Insights from the Ether

By Cynthia Barnett

The photo conjures superhero stop-action, a shadowy figure leaping into air – or is he leaping into water? Neither one. The subject of Jennifer Adler’s evocative photograph is actually swimming in a North Florida sinkhole, Adler shooting with her underwater camera from below.

Challenging her audience’s certainty about what is underwater and what is overhead, Adler makes the point that there is essentially no difference. Everything we do here on the topside – underwater photographers’ term for the world above – connects to the aquifer below. The Floridan Aquifer where we draw our drinking water is the same absorbing the oil that leaks from our cars, the fertilizers and pesticides running off crops and grassplots. The amount of water we pump for irrigation is that much less for rivers, springs and other natural waterways.

Adler is weaving journalism and communications courses, research and practice into her PhD program in interdisciplinary ecology at the University of Florida. Her photo essay, “Connections” represents the final story in our Project: Blue Ether series, produced by students in UF’s College of Journalism and Communications with support from the Online News Association.

Students set out to tell water stories that reveal our connections to the aquifer – and our collective role in solutions to over-pumping and pollution. If one theme emerged, it is that the chasm between Floridians and their water is much wider than individuals who don’t know their hoses link back to the aquifer and springs. Here are just a few of the larger contradictions the students uncovered:

* In her story How Many Straws?, UF graduate student and journalist Hannah O. Brown found that local efforts to reduce groundwater pumping by charging more for water may have backfired. Confronted with higher water bills, some residents call a well-driller and sink a private landscape-irrigation well to tap all the water they want for free. Brown found this unsustainable practice encouraged by some developers who are advertising irrigation wells as an amenity in their subdivisions.

* In his investigation The ‘Healthy’ Meat, Stephen Paolini, who just completed his degree in sustainability studies, found that Americans’ perception of chicken as “the healthy meat” lead to such enormous demand that we now see a proliferation of large-scale chicken farms in fragile watersheds such as North Florida’s Santa Fe River and springs. Yet land-use and environmental regulations have not kept up with the scale of such farms.

* In No Water, No Beer, on Gainesville breweries as models for water sustainability in business, Stacey Marquis, who just earned her master’s in journalism, learned that Swamphead Brewery, which works hard to reduce water use in beer-making, has an extensive lawn that sucks up an additional 2,000 gallons of water a day.

* In a dismaying turn, residents of Gainesville’s most water-conscious subdivision, Madera, subject of Chloe Bennett’s essay on how well we can live with less water, report that the woodsy neighborhood is seeing a move toward traditional development practices such as razing trees from home sites and disregarding homeowners’ association covenants that focus on conservation of trees and water.

The existential problem of environmental communication is that these sorts of stories tend to be read by the choir – people already informed and conscientious about water and other resources. This is particularly true in the age of social media; we choose which topics and voices scroll across our screens, missing out on other community conversations. Meanwhile the politicization of environmental issues nationally and in Florida, where water and land conservation were once bipartisan mainstays, means these issues have lost sympathy just as pollution and scarcity grow more serious.

Project: Blue Ether confirmed these trends. The project does not end with the student journalism, but includes gaming and public-interest communications – an academic discipline devoted to communicating for the public good – to draw new audiences to the stories, science and solutions. Analyzing Project: Blue Ether’s readership, the communications students found the stories were read and shared by those already familiar with the project or with water issues. The good news is that the students have discovered better ways to engage a broader audience, and we’ll continue to do so.

One of their findings was that authentic voices and images – like evoking real places rather than cartoon water drops or alarmist language – inspires people to share information, and to care. This is why the current generation of students represents hope, which happens to be the title of the opening photo in this final essay. Adler is part of the growing number of science majors who want to engage more directly with the public. Many of them are taking to Twitter and public speaking; Adler’s TedX Talk, “Illusions: A Lens into Our Fragile Freshwater,” can be viewed here. This fall as part of a National Geographic Young Explorers Grant, she’ll teach 80 Alachua County 5th graders about the aquifer – then dive in with them to explore it during field trips to Gilchrist Blue Springs.

No one of these effort works alone; we need the science to explain what’s happening to water and climate; the journalism to reveal the contradictions and the better path; and the gifted communicators to inspire action – getting onto the path may be the hardest part of all. We launched Project: Blue Ether 14 weeks ago with an invitation to dive into North Florida’s water story head first. We end the series with a more-complete equation of head, heart and hope.

About Project Blue Ether

WUFT News is publishing this multi-week series on water by University of Florida students, led by award-winning environmental journalist and author Cynthia Barnett, who is a visiting professor at the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications.