This spring, students in Environmental Journalism class devoted the semester to Project Blue Ether, a series of water stories that reveals our connection to the aquifer — and our collective role in solutions to over-pumping and pollution. The series ran for 14 weeks on WUFT News. Read it here, for a powerful impression of how our taps connect to groundwater and the springs that define the good life here in North Central Florida.
By Cynthia Barnett
One of my favorite parts of teaching Environmental Journalism and Nature and Adventure Journalism at the University of Florida is the blend of students drawn to these courses — an equal mix of science and journalism students, and graduate students and undergrads. The semester begins with the science and journalism students at arm’s length, but they grow closer as they discover what they have in common — namely, a search for truth. The science students push themselves to write accessibly to draw the public to their work, while the journalism students learn the importance of solid science reporting to credibility. With her final piece for fall 2015 Environmental Journalism class published in The Tampa Bay Times, UF biologist Anmari Alvarez Aleman, a PhD student in the School of Natural Resources and Environment, reveals the power of a scientist able to write with heart about her research subject, manatees.
From TedTalks to invitations to present our work at libraries or even churches, public speaking — and the art of speechwriting behind it — are increasingly crucial skills for environmental journalists and communicators. UF graduate student Jennifer Adler presents her talk, “Illusions: A Lens into Our Fragile Freshwater,” at TEDxJacksonville. Adler’s deeply personal story of her relationship with water, blended with science and otherworldly underwater photographs, all help make this a compelling talk that will be shared online long after the live event, which took place in November 2015.
Every journalist knows a face-to-face conversation is always better than a telephone interview, that taking the time to see, touch and experience what we’re reporting nets a far better story than mining details on the internet.
That truth is part of the reason for our field trip in UF’s Environmental Journalism courses. This semester, we headed to UF’s Seahorse Key Marine Laboratory to experience the mangrove-lined Gulf coast island and hear about the national news that took place there in spring. One of the largest bird rookeries on the Gulf coast, Seahorse is a nesting ground for thousands of snowy egrets, pelicans, roseate spoonbills and other shorebirds. In May, the birds suddenly abandoned their nests, a story that drew fairly dire coverage in the New York Times, NPR, and many other outlets.
After climbing to the top of Seahorse’s historic lighthouse and hiking along the island’s wild shoreline, students talked with Maria Sgambati, the lab’s education and outreach coordinator, and Kenny McCain, the facilities manager and boat captain. Capt. Kenny has a ZZ-Top beard and a depth of local knowledge and history that comes from being born and raised in Cedar Key and working for a quarter-century as a federal wildlife officer along the islands that make up the Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge.
In science reporting, “the devil is often in the details,” Sgambati told the students. Most of the stories, she said, made it sound as if 20,000 birds vanished into thin air, downplaying – or never mentioning – that a significant part of the colony relocated to Snake Key next door, built new nests, laid new eggs and reared new young. “It was hard for (reporters) to get across the science behind generating hypothesis and building credibility,” she says. “For instance, if it were a pollution or food-source issue, we would have seen more bird deaths or more gradual departures, or birds going much further away than Snake Key.”
Sgambati thought Tessa Stuart of Audubon magazine did the best job ferreting out different theories for the nest abandonment, which include those as mundane as raccoons or aircraft noise. Researchers may never know for sure what caused the colony to fly away. The most important questions will be answered next spring: Will the birds return to Seahorse Key? Will they return to Snake? Also significant: What will happen to Seahorse’s cottonmouth snakes, which famously depend on fish falling from the birds’ nests for their survival? UF, state and federal scientists have lined up studies of those questions and others.
Meanwhile Capt. Kenny has his money on the raccoons. His stories of wrangling with the masked bandits over his lifetime on these islands had the students laughing over their lunches, and gleaning valuable lessons on the importance of indigenous knowledge – along with those on nuanced writing, and of course, reporting in person, especially when it means spending the day on an undeveloped island in the Gulf of Mexico.
By Cynthia Barnett
The National Hurricane Center’s 5-Day forecast for Tropical Storm Erika draws a bead on Lake Okeechobee, the 730-square mile icon of so much of what’s gone wrong with water in Florida. A 1928 hurricane that hit there sent the lake bursting through and over its earthen dike, killing 2,500 people, most of them poor black laborers who drowned in the agricultural fields south of the lake. Zora Neale Hurston captured the calamity in her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. In the wake of the storm, the Army Corps of Engineers began to build a massive levee around Lake O.’s south rim. After the 1947 wet season dumped 108 inches of rain in South Florida, Congress authorized the Central and Southern Florida project to try and tame the capricious climate once and for all. The engineers ultimately built 1,000 miles of canals, 720 miles of levees, sixteen pump stations, two hundred gates and countless other tack. The harm to Florida’s great Everglades, its water and wildlife became clear before the project was even finished.
In next week’s Environmental Journalism class — the Monday Erika could make a Florida landfall — students will hear from Florida Sea Grant Executive Director Karl Havens on Everglades restoration and its viability amid climate warming and politics boiling. But what about the immediate safety of those who live south of the lake? Student readings for Monday include the Miami Herald’s Curtis Morgan’s award-winning story “On the brink of disaster” that shows the levee ringing Lake O. today is another disaster waiting to happen.
Fortunately, the current lake level is lower than in the past few years — about twelve feet, six inches, says the Army Corps’ John Campbell. The lower the level the safer; the higher, the greater the pressure and chance of a breach. There’s about a 5 percent chance of a breach at 16-foot water levels and 45 percent chance at 18 feet. Failure is expected at 20 feet. In 2012, Hurricane Isaac dumped enough rain as it traveled over Florida to raise Lake O. from about where it is today to sixteen feet, Campbell says.
The Corps tries to keep the lake between 12.5 and 15.5 feet in a delicate and controversial balance of water releases that can foul estuaries and fuel harmful algae blooms along Florida’s southeast and southwest coasts. Since 2007, the agency has spent $500 million on its project to bolster the dike, including new concrete barriers that offer “some improvement in the risk picture,” says Campbell. Yet the project, separate from Everglades restoration, will not be finished until 2020.
No hurricane has made direct landfall in Florida for 10 years. If Erika breaks the hurricane drought, the days leading up to landfall are a top-of-the-news opportunity to talk about the region’s long-term adaptation to rising seas and rougher storms. Who will take advantage? Will meteorologists talk about resilience beyond the weekend trip to Home Depot? Which reporters will take the time to point out that successful Everglades restoration — restoring the natural pathways for water to move through South Florida — could help protect us from future storms by absorbing floodwaters and keeping saltwaters at bay? As Zora Neale Hurston wrote in Their Eyes Were Watching God (she was writing about women): “The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.”
Congratulations to CJC alumnus Bruce Ritchie, who will join Politico this fall covering energy and environmental issues from Tallahassee. Bruce earned his MMC from UF in 1993 (his thesis, as committee member Kim Walsh-Childers will remember, tracked industry pressure on environmental journalists). In the two decades since, Bruce has built a reputation as one of the most respected environmental reporters in Florida. He’s also been one of the best at surviving tumult in the newspaper industry, founding the environmental news site Floridaenvironments.com and writing for the Florida Current following the Tallahassee Democrat’s elimination of the beat in 2008. Bruce has written extensively about energy, growth, pollution threats to Florida’s groundwater and springs, and the fight over water among Florida, Georgia, and Alabama – the subject of his first book, in the works for University Press of Florida. Students taking CJC’s Environmental Journalism class in fall 2015 will get to meet Bruce in November when he guest lectures. Follow him on Twitter @bruceritchie.
Congratulations to brand-new CJC alumna Alex Harris, whose investigation into unsustainable landscape practices in Florida homeowners associations has been published in the Tampa Bay Times. For her long-form story in spring Environmental Journalism class, Alex tracked down residents around the state who’ve tried to replace thirsty St. Augustine grass with Florida-friendly landscaping, only to be sued by their homeowners associations. The Florida Legislature changed state law fifteen years ago to ensure this could no longer happen, but Alex found the problem persists, with residents on the hook for tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees. Great job, Alex! We hope your story will help clarify the law and protect conscientious Floridians and our water resources.
Just off the Gulf coast fishing village of Cedar Key lies a group of uninhabited islands with white-sand beaches, coastal forests and creatures from ancient-looking horseshoe crabs to thousands of migratory birds. Shaped like its namesake, Seahorse Key is one of the largest bird rookeries in North Florida, and home to the University of Florida’s Seahorse Key National Marine Laboratory. UF is the only university in the nation with bi-coastal marine labs, Whitney in St. Augustine on the Atlantic side and Seahorse on the Gulf of Mexico, destination for this semester’s #EJUF field trip. Education and outreach coordinator Dr. Maria Sgambati led Environmental Journalism students on a memorable tour of the Seahorse beach, where we learned about coastal climate change impacts including tree die-offs and talked about how to cover this story in ways that can draw in new audiences. If you’re thinking about taking Environmental Journalism this fall, Seahorse Key is already on the syllabus!
EJ student Garrett Mastronardi in WUFT on a Florida strawberry farm that’s cut its fungal spraying in half thanks to precision agriculture. Nice job of showing the public how we can use less chemicals, pesticides and water — and still live well.