on native species and have reduced local populations; they can also pose a threat to pets and livestock. The average Burmese python found in Florida is 8 to 10 feet, although they can grow up to 20 feet long.

FWC encourages residents to participate year-round in reducing the population of this invasive species; no hunting license or permit is required. And in case you’re thinking of grilling up your catch, eating meat from Florida pythons isn’t advised. High mercury levels have been found in Burmese pythons taken from Everglades National Park.

Tegus, a large lizard native to South America, have also become a problem in Florida, and local breeding populations exist as far north as Hillsborough County. Tegus reproduce quickly and eat a variety of food, including small animals and the eggs of many wildlife species. They can grow up to 4 feet long and, if they find a burrow, can survive temperatures down to 35°F.

On a brighter note, the Florida panther, which is native and endangered, has seen an increase in population, proving that conservation efforts are helping. Only about 20 to 30 panthers remained in Florida in the 1970s and ‘80s; the latest counts document approximately 120-230 adult panthers in the population.

What You Can Do:

  • Before you leave a boat ramp, carefully inspect your trailer and boat and remove any aquatic weeds.
  • Don’t transplant aquatic vegetation.
  • Never empty the contents of your home aquarium into the wild.
  • Report new infestations of aquatic plant pest species to FWC Invasive Plant Management section at (850) 617-9430.
  • Don’t leave pet food outside.
  • Never release an exotic animal into the wild. (It’s illegal, not just unwise!)
  • Report sightings of non-native species to the exotic species hotline at (888) Ive-Got1 or online at IveGot1.org. Learn more at http://bit.ly/1JkmcgD.
  • Take part in the FWC’s Python Pickup Program. Learn more at http://bit.ly/2sGVc98.
  • If you have a non-native pet you no longer wish to keep, surrender it through the exotic pet amnesty program. Learn more at http://bit.ly/1y9yvbn.
  • Support conservation efforts by purchasing a conservation-themed vehicle tag at your local tax office.

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