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Egret's take-off

Castaway Island Preserve, Jacksonville, FL

The 46,000 acre Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve is one of Jacksonville’s natural gems. The preserve is a compilation of natural, cultural and historic connections that have occurred over the last 6,000 years.

The preserve includes Kingsley Plantation, Fort George and the Fort Caroline area, and is operated by the National Park Service. Over the years, people have changed the natural systems, from altering wetlands to constructing docks, establishing a plantation or the building of Timucuan shell mounds.

On Friday, January 20, 2012 the Timucuan Science Symposium will examine the interaction between humans and the environment. The symposium will take place at the historic Ribault Club on Fort George Island.

The symposium will provide an opportunity to network with researchers, National Park Service employees and local residents interested in the nature and culture of the Timucuan Preserve. Scientists who are currently working on research projects will share their stories, and connect with potential partners.

Scholars and graduate students are invited to submit proposals for posters or presentations at the symposium. Proposals can cover cultural, historical, natural or scientific subjects and are due by November 15, 2011.

Whether as a researcher or an interested observer, the Timucuan Science Symposium should be on your “don’t miss” list.

Earth Day – April 22, 2009, marks the 39th anniversary of this environmental movement. Founded by Wisconsin U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson and spearheaded by Denis Hayes in 1970, Earth Day has been credited with the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of earth-protecting legislation such as the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts.

I have to admit, I usually don’t do anything special for Earth Day. I’m usually working. But I believe that my work, keeping drinking water systems and wastewater treatment plants running, is just as important to the environment as staging a rally. After all, every life form needs water–clean water.

And despite all the doom and gloom talk of bad carbon footprints, pharmaceuticals in the water, and water wars, I think we’re doing a pretty good job overall of keeping the planet safe for future generations.

Could we do more? Sure. But the point is, we have to use our brains and common sense–not emotion–to figure out what works best for sustainability.

Really, every day is Earth Day, isn’t it?

Rainfall from Tropical Storm Fay on August 24, 2008
Rainfall from Tropical Storm Fay on August 24, 2008 Hal Pierce, SSAI/NASA GSFC

Tropical Storm Fay has finally left northeast Florida, heading for the Florida panhandle and on to Alabama and Mississippi–and we were happy to see her go.

As part of my job as Utility Director for a small city, Fay meant extra hours preparing for and responding to problems caused by the storm.

Most people know about the extra hours electrical companies work to get power back up. And those guys are amazing. 

 But it takes a lot of effort from water and wastewater operators and technicians to make sure people have safe water to drink. And to prevent wastewater overflows from contaminating drainage ditches and streams. On top of that, we make sure the wastewater treatment plants keep working to remove contaminants before effluent flows to the river or other receiving stream.
 
With widespread power outages, our water and sewer treatment plants were running under generator power. The larger lift stations (pumping stations that send wastewater to the treatment plant) have generators also–but the small pump stations do not.
 
That means we have to haul portable pumps or generators around town to prevent sewer overflows. And operators still have to work the treatment plants, run laboratory tests, open and close valves and monitor processes in tropical storm conditions.
One of our lift station generators tripped off for some unknown reason during the storm. It could have been from the intermittent power or a power surge. Fortunately our SCADA (electronic monitoring system) was working at the time, so we were able to catch the problem quickly and get the generator running again.
Even so, about 500 gallons of raw sewage overflowed from the lift station into the lagoon. Unfortunate, but not preventable. The generator is well maintained, and tested weekly, but every possible problem can’t be prevented. Of course, we reported the spill to the Department of Environmental Protection as required.
That’s why I take issue with some of the environmental activists who insist on zero tolerance for wastewater spills. None of us want to put sewage into lakes, rivers or oceans, especially those in the business of protecting the environment–but it’s not a perfect world. Equipment fails and backups don’t come on. Tropical storms and hurricanes wreak havoc on instrumentation and electrical equipment. Homeowners and businesses dump things down the drain that they shouldn’t.
The best possible effort is made to protect our environment, but sometimes it’s just not enough.
 
Despite the flooding rains and high winds our city came through the storm just fine, with a lot of dedication and elbow grease from the guys in the field. But we’re all ready for some sunshine in the Sunshine State.

There’s an invasion underway in Florida.  Deadly lionfish have invaded the Atlantic Ocean. Below is a photo from the USDA website, taken by Paula Whitfield, NOAA, Center for Coastal Fisheries and Habitat Research.

Lionfish about 40 miles off the North Carolina coast

Lionfish about 40 miles off the North Carolina coast

They’re natives of the Pacific Ocean, where they have natural predators to keep their numbers at bay. In the Atlantic, with no enemies, the lionfish population is exploding. Not only do they eat Florida’s natural reef fish and harm the local ecosystem, they can injure or even kill people swimming or diving in the Atlantic Ocean. A lionfish’s sting is extremely painful and serious, and there’s no anti-venom.

So how did the lionfish get all the way to Florida?

They’re beautiful fish–and people want them in their aquariums. But when they get too big, they’re often dumped right in the ocean or local estruaries. 

Banning the sale of these lovely-but-deadly invasives is one way to help. 

After all, that’s how many invasive species get their start. People bring plants or animals from other locations without realizing the potential consequences.

Funny how even the the most noble of actions can have devastating consequences. 

The $1.75 billion sale of 187,000 acres of U.S. Sugar’s land to the State of Florida to restore the Everglades may seem wonderful to some environmentalists. But to the 6,500 residents of Clewiston, Florida, news of the sale did not bring cheers.

That’s because U.S. Sugar is a critical component of Clewiston’s economy.  The company employs 1700 people, and makes up about 25% of the tax base. 

Approximately 300 farmers, residents and business owners recently packed Clewiston’s John Boy Auditorium for an emergency meeting, during which officials voted to hire an attorney and begin an economic impact study. 

I have mixed feelings about this deal. We do need to preserve the Everglades. But must we put an end to towns like Clewiston to do so? Farmers are sometimes made out to be “the enemy” of the environment, but I don’t agree with that. If anything, they’re more connected to the environment than the rest of us.

I also have a problem with the “surprise announcement” Governor Crist made about the sale. In Florida, we’re supposed to have government in the sunshine. How was it possible for the State to conduct negotiations with U.S. Sugar–especially negotiations for an amount like $1.75 billion of taxpayer dollars–with so much secrecy?

Some of the folks in Clewiston feel like they’ve been thrown under the bus.  Understandably, I’d say.

Last week, Florida’s Governor, Charlie Christ, unveiled a strategy to provide the missing link to restoring Florida’s River of Grass. A plan for a $1.75 billion purchase of U.S. Sugar Corporation’s property – up to 187,000 acres of agricultural land that can be used to re-establish the connection between Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades with a system of managed storage and treatment. 

Today, the South Florida Water Management District took the next step towards one of the largest environmental land purchases in Florida’s history by ratifying the “Statement of Principles” that was signed with U.S. Sugar Corporation.  This allows the detailed and confidential purchase negotiations to begin.

As proposed, U.S. Sugar will have the right to continue farming the land for the next 6 years.

The acquisition of the property will reduce harmful freshwater discharges from Lake Okeechobee to Florida’s coastal rivers and estuaries while reducing phosphorus and improving water quality entering the Everglades.

As always, there are trade-offs with the deal. Some important water storage projects along the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers will be delayed.  And the residents of Palm Beach County will lose $5.4 million in property taxes when U.S. Sugar’s property goes to the State–at a time when revenues are already taking a hit due to tax reform and a drop in tourism. 

 

I usually won’t read a book if I see the movie first.  But I was so touched by the movie version of Into the Wild that I pulled the book from my “not-yet-read” shelf.

Jon Krakauer, author of the spellbinding Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster, wrote Into the Wild, a true account of Christopher McCandless‘ trek across the country and into the Alaskan wilderness–where he died.

After graduating with honors from Emory University in 1990, McCandless disappeared from home and dropped his given name to become “Alexander Supertramp” as he headed west.  His ultimate goal–an Alaskan Odyssey–living off the land in the wild. 

McCandless gave his savings to charity, burned his remaining cash and abandoned his car after it was submerged in a flash flood.  Alexander Supertramp hitchhiked and jumped trains on a cross-country journey. He camped at Lake Mead, worked a farm in South Dakota, canoed the Colorado River all the way into Mexico where he got caught in a storm off the coast–then illegally crossed back into the states. 

McCandless lived on the fringes of society–but he deeply affected people he met along his way.  Wayne Westerberg, for whom he worked on a farm.  Jan Burres and her boyfriend, Bob, who travelled around selling used books at flea markets.  Ronald Franz, who lost his wife and child by way of a drunk driver and wanted to adopt McCandless. 

Almost two years later, on April 28, 1992, an electrician named Jim Gallien dropped McCandless at the head of the Stampede Trail in the Alaska Interior.  McCandless walked “into the wild” carrying a 10-pound bag of rice, a 22 rifle, ammunition and some camping supplies.  He survived 112 days as a hunter/gatherer alone near the Alaska Range.  He died, probably from starvation–after eating potentially toxic wild potato seeds that left him ill and too weak to hunt, on August 18.

Emile Hirsch does a wonderful job of portraying McCandless in the movie, Into the Wild, directed by Sean PennThe movie really brings the irony of McCandless’ journey into focus

Yearning for ultimate freedom, McCandless essentially becomes trapped in the wild.  He crosses the mostly frozen Teklanika River on foot to arrive at the abandoned Fairbanks Bus No. 142 that becomes his campsite.  In July he decides to reenter civilization–but the Teklanika, swollen by rain and snow-melt, has become a raging rapid.  (Sadly, had McCandless brought a map to his wilderness, he would have seen that there was a gauging station within hiking distance, complete with a manual tram for crossing the river). 

Looking for complete independence, McCandless later notes in his journal, “HAPPINESS ONLY REAL WHEN SHARED.” 

This story is so much more than just a tragic tale of a young man who made a fatal error.  The search for excitement, adventure and meaning in life.  The pull of nature–how nature is not always gentle and does not suffer fools lightly.   McCandless’ final photo is a self-portrait, holding a brief note and smiling into the camera:

“I HAVE HAD A HAPPY LIFE AND THANK THE LORD.  GOODBYE AND MAY GOD BLESS ALL!”

Not everyone agrees with Jon Krakauer’s interpretation of events and sympathy for McCandless.  Many Alaskans believe McCandless was either mentally ill or just foolhardy and unprepared.  And they don’t appreciate Krakauer and Hollywood romanticizing a tragedy–and attracting others to follow in McCandless footsteps. 

Regardles, I was transfixed.  Watch the movie.  Read the book.  Or like me, do both.

 

 

Thanksgiving is the perfect time to reflect on what we should be grateful for. 

In addition to family, friends, and our wonderful way of life–we can be thankful for nature’s balance. 

Disaster may strike one day–say the recent cyclone that hit Bangladesh–but we have many days of perfect “bluebird” weather.  In one part of the country we may have a serious drought, but in another we get the perfect conditions for bunker crops.

Nature gives us a balance of people and personalities too.  I might get frustrated with those who are a little too radical in their quest to help the environment.  But we need them to offset those whose only thought is profit, and who would eradicate a species without a thought if it meant a better bottom-line.

I don’t think we need to stop using cars or go back to hanging our clothes out to dry to save the earth.  But we should all try to do the little things that add up to conserving precious resources.  Turn out the lights when we leave the room.  Use the low setting on the washer when we have a small load.  Recycle if that option’s available.

You don’t have to go to the Amazon jungle or the Blue Ridge Mountains to appreciate the natural world.  Just go out in your back yard, look and listen.  Even in New York you can feed the pigeons–and appreciate nature’s balance.

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