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Lessons from a week in the Gulf. Water quality is unknown.

August 06 2010 | Activism, Jim's Blog,
by Jim

I spent this past week on the Gulf coast along the upper Florida panhandle (everything west of Panama City) and on the Alabama coast. During my trip, I spoke with various business owners, water enthusiasts, lifeguards, hazmat workers, tourists and our Emerald Coast Surfrider chapter. Many topics were discussed but the one that rises to the top of my list is, "is the water safe, can you point to any party that has tested the water and shared the results?" No one had an answer. No one. I will say that this isn't a new question to our Emerald Coast Surfrider chapter. They've been asking this question for months. Better than that, they've started testing the water. I've mentioned this before; Surfrider did 9,000 water quality tests last year. All were done by volunteers. But none were like the tests we're undertaking in this region now. More on that here. But what I couldn't (and still can't) get out of my mind is the fact that everywhere I went... everywhere... people were swimming in the Gulf. Now, this actually makes perfect, logical sense as the water LOOKS clean (even though there are signs like the one to the left at every beach I went to). When we, all of us, look at the ocean and it looks clean, we conclude that it MUST be clean. Yet the people that are in the know in the Gulf, the locals, aren't so sure. I spoke with a surf shop owner who shared that he has gone in the Gulf, literally submerged himself in the Gulf waters, every day for the last few decades. It was part of his daily ritual. He also shared that he hasn't gone in the water since just after the spill occurred, and isn't even thinking about letting his young child go in the water. I also spoke with a few different lifeguards along that stretch of beach and asked them whether they were going in the water. The short answer I heard was "not unless we really need to." I heard another statistic that 18 of 20 lifeguards aren't going in the water. Now, I'm guessing they all would go in if a person was in jeopardy. Yet something tells me that's not very often as the Gulf waters are relatively calm in the summer and one can wade out fairly far before it gets deep. Think lake water and you'll be in the ballpark (yes, they get great surf... but not frequently). There is a challenge to the subject of water quality. It's one that may not be easily grasped by people who aren't living in the Gulf. The challenge is trying to balance the need to ensure water quality at healthy standards without impacting tourism. The truth is that the Gulf water in various regions may be perfectly clean one day and it might not be the next. Water quality may change after an upwelling or storm event, and all of these have ramifications on business and tourism. The locals are in a tight spot for sure. 2009 was an off year for most in the region as the recession caused some businesses I spoke with to miss their numbers by as much as 40%. 2010 was supposed to be the bounce-back year, but the BP spill killed that chance for many. One tough year is quite hard on a small, local business. Two years is extremely hard. The water quality issue is not an easy one for the locals. Yet I do think that the locals, not media from NYC and not even environmentalists from elsewhere (including myself), are the keys to this puzzle. The locals need to seek the truth about the water quality. I spoke to about 50 people last evening and that was the single message I asked them to take away. Seek the truth and own the process that enables them to find it and deal with it. This means let others assist as needed, but remember that they are locals, they live there and have lived there for decades and will live there going forward. The Gulf coast is theirs. This is a crucial time for them to own it. I told the crowd that if they didn't trust Surfrider's local chapter with the truth about water quality results then they should get involved and become part of the process. I told them to demand transparency at every step along the way. Surfrider's network will help drive the initial series of water quality tests here, assisting the locals on an as needed basis, by helping them raise the funds to underwrite these tests (donate to the local chapter here). And we'll help them keep a strong dialog with local business owners to figure out how to share the results. After a week in the Gulf I came away very discouraged, but filled to the brim with pride. I'm increasingly dubious of the Federal efforts, the massive cover-up of large amounts of Gulf animals and tip offs from locals telling us dispersants continue to be deployed (via private, non-Federal parties). Yet the people, the locals, are the kind of people that I want to be connected to. These are people from every political party, from many professional backgrounds and socioeconomic levels, and they are people that are acting on their love of the local coasts. THEY are the essence of this organization, our mission and the reason why that mission continues to expand all over the world. The water quality in the Gulf is unknown... but not for long.
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