Our dirt cheap water

Fifteen years is a lot of water under the bridge. And every year that water got a little dirtier and scarcer.

“Floridians in 2005 may not be facing a statewide water crisis at present, but they are certainly facing enormous challenges. They cannot afford to be complacent.”

That cautionary note appeared in a little-heeded study, “Avoiding a Water Crisis in Florida.” Its author, Lynne Holt, was a policy analyst for the University of Florida’s Public Utility Research Center (PURC).

It is safe to say, 15 years later, that we choose complacency. So we now live in water crisis times. Red tides, toxic algae, collapsing oyster beds, mass fish die-offs and on and on are our new normal.

Two decades into the 21st century we are still making terrible water decisions. That’s why, to cite just one egregious example, one of the world’s largest bottling companies feels entitled to suck up Florida spring water, for free, and sell it in little petroleum-based containers.

Which is why it’s worth remembering Holt’s 2005 report as we blithely row, row, row on our fragile water resources into the third decade.

“One method of curbing water use and thus reducing conflicts over water in Florida and elsewhere is the adoption of more efficient pricing and funding mechanisms to capture the real cost of supplying water,” it asserts.

That’s a polite way of saying that if Florida wants to stop treating its water like dirt we need to stop making it as cheap as dirt. We need to stop giving away our most priceless resource to anyone who cares to pump it out of the ground.

Dirt cheap water is why Big Ag hasn’t moved to drip irrigation and other less water intensive growing techniques. It’s why Nestle can sell “our” water at enormous profits while continuing to add to the world’s plastic pollution stream. It’s why millions of Floridians can pour rivers of water on their lawns (after which it runs back into our streams and wetlands laden with pesticides and fertilizers).

Why not? That water’s as cheap as dirt.

“We Americans are spoiled, we wake up in the morning and we turn on the tap and out comes as much water as we want for less than we pay for cellphone service or for cable television. So we take water for granted,” Robert Glennon, a water expert at Arizona University, told Atlantic magazine.

But wait a minute. What about the poor? If we “right price” water, won’t they be deprived of this life-sustaining fluid?

No. The Atlantic article adds: “Since drinking water is a human right, experts all agree that the base amount a person needs to survive, about 15 gallons a day, should be subsidized.” It’s water squandering that needs to be priced out of the market.

What would happen if Florida right-priced water? Holt’s report recommends that the proceeds from water sales be used to replace aging and leaking water supply infrastructure, pay for water preservation and address pollution.

More importantly, right-pricing would foster a water conservation ethic among farmers, utilities, manufacturers and individual users.

“Absent pricing schemes that capture the true costs of water use, consumers will not be able to respond rationally to conservation signals,” Holt wrote.

That’s another polite way of saying that we will continue to soak our lawns, flood our fields and, yes, let entrepreneurs sell our water to the world in little plastic pollution delivery systems until we stop treating that water like dirt.

(Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun. Read his blog at www.floridavelociped.com)

Ron’s sense of snow

Canadians think Americans are loopy anyway. But if you really want to evoke eye-rolling and dark mutterings from our northern neighbors try saying this to a Canadian:

“I’m from Florida and I’m here for the snow.”

In December. In Ottawa.

And we’re not talking about skiing. I ski. I fall down. I break something. That way lies disaster.

No, I just love the snow. I like to walk in it. To savor its fresh, sharp scent and biting touch. It’s a walk on the wild side. I’m a stranger in a strange land.

Once my backpacking group, the Shining Rock Orienteering Society (AKA Old Florida Guys In Hot Pursuit Of Their Lost Youth) were hiking in snowy Rocky Mountain National Park. People kept looking at us funny because my fellow Orienteer, Louis Kalivoda, was wearing shorts. It’s just Florida Man folks, nothing to be alarmed about.

It is true that I have lived in Florida for more than 60 years. But the first seven years of my life was spent in Pennsylvania. And I still have memories of waking up on winter mornings and discovering that the world outside had turned white and magical.

Listen, to this day I can’t watch “Christmas Story” without tearing up.

The best day I ever spent in New York City happened because there was a blizzard and my flight home got canceled. I went for a long walk through Central Park in a driving snowfall (listening to Sinatra on a Walkman) and had the time of my life. I had lunch at Tavern On The Green and later went to the Algonquin Hotel for scotch. Move over Dorothy Parker.

So here I am at the age of 72, and a confirmed denizen of the Sunshine State. But there is nothing for it. Every now and then I’ve simply got to go looking for snow. Which is why Canadians find me such an odd duck. But there it is.

I’m a bizarre example of rare reverse tourism. The Air Canada plane headed north had quite a few empty seats. On the return trip to Orlando (aka Land Of The Mouse) it was full up.

Ottawa is one of my favorite cities. I have ridden bicycles there and walked for miles around Parliament Hill and along the Ottawa River. But always in the summer or fall. This time we arrived just in time to take in the Christmas Lights Up Canada festival in Confederation Park. They handed us lighted candles and we walked in a snowfall among gaily lighted trees and sculptures.

The next day I walked along the celebrated Rideau Canal locks. The last time I was here it was crawling with tourists and boaters who were patiently waiting out the long lift up or down. Now I had the place to myself.

Strolling along the Ottawa River was a bleak experience…all whites and browns and grays. Then I came upon a spot where someone had left flowers next to a small plaque of an angelic figure and another that said “Peace And Grace.” I know there’s a story there.

Had tea with the suffragettes near Parliament. Still waiting patiently for Hell to freeze over.

The last time I visited Maj. Hill’s Park we laid down in the soft green grass and took in the sunshine. Things change.

And the snow leaves room for interpretation.

The mutant spider at the National Gallery was still assaulting that cathedral across the street. But it seemed to be moving more sluggishly.

We had taken a cabin on Otty Lake for the month of July. This time we had to hike in because the road was blocked.

In nearby Perth is Steward Park. When last we saw it, kids were swimming in the Tay River. Now not so much.

And downtown Perth has certainly changed.

Although we did meet a woman who was shoveling snow off the sidewalk and told us “It’s very mild today.” I love that sort of optimism.

I’m only saying that if you decide to cross that bridge, the snow presents new and infinite possibilities.

So don’t be a grump. Enjoy the moment. Just be sure to dress appropriately.

It’s a wonderful life. Get out in it. And leave footprints.

I’m a Floridian but I love the snow. So sue me, Canada.

Plus, I’m not the only one.

“I wonder if the snow loves the trees and fields, that it kisses them so gently? And then it covers them up snug, you know, with a white quilt; and perhaps it says, ‘Go to sleep, darlings, till the summer comes again.’” Lewis Carroll.

“A cold wind was blowing from the north, and it made the trees rustle like living things.” 
George R.R. Martin.

“The snow doesn’t give a soft white damn whom it touches.” 
E.E. Cummings

“With luck, it might even snow for us.” 
Haruki Murakami

“Well, I know now. I know a little more how much a simple thing like a snowfall can mean to a person” Sylvia Plath

“The snow began to fall again, drifting against the windows, politely begging entrance and then falling with disappointment to the ground” 
Jamie McGuire.

I love snow for the same reason I love Christmas: It brings people together while time stands still. Rachel Cohn

“To want to understand is an attempt to recapture something we have lost.” 
Peter Høeg, Smilla’s Sense of Snow

Suburban strategy 101

On paper, state Sen. Keith Perry and Rep. Chuck Clemons represent Gainesville. But for all practical purposes their job is to contain the city, not see to the best interests of its residents.

Perry and Clemons are classic suburban Republicans. Gainesville is an island of blue in an otherwise north Florida sea of red and is treated accordingly in Tallahassee.

It was a slap to the face of our “representatives” when city voters decisively rejected their scheme to remove Gainesville Regional Utilities from city commission control. So now they’re back with still more anti-city devilment: Subjecting Gainesville to a legislative “audit” just to make sure it isn’t being run by a bunch of crooks.

You might think this is being done out of political spite. But perhaps there is a method to this continuing legislative maliciousness against all things Gainesville.

Maybe its just another cog in the GOP’s suburban strategy machine.

Don’t look now but the Republicans are losing the suburbs. Have been ever since Trump took office. Practically every election since then has reflected an erosion of GOP strength outside cities. It is why Republicans lost control of the House in 2018. And the erosion continues in the run-up to the 2020 elections.

“Republican support in the suburbs has basically collapsed under Trump,” Republican strategist Alex Conant told the Associated Press in the wake of Democratic victories in Kentucky and Virginia. “Somehow, we need to find a way to regain our suburban support over the next year.”

The war of spite Perry and Clemons are waging against Gainesville may not help Trump. But it could benefit Clemons, who is facing a tough challenge from Gainesville Democrat Keiser Enneking.

Enneking almost beat Perry in the last election, and would have if not for some GOP-dark money chicanery. If Trump enters Florida as a wounded incumbent, down-ballot Republicans like Clemons stand to suffer from the fallout.

And make no mistake, Clemons is vulnerable. He just managed to squeak by his last challenger, Jason Haeseler. If Trump bombs in the suburbs, he could very well suck Clemons and other Republicans down with him.

And the stakes are huge for the party in 2020. After the census comes reapportionment. If Florida Republicans get too badly cut up in Trump’s shredded coattails, their ability to front-load elections in the GOP’s favor over the next decade could be jeopardized.

How better to aid Clemons’ survival than to whip up some good old-fashioned “We-Hate-Gainesville” froth among the suburbanites?

Is your commute into the city too long? Blame Gainesville liberals who would rather spend money on buses and bike paths than traffic lanes. Hey suburbanites, why should your utility dollars fund city parks, police and all the services that benefit from having a municipal-owned utility? (Answer: Because if Gainesville didn’t exist neither would its bedroom communities. Those daily commuters are driving here to work.)

This is all just part and parcel of the GOP’s larger suburban strategy. You can see it being played out every session, when dozens of bills are introduced to eat away at the home rule authority of cities. My favorite so far this year is legislation to keep GRU and other municipal owned utilities from using their revenues to fund city services.

Perry told WCJB that the bill, by West Palm Beach Republican Mike Caruso, has merit because utility-generated revenues give some cities “an unfair taxing advantage.”

Listen, Gainesville isn’t being represented. It is being scapegoated.

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun. Read his blog at https://floridavelocipede.com.

What Red Cross knew

Where’s our Red Cross when we need him?

To the extent that anybody remembers J. Emory Cross these days it is because that Gainesville-base state legislator birthed Florida’s Sunshine Law in 1967.

That is of course a fine legacy. Less well known is Red Cross’ long-running fight to tax exploiters of Florida’s natural resources.

“I found that the phosphate industry was tax free and it was producing I believe, 75 percent of all phosphate produced” in the US, Cross recalled in a 1978 UF Oral History interview. “It was polluting the air and not reclaiming any land back then. So I just felt that it was unfair to let them go free without paying some part of the tax burden.

“Of course I found out that I had jumped on a sacred cow, sure enough.”

For his trouble Cross made powerful enemies like Associated Industries and Dupont robber baron Ed Ball. “We used to kid each other up there,” he said of the lobbyists who lined up against him. “I would tell them ‘you fellows ought to cut me in. I keep you in a job.'”

Cross’ dogged campaign to impose an excise tax on mineral extraction ultimately caught up with him. “I was fortunate to survive as long as I did, sixteen years, because they fought me every time. They would put money against me every time trying to defeat me. What saved me was the well informed people” of Gainesville.

But then his university city-dominated district was sliced up to include several rural counties. Cross was defeated by oil-gas distributor Bob Saunders, who offended no special interest and enjoyed an unremarkable Senate career.

Still, a new governor named Reuben Askew finally did get that tax on phosphate, using the money to reclaim old strip mines that looked like lunar landscapes.

Red Cross’ other legacy is worth recalling only because there remain so few Florida politicians who are willing to take on the polluters that they are practically an extinct species.

Which is precisely why Nestle thinks it can pour a million gallons of Florida spring water a day into little plastic bottles and pay next to nothing for the privilege. It is why Lake Okeechobee is a giant cesspool. It’s why red tides and green algae blooms and bacteria beach closings are the new normal.

To the extent that our politicians are even willing to address water pollution they tend to do it from the wrong end – spending public money to try to clean up the mess after the fact. Stopping pollution at its source might require higher user fees or stricter regulations, which risk getting on the wrong side of Big Sugar, Associated Industries, the Chamber of Commerce and all of the others who profit from treating Florida’s water like dirt.

And, really, I don’t blame them. Politicians tend to follow the money, and the smart money banks on dirty water.

No, I blame the rest of us. We keep electing and reelecting the very people who do the bidding of the polluters. We’re stupid that way. Otherwise we would have thrown the rascals out by now.

Where’s our Red Cross when we need him? He’s probably that candidate who keeps losing to better-funded, better-connected incumbents and party hacks because we voters simply refuse to make the logical connection between dirty water and dirty politics.

That’s why we get the government we deserve. And isn’t that a dirty shame?

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun. Read his blog at https://floridavelocipede.com.

Who are we anyway?

What do you think when you think about Alachua County? Aren’t we that special place “Where Nature and Culture Meet”? Aren’t we springs and prairie and forests and rolling green hills surrounding a dynamic university city?

And if we set out to build an event center, a sports palace to attract visitors, wouldn’t we want to place it where, you know, “Nature and Culture” actually meet?

Wouldn’t we want to show off the best we have to offer?

Our dynamic downtown arts scene.

Our newest and best park and the museum that celebrates what makes us innovators and inventors.

Our town-gown culture that breeds more innovation still.

Who are we anyway? What are we? We’re Gator Country set amid real gators and buffalo and so much more.

This isn’t us, is it? This is just more of the same autoAmerican landscape that you can see anywhere in Anywhere USA.

We’re really going to put our events center here? We’re going to welcome our visitors to a place where Commerce and Asphalt Meet? Is that really us?

Granted there are certain expediencies to inviting the world to our own little slice of autoAmerica.

I-75 is the perfect asphalt delivery system. It will allow our visitors to drive directly to their chain-owned hotel, attend their chosen event, eat at any number of chain-owned restaurants, shop in the big box of their choice…and then gas up and get the hell out of town. It is the autoAmerican way.

Will they even suspect that there is this amazing Innovation City just beyond sight of that asphalt delivery and departure system? Will they care? Do we even want visitors to come and see who and what we really are?

Or are we only interested in filling Interstate-adjacent beds, supporting minimum wage restaurant jobs and funneling shoppers into big boxes before we send them back to wherever they came from?

Who are we? What are we about? Are we just another way stop on the autoAmerican autobahn? Is that really the best vision Alachua County Commissioners have for our community’s future?

If so, we need commissioners with better vision. Because asphalt and commerce is a poor substitute for that magical place where Nature And Culture Meet.

Food trucks today

You know what Gainesville really needs on its march to become Innovation City?

More food trucks.

Ok, that’s a simplification. But it is one of the “baby steps” that Jim O’Connell says the city should take as Gainesville continues to nourish and grow it’s own start-up tech culture.

O’Connell is director of UF Innovate. His job being to “push patents out the door,” to channel the fruits of faculty research into new companies and new jobs.

And to keep as many of them as possible here in Gainesville.

“I have roughly 400 people working in the Innovation Hub who have to go someplace else to eat lunch,” he says. “We need a food truck park, and right now there are no guidelines on how to create that.”

Actually there soon may be. A food truck draft plan has been circulating in City Hall and will soon go before the Plan Board for review.

But baby steps aside, the larger point O’Connell made at a breakfast presentation last week was one of setting realistic goals and expectations for Gainesville’s high-tech future.

Gainesville is never going to be Silicon Valley. Building the financial resources and tech infrastructure that has developed around institutions like Stanford and MIT was the work of decades and will not likely be replicated in a city that is primarily known for “football and The Swamp…we don’t have the brand to compete on that level.

“Nobody is going to move to Gainesville and put 5,000 jobs here,” he said. “Organically, home-grown companies are the ones that will stay put.”

And while UF faculty “are great for generating ideas and patents,” it is usually younger grad students who go forward and create start-up companies.

“We need to attract them and keep them here, and they want to live in the downtown area,” he said. “We need high-end condos where somebody making 80 grand a year can walk to the bars, restaurants, micro-breweries and all the stuff people that age have come to expect.”

And as new companies take root, they will also need laboratory and office space that doesn’t currently exist. “We need more. We don’t have it. And we will lose companies if we don’t have a way to provide it.”

And that’s the dilemma. Of late Gainesville has experienced a construction boom that seems to be mainly focused on high-end student housing. It’s been happening all up and down University Avenue and 13th Street.

But at some point there is bound to be a glut in that sector. And then what comes next?

Just how, or even if, the city can encourage close-in residential and commercial development of the kind O’Connell says is needed to support the start-up economy is a complicated question. Even more so is whether developers and financial institutions will be willing to take the risks involved in creating something other than student housing.

“We are entrepreneurial ecosystem developers,” O’Connell said of UF Innovate. “We need to work on the money, the management team, the infrastructure…we need to create the entire continuum.”

But, he said, “my team cannot do all this on their own. We desperately need people on the outside, people with business acumen…We need a public-private partnership.” And currently there appears to be “no strategy, no plan,” to foster Gainesville’s entrepreneurial infrastructure.

Hence baby steps. This notion of town-gown collaboration on “simple, quick solutions so we can start marching forward.”

So food trucks today, high-end apartments tomorrow?

(Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun.”