Florida's growth comes with environmental challenges


Published: Tuesday, December 31, 2013 at 3:41 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, December 31, 2013 at 3:41 p.m.

With Florida's population projected to continue its present upward trend and eventually overtake that of New York, experts say the environmental implications of that growth shouldn't be overlooked.

Since the Sunshine State is poised to edge out New York in the near future and become the nation's third largest state, Florida's water crisis and the need for conservation are two issues residents can't afford to ignore, said Tom Kay, executive director of Alachua Conservation Trust.

"I'm one of these people that believes that development is inevitable," he said.

But as Florida welcomes new residents and continues to grow, it becomes increasingly important to protect as much quality land for conservation as possible and to keep a close watch on the impact incoming development has on already troubled wildlife habitats, he said.

Kay said the reason people are seeing so much land being bought up in this region of Florida is because many folks recognize what he does: That within 100 years, what land has been preserved will remain saved while the rest will be developed.

As the state keeps growing, organizations like ACT recognize the need to move quickly when they see chances to conserve land.

"I don't look at myself as being in competition necessarily with development, but I think we are in a position right now where it's really critical," he said. "I don't think those same opportunities are going to be there in 100 years or even 50 years from now."

A growing population will also have an impact on the water crisis the state is already experiencing, Kay cautioned. "The water crisis is going to be the biggest issue," he said.

Florida residents are starting to understand that, Kay said, and he can see the groundswell happening on that issue, but educating newcomers to the Sunshine State about the circumstances will be vital.

People coming from areas of the country who have never seen springs before may think they are gorgeous while not realizing that the springs have lost much of the beauty and clarity they had decades ago, he said.

Alachua County Environmental Protection Director Chris Bird agreed, saying water will only become a bigger and more complicated issue as Florida grows. Just like there's a carrying capacity on an elevator, residents have to eventually consider how many people the state's water system can handle.

Educating incoming residents about water issues will be a challenge, he said, especially for retirees.

"I think it is harder for people to get it because they're just not used to the literal, physical connection we have between the land's surface and the underground water supply. That's somewhat unique," he said.

But the people moving to Florida, especially retirees, are often attracted here because they want to spend more time outdoors enjoying the state's natural beauty. So while educating them about water issues might be a challenge, it is also an opportunity to show them how the natural resources they came here for can be impacted by the decisions they make.

Contact Morgan Watkins at 338-3104 or morgan.watkins@gainesville.com.

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