If you were asked to name the greatest long term problem facing Florida, what would it be?
When that question was put to State Rep. Ben Albritton this week at a Tiger Bay Club meeting in Bartow, he quickly answered:
At first blush, it doesn’t sound like an exciting topic.
Water doesn’t prepare today’s young people for success in the workplace.
Water has an insignificant impact on transportation within the state.
Water, selling for pennies a gallon (unless you insist on the bottled stuff) doesn’t represent much potential as a tax source.
And water doesn’t offer a political advantage; there is no such thing as Democratic or Republican water, liberal or conservative water.
As long as clear, potable water comes out of the spigot every time we turn the faucet, we don’t give it much thought.
But water, more than any other resource, places limits on everything from residential development to agriculture to industry. And as difficult as it may be to grasp, it is not an inexhaustible resource.
Ask long-time Polk Countians to name their favorite recreation venues of the 1950s and earlier, and the odds are great that Kissengen Spring will be at or near the top of the list.
The spring, located between Bartow and Fort Meade, was the most popular — not to mention the coldest — swimming hole in the southern end of Polk County. Political rallies were held there, as were church picnics, company parties, and a variety of social activities for people of all ages. And more than a few budding romances had their genesis on the Kissengen Spring property.
But in the 1950s, Kissengen Spring went dry, becoming one of the region’s first and most dramatic indications that water just might not be an inexhaustible resource.
It was commonly believed at the time that the underground river feeding the spring was cut by phosphate mining. But the more recent research that we have studied suggests that the spring did not go dry because of a single industrial calamity.
Instead, scientists are more likely to look at the disappearance of Kissengen Spring, and other less well known watering spots, as the result of a falling water table. The blame is shared by heavy industry (mainly phosphate mining), agriculture, and residential development.
Adding to the problem, from a Central Florida perspective, is that water is considered a resource of the state, not of the property owners or even the regions in which it is found.
As Polk County commissioners used to joke, “Those heavy drinkers on the coasts” were living large on water drawn from Imperial Polk. There is merit in that observation.
The bulk of Florida’s residential population is on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, an understandable phenomenon given Nature’s beauty at the seashore.
All Floridians who like to eat — and we know of none who do not — are reliant on a healthy agricultural industry, which in turn is reliant on an adequate water supply.
In the industrial arena, everything from phosphate processing to generation of electricity relies in part on water. As convenient a whipping boy as heavy industry may represent, it arguably is doing a better job than other water consumers in reusing and recycling water.
So what to do to ensure an adequate supply for future generations?
State Rep. Ben Albritton is quick to admit that he doesn’t have an answer. But he proposes that the Legislature assemble a body of experts who are smarter than your average legislator to recommend a comprehensive water policy. He believes that the House leadership in 2015 will make this a major priority. We hope he is correct.
Developing water policy that will solve long-term problems will require not only a lot of smart people, but a willingness for each major water consumption group to compromise. It will not be easy; indeed, it will barely be possible.
But we share Albritton’s belief that it is the most important issue Florida must resolve.
There are still those who dream of a return of Kissengen Spring, and indeed, there is more water there today than there once was. But full restoration remains only a dream at this point.
Making such dreams a reality — not because Florida cannot live without
Kissengen Spring but because Florida cannot prosper without a reliable source of
potable water — is of paramount importance to the state’s future.