Editor’s Note: Launching next week, WUFT News will publish a multi-week series on water by University of Florida students, led by award-winning environmental journalist and author Cynthia Barnett. Below is a note on the series from Barnett and two other UF professors working on the project:
North Central Florida has always been known for its freshwater riches: Rivers winding down the rural landscape. Lakes spotted from the airplane window. Creeks that criss-cross Gainesville. A record number of freshwater springs. Finally, the Floridan Aquifer – the underground source connecting all of that to all of us. Whether for faucets, farms, or fish, the water quenching us comes from the same, fragile reserve underfoot.
But, between human pressures and a changing climate, our water fortunes are changing, too. Next week, the UF College of Journalism and Communications, with support from the Online News Association, launches Project Blue Ether, a new model for news that makes citizens part of the story — and part of the solutions. Beginning next Wednesday, March 30th and each Wednesday through spring, we’ll publish new stories of water like these, produced by our students:
- New tree-ring research foretells the region’s vulnerability to future droughts that could be much more severe than those we’ve experienced in our lifetime.
- The first climate migrants are already arriving in North Central Florida, including agricultural operations and coastal Floridians relocating “in great part due to present and impending climate change,” as one new transplant from Miami told us.
- Seeing the failure of interest-group politics to solve water problems, some citizens are forging alternate solutions: Churches are beginning to become involved in water as an article of faith. Citizen science is a growing local trend, as volunteers contribute to investigations ranging from springs health to rainfall collection to aid meteorology research.
The stories are only the beginning. Project Blue Ether blends this in-depth reporting with gaming and public-interest communications – an academic discipline devoted to communicating for the public good – to further engage citizens in the water story and solutions.
The name comes from the 18th Century naturalist William Bartram, who described North Florida’s springs as perfectly transparent and impossibly blue, bubbling up “from the blue ether of another world.” Today, pollution and groundwater pumping from thirsty population centers and farms have some of the springs looking more like algae soup. Project Blue Ether aims to push beyond description, to involvement and change.
Our public-interest campaign helps people understand their personal connection to what’s happening underfoot – how everything from our backyard hoses to our food choices have a direct connection to the aquifer and springs. Our alternate-reality game is a catalyst for getting involved: Participants can hunt for clues hidden in the stories themselves, or physical points of interest like a sinkhole or a spring. With interactive maps developed by our partner UF’s Program for Resource Efficient Communities, people can also drill much deeper into the data in our stories – finding their own water use at home, or even comparing themselves with neighbors.
We hope that Project Blue Ether helps inspire not only a new ethic for water, but new models for journalism and communications that elevate conversation and community involvement. If you’d like to join our email list-serv to keep up with the stories, game and campaign, please click here. Starting next Wednesday, we invite you to dive into North Florida’s water story head first – heart close behind.
– Cynthia Barnett, environmental journalism, Ann Christiano, public interest communications and Yu Hao Lee, telecommunications