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We have water, water, everywhere, but much of South Florida's per capita use is 50% above the national average, and we've lost half the wetlands that used to recharge our aquifers. So water shortages threaten to limit growth in a way that wetlands regulations or bad headlines never could. "Florida is astonishingly wasteful," says Cynthia Barnett, author of Mirage: Florida and the Vanishing Water of the Eastern U.S. Now the Orlando area is pushing to suck water out of rivers to its north, local utilities are jacking up water rates as much as 35%, and South Florida's water board may cap withdrawals from Everglades aquifers. "The idea of water shortages down here never occurred to anyone," says environmentalist Shannon Estenoz, a Crist appointee to the board. "But we've got to change the culture because the status quo is unsustainable."
It's not just gator-huggers who say that. Back in 1995, a 42-member commission stocked with bankers, farmers and developers released a unanimous report declaring South Florida unsustainable, warning that the ecosystem's destruction was hurting people as well as panthers by lowering water tables, increasing flood risks, fueling gridlock and replacing paradise with "mind-numbing homogeneity, and a distinct lack of place." In the words of the novelist and columnist Carl Hiaasen, the bard of Florida's decline, "You don't have to be a wacko enviro to want your kids to be able to swim in a lake or maybe see an animal that isn't in a cage or a seaquarium. And even people who don't give a rat's ass about the panther will care when saltwater comes out of their faucets."
That's why Democrats, Republicans, the sugar industry and environmentalists came together in 2000 to support a $12 billion plan to revive the Everglades, the largest ecosystem-restoration project in history. But the project has stumbled and stalled, which is why Crist's sugar deal is so exciting. It will essentially take Everglades restoration back to the drawing board, reviving hope for a free-flowing River of Grass and a stable water supply.
But quality of life remains the biggest risk to the Florida dream. So many Northeastern transplants are leaving Florida for other states with less congestion and better education systems that they have their own nickname: Halfbacks. In 2000, Florida attracted 19% of the nation's migrating seniors; by 2006, it was only 13%. Florida still has some of America's richest ZIP codes, but it ranks among the worst states in school spending and health coverage.
The GOP-controlled legislature has responded to the state's woes with protracted arguments about evolution and other Terri Schiavo style social issues as well as legislation proposing crackdowns on bikers who pop wheelies, students who wear droopy pants and truckers who hang fake cojones on their rigs. It also slashed $5 billion from the state budget. "I just got in an argument about whether we're 50th or 45th in the nation in graduation rates," says Florida house minority leader Dan Gelber. "What a great debate to have."
"The Outlook Is Always Bright Here!"
I was already feeling grumpy about all this when I watched a lecture by the University of Miami's renowned coastal geologist Harold Wanless. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had predicted a sea-level rise of up to 2 ft. by 2100, but Wanless meticulously explained why 3 ft. to 4 ft. is much more likely assuming the world can slash carbon emissions enough to slow global warming. I live in Miami Beach, so I didn't care for his PowerPoint slide showing much of Miami Beach under water. "That's if we get our act together," he said. Then he showed a slide of all Miami Beach submerged. "That's if we don't."
I felt better after talking to the bubbly Crist, who's like human Prozac. "How can you not be optimistic about Florida?" he asked. "Is there a more beautiful place on the planet?" He then recounted a story that probably won't help him in the GOP Veepstakes: "John McCain told me, 'It's tough in those Rust Belt states. You really feel a bit of depression in people's outlook. But when you get to Florida, people feel great.' And it's true! The outlook is always bright here!" When I reminded him of Florida's growth-challenged economy and growth-ravaged environment, he took no offense. "We're going to make a new Florida!" he declared.
He means a sustainable Florida. He's been doing his part environmentally, pushing a sweeping energy bill through the fractious legislature, fulfilling his pledge to be the "Everglades governor." His greatest challenge, though, is economic sustainability, attracting high-wage industries that don't depend on perpetual growth. His predecessor, Jeb Bush, lured a few biotech firms, with the help of lavish subsidies, and Crist has targeted green-tech sectors like solar power as well as global trade. But not even corporate titans who enjoy Florida vacations seem eager to relocate to a high-priced state with a service-economy workforce and troubled schools. "The decisions about relocating high-paying businesses are made by people who value education, and Florida isn't ready for the modern economy," says Graham, the former Senator. New corporate subsides will be a tough fiscal sell. "The politicians have told us: Not if it costs money," says Space Coast economic-development director Lynda Weatherman. The shuttle will be canceled in 2010, and her region may lose 6,000 jobs. "Six thousand one, if I can't figure out how to attract new ones," she says.
Still, did I mention the winters are nice? As baby boomers retire, as Hispanic markets expand, as leftist dictators harass wealthy South Americans, some people will always want to come to Florida. In anticipation of the next boom, developer Pérez has set up a $1 billion fund to buy distressed properties, and Zalewski of Condo Vultures has been besieged by foreign investors. "Eventually, Florida is going to grow again," he says.
The question is whether it will grow up. If Florida can reinvent itself, it can be the tip of the American spear, showing the nation how to save water and energy, manage growth, restore ecosystems and retool economies in an era of less. But that will require a new kind of reinvention. "We know how to crash and how to recover," says Miami historian Arva Moore Parks. "We don't seem to know how to learn."