Water remains Gainesville's birthright


Published: Sunday, January 27, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 25, 2013 at 11:26 p.m.

When you come right down to it, two things put Gainesville on the map: Water and railroads.

The railroads are long gone. We better see to our water.

Gainesville was born on a summer day in 1854 during a community picnic at Boulware Springs. As much as anything, crystal-clear Boulware, promising an abundant drinking source for a brand new city, sealed Gainesville's creation as Alachua County's new seat.

In 1883, writer Carl Webber praised a then-bustling Gainesville for its "natural beauties, fertility of soil, perfect water sheds, regular underdrains … the best of water ..." He was especially taken by Sweetwater Branch, which, Webber predicted "will doubtlessly be utilized some day as a natural sewage or for a water supply."

Considering what's become of Sweetwater Branch, his observation turned out to be, sadly, prophetic. More than a century later, Sweetwater and virtually every other creek in Gainesville is tainted. Once, local entrepreneurs thought they might make a fine living hauling tourists from Gainesville hotels to Newnan's Lake. Now Newnan's is among Florida's most polluted lakes.

And we all know what's happening to the springs that make our region a natural wonder of the world. Listen, if the springs can be saved by press release propaganda, the Florida Department of Environmental Posturing is on the case.

When did we get so complacent about water in this city born of water? We used to be a community of hydro-activists. When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began to gouge a barge canal across the state, the resistance movement was born right here in Gainesville in the form of the Florida Defenders of the Environment. And the resistance won; it stopped the "wicked ditch."

But we live in more complacent times. Last year, a stupid intergovernmental snit kept Gainesville from joining the county in stepping up water conservation measures, at least until after the worst of the drought had already passed.

And after the Legislature gutted the state's septic tank inspection law, Alachua County passed on the opportunity to keep inspections locally, as did every other county in Florida's springs region. Officials grumbled about a weak inspection law with no teeth, but no doubt it was easier to just say no to inspections than listen to the complaints of thousands of residents on septic tanks.

Still, this is a new year and hope springs eternal. County Commissioner Robert Hutchinson has challenged county government to make the adoption of a "water ethic" a top priority in 2013. Meanwhile, GRU is launching a major initiative to restore the natural flow of water through the much-abused Paynes Prairie.

Certainly a city that gave America its first solar feed-in-tariff plan to encourage alternative energy use is capable of being Florida's model community for water conservation. And having rejected mandatory septic tank inspections, county government might need to be more entrepreneurial in its approach to water protection; for instance, offering financial incentives for homeowners to upgrade or modernize their tanks, or get off septic altogether when possible.

Because here's the thing. The railroads are gone and they're not coming back. "The best of water" is what remains of Gainesville's birthright, and that's worth fighting for.

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun.

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