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Must-reads to Understand Florida and its Water

Published: December 10th, 2015

By: Dennis G. Corrick

If you’ve ever been subjected to the punishment of having to read dense government reports that analyze our water problems, the last thing you’re probably looking for is a book-length treatise on water issues. I’m going to recommend some reading on water, and I promise that you won’t feel like you’re being punished. As a lifelong Floridian who loves the state and its natural history, as well as someone whose professional life touches water policy, I have a shelf full of books on water. A couple stand out as some of the best reading I’ve come across on any subject. If you’re going to understand Florida, there are certain books you must read. This is my short list.

One thing everyone can agree on in the public policy discussions about Florida’s water is that the problems we see today reflect what we did – and failed to do – in decades past. Water was a life or death issue from the day the first settlers set foot here, and for a long time, the only debate was over how to get rid of it. The challenges we see today have their roots in five centuries of decision making, and these books tell the stories of how we got to where we are today, turning what Ponce de Leon called an “uninhabitable sandspit” into the third most-populous state in the country.

The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida and the Politics of Paradise, by Michael Grunwald, manages to tell the entire natural, social and political history of the Everglades, from the Ice Age to the present encroachment of shopping malls and suburbs. The story is laced with portraits of the cast of colorful and often greedy characters who saw money beneath the marsh and would do anything to profit from it.

Grunwald, an editor with Politico.com and former TIME reporter who lives in South Beach, is nonjudgmental. He understands that decisions made 100 or 200 years ago can’t be judged by present-day standards of ecological awareness or land use or even morality. The book doesn’t force you to take sides. Instead, you can lean back in your chair and go along for a ride in an exhaustively researched and documented book that reads like a novel.  A non-fiction page-turner is a rare achievement, but The Swamp meets that high standard.

Mirage: Florida and the Vanishing Water of the Eastern U.S., by Cynthia Barnett, a former Florida Trend reporter who now teaches at the University of Florida, is one of the most thorough analyses you’ll find of the fresh water crisis in Florida.

The title refers to the illusion that the supply of fresh water in Florida and much of the East is inexhaustible as we continue to pump the Floridan Aquifer and stoke economic development by inviting thousands more people into the state. Barnett has an intricate understanding of how all the water in Florida is connected and how even small decisions in one part of the state have a butterfly effect hundreds of miles away. She doesn’t say we should slam the door on growth, but she makes a strong case for avoiding denial about the sustainability of some of the things we’re doing, along with examining possible solutions.

My third recommendation isn’t a traditional book, but can teach decades of Florida “water history” in just a few minutes. I suggest you spend some time with the 1856 Ives Military Map of Florida south of Tampa Bay and the related log of this pre-Civil War military topographical engineer and explorer, which can be found here.  This early map of peninsular Florida graphically depicts how much of southern Florida was dominated by water, whether open water, swamp, wet prairie or a constantly changing mix of the three.

Lt. J.C. Ives was charged with finding routes that would be useful to the military – Fort Jupiter to Fort Lauderdale, Fort Dallas to the Everglades’ western border, Fort Thompson to Fort Meade, a path through the Big Cypress Swamp, and other areas. He had a sharp eye for detail in the natural world and though you may never encounter the quicksand that he describes, you’ll recognize remnants of the landscape in places you live or have visited. Lt. Ives meticulously notes the names of every creek or road he crosses – Fish Eating Creek, Bowlegs Creek and many more that give the landscape a sense of place. The harrowing tales of his men’s efforts tell the true story of early Florida: It required five days of hard labor for the eighty men in Capt. Wade’s command to haul their seventeen canoes from the foot of Lake Worth to Orange Grove Haulover; the whole distance being but six miles.” Your turnpike commute will never again seem the same.

As a bonus, I will recommend a work of historical fiction familiar to many Floridians. If you grew up in Florida in the past few decades, you may have been required to read this book in school: A Land Remembered, by Patrick D. Smith. The book has been used so much in schools that there’s a special student edition that softens several of the scenes that reveal the sometimes gritty relationships of settlers to one another and to the Native Americans.

The book is a historical yarn that follows the MacIveys, a settler family in mid-19th Century Florida, through three generations as they struggle to survive and tame the land. While Smith imagined the cast of characters, their stories reflect the real-life struggles of Florida’s early residents, and touch many key events in Florida’s history. In his research for the book, Smith traveled the state and talked to hundreds of people about the stories they heard about their parents and grandparents and then wrapped it all into one epic fictional account. Though the story is not specifically about water, many images in the book will forever define the reader’s perception of Florida before mosquito control boards, air conditioning and dredge-and-fill. Smith’s book makes you feel like you spent the afternoon on an old Florida Cracker’s porch, listening to his stories.

Enjoy.

[Edited 12/15/2015 to update Michael Grunwald bio]

About the Author:

Dennis G. Corrick is a shareholder in the Fort Pierce office of Dean Mead. He has extensive experience working with issues unique to agricultural businesses, water law and properties. He is a member of Dean Mead’s Agribusiness and Real Estate Development Industry teams. He may be reached at (772) 464-7700 or dcorrick@deanmead.com.