Carl Wernicke: Our Clean Waterways Are Key To Our Prosperity

Jan 8, 2014

Credit IHMC

   Driving in to work Wednesday I saw something I have seen before, but not often.  I don’t see it often because it’s not often that we have a cold snap hard enough to ice over the surface of local bayous.

   But it wasn’t even the ice over Indian Bayou on Garcon Point that really grabbed me. I had stopped on the bridge on Avalon Boulevard after observing another low-temperature phenomenon in these parts. When it gets this cold, people flock on foot and by boat to the shallow bayous in hopes of scooping up mullet that are stunned by the cold and float on the surface. They come by boat or car, armed with dip nets and coolers. Several years ago during the last really cold spell Indian Bayou was awash with floaters, and people filled coolers with them.

   Wednesday there didn’t seem to be many mullet, and most of the hopeful fishermen left quickly after surveying the scene. But what caught my eye – and especially my ear – was a most unusual sound. A small boat with two men in it was motoring up the bayou through the crusted ice and making a sound you just don’t hear much around here: an icebreaker at work.

   On a larger point, standing in the bracing air watching people enjoy the water even in frigid temperatures simply reminded me again of the natural blessings we enjoy in Northwest Florida, starting with water. But it’s not just water that is our starting point, it is clean water.

   That’s a crucial distinction.

   I was reminded of this earlier in the week in reading in the News Journal the comments of City Councilman Brian Spencer in speaking to the Escambia County committee that will decide on how to spend millions of dollars that should be coming from fines levied on BP for its catastrophic oil spill in 2010. The money is to go for projects to help the environment and economy rebound from the spill.

    “I grew up here,” Spencer told the committee. “I used to swim all over Pensacola Bay. I used to scallop in areas where there is no longer sea grass. Remarkably, those discussions that may seem to emphasize simply water quality and environment, they are intrinsically linked to the rebuilding of our community.”

   He’s right.

   My experiences growing up in Pensacola were remarkably similar to Spencer’s, and I probably swam in the bay when it wasn’t a safe to do so.

But what he found was a bay that had become an industrial and stormwater sewer, and the shock pushed him into activism.

    All this also brings back memories about one of this area’s greatest environmental stewards, Ernie Rivers. He was an outdoorsman and fisherman who left Pensacola to serve his country in the military, and upon his return in the late 1960s he had one idea in mind: go fishing. But what he found was a bay that had become an industrial and stormwater sewer, and the shock pushed him into activism.  He got local fishermen into the fight through the Bream Fishermen’s Association, and Ernie later became this area’s first Coastkeeper.

   The oil spill should be a similar call to arms for a new generation of Pensacolians. It is extremely important that local officials understand that the most important long-term economic development investment they can make with the BP money is to foster an enduring restoration of Pensacola Bay. The bay and the Gulf of Mexico have has always been the key to Pensacola’s prosperity, and they always will be.