I decided to start this blog with a happy picture, because the news about Florida's waterways is so depressing right now. Last week, I had the privilege of spending 4 days with Emerald Coastkeeper Laurie Murphy. The image above is of sea oats and dunes and other natural vegetation on the bayside of Pensacola Beach. Much of the vegetation had been destroyed by Hurricane Ivan in 2004. It has been coming back and Laurie referred to many of the emergent growth as her babies. That is how much she cares about life and sustaining healthy ecosystems.
All thees tiny little starlike forms are new seeds sprouting. It was so life affirming to see so many carpeting the sand.
This ground cover, when it does take hold not only looks beautiful and creates interesting patterns, it also holds the sand in place.
There are also many interesting driftwood formations. This one looks like an octopus and behind it is a wild magnolia tree.
We discovered these interesting plants as we were walking on the pathways through the dunes. The way there tiny flowers clumped together made it appear like thousands of squares in a magical op art composition. We dubbed them "square plants" and later when I looked them up they did indeed turn out to be called "Squareflowers."
We saw man False Foxgloves amid the dunes and along the roadsides. They were so delicate and added a complimentary bright note to the greens and yellows.
This image was taken from the condominium of one of Laurie's trustee's. It was amazing to sit up there and see the length of the beach and how clear the emerald green waters were. We also spotted a huge school of fish that swam in unison. Laurie said the material visible on the seabed is natural organic matter that has decomposed. What is troubling though, is what lies below the surface of that. This is where all the tar mats and tar balls washed up from the BP Oil Spill. Laurie said she cried when she went to the beach and saw the devastation. I would have too. The tar mats and balls have been buried under the sand, but Laurie noted that it would only take another bad hurricane or tropical storm to stir all that up again.
Though Laurie looks happy here, because she loves the waterways she protects and on the surface things look good, this image does show a sharp drop off and how narrow the beach has become. To keep the sand in place, Laure says they constantly have to dredge and they have to be careful to try and match the sand and not to stir up the detritus from the oil spill.
There are other problems in paradise. Before we went out to the beach, Laurie took me to the Pensacola Water Treatment Plant, which is old and rusty and situated right on the bay and is at risk of seriously polluting the waterway due to its age and expected sea level rise. From behind the gray building with the tall roof, it is possible to see (in a high resolution photograph) a dotted line that is the effluent being dumped into the water.
This is what is coating the rocks along the shoreline nearby. It did not make me want to venture into this water.
Yet just down from where I took the photograph of the goop, there were many families swimming and paddle boarding and enjoying the water. Laurie said that this is more protected than the open waters of the Gulf, so families often come here instead. She worries about the effects swimming in compromised water will have on these people and believes the water treatment plant should be moved off the island. It made sense to me.
Though I was struck by the beauty of all the waterways in Pensacola from the surface up, I was saddened to learn how impaired they truly are. There are seven Superfund sites in Escambia County, which is why there are hardly any sea grasses left in Escambia Bay. This was the site of American Creosote. The plant operated from 1902 until 1981, when it was shut down. From what we saw there is still a lot of contamination. Here is a link to the EPA document regarding this site: http://www.dep.state.fl.us/waste/quick_topics/publications/wc/sites/summary/002.pdf
There was evidence of death everywhere, and many skeletons including those of fish and birds.
We found spots where the chemicals were still leaching into the water, but nearby we saw a young black man catching bait fish with a net with his fishing poles at the ready. Laurie asked him if he fished their often and if he'd caught anything. He told her he'd caught a catfish but threw it back because he didn't eat river fish. She explained it was a Superfund Site and told him she just wanted him to know the risks he was taking but of course it his decision whether he continued to fish in Bayou Chico or not.
Time and again I have seen that the water issue is a human rights issue and a social issue. This young man was so polite and kind. He likely lived in the area. People with lesser means cannot afford the big boats and gas required to fish in the open waters of the Gulf, where the water is cleaner and less toxic than this–despite all the problems that exist in the Gulf of Mexico from the disposal of fracking chemicals and the oil spill. We left and the young man kept fishing. Its called sustenance living and these people deserve to be able to fish in unpolluted waterways without exposing themselves to carcinogens.