Award-Winning Journalist Talks Water Ethics on Earth Day

by SC Reporter Reese  Holiday

On Sanibel, water quality issues have been some of the most revisited and consistent topics within residents and public servants for good reason. The island is surrounded by a lot of blue.

Solutions to those issues have been discussed just as much, but sometimes later then they needed to be.

Cynthia Barnett, an award-winning environmental journalist, said this lateness is common, especially within places that are modeled for their responses to water quality issues. Often times, the reaction is needed much sooner.

“Every place that’s a model has been through some extraordinary water emergency,” Barnett said. “We don’t seem to get our act together until we’re just at the absolute emergency point.”

While Sanibel isn’t necessarily at that point, Barnett still discussed the island’s water issues, similar problems other places around the world have faced, as well as the history of water quality solutions and the ethics that surround them in a virtual lecture called “Blue Revolution: A Water Ethic for America and Florida.”

The lecture, held on Thursday, was a part of an H2O lecture series organized by the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum. It was also held on Earth Day where Barnett took the chance to discuss the national holiday’s green history.
She also led those attending the lecture through the history of water ethics, a topic of focus for her and her students as an environmental journalist in residence at the University of Florida.

The history lesson started back in the 1960s-70s where the United States faced a surge of industrial pollution. Barnett said the effects of this pollution were felt across the nation, especially in water ways like the Cuyahoga River in Ohio.

There, the river caught fire multiple times to the point that it was a regular occasion. Barnett said some people at the time thought effects like these were inevitable consequences of progress, something she believes is still common today.

“I think there are a lot of correlations between that time and today in that some people feel that some of the things we’re dealing with, like climate emissions and other emergencies, are kind of a consequence of the benefits of capitalism,” Barnett said. “It absolutely doesn’t have to be that way.”

Eventually, problems with places like the Cuyahoga River were fixed and water quality across the nation improved. However, Barnett said these solutions didn’t come over night, and neither did the water ethics that were attached to them.

“Of course, these fixes took decades,” Barnett said. “They didn’t happen on their own. But again, what really changed was the public ethic.”

However, despite the problems of the past being given solutions, water quality issues still persist today. This time, more complicated and with a bigger price tag.

Barnett said water runoff containing harmful chemicals from places like farms, lawns and streets is the number one source of pollution in the country, a type of contamination called nonpoint source pollution.

She also said bottled water can cause more problems as a lot of the springs in Florida are drying up due to how much the fresh water source is tapped into to fill the plastic bottles up.

But while these issues surrounding water may seem grim, Barnett said places like Sanibel set the example as to what to do when it comes to these problems, something that should be pushed all the way to the highest law maker.

“You see some communities just doing a great job on a lot of these things, and I think Sanibel is one, particularly when it comes to preservation of natural areas and wetlands,” Barnett said. “But what we know has not been embraced systematically.”

Having the examples set by communities like Sanibel is the hard part as Barnett said a lot of the discussions surrounding water quality solutions can lead to arguments over who is right and who is wrong.

However, she said those creating those solutions need to look past their differences and focus on what really matters, the water quality across the world. She added that no matter the political party, the time for change is now.

“Ethical water policy is not republicans versus democrats,” Barnett said. “It’s not too much government, or too little. It’s really a matter of good government.”

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