AN INTERDISCIPLINARY JOURNAL OF THE IDEA AND PLACE THAT IS FLORIDA
Volume 1, Issue 6, 2017
Photographs by Benjamin Dimmitt
The Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge is a very fragile spring-fed estuary on Florida’s Gulf Coast, north of Tampa. I was overwhelmed by its lush, primeval beauty on my first visit over 30 years ago and have photographed there extensively since 2004. The dense palm hammocks and hardwood forests were festooned with ferns and orchids and the fresh water creeks were a clear azure. There are other similar estuaries nearby but the Chassahowitzka River and the surrounding wetlands are part of the federal National Wildlife Refuge system and the river itself is protected as an Outstanding Florida Water.
Unfortunately, saltwater began creeping up into the spring creeks about 6 years ago. Rising sea levels due to climate change were partially the cause. However, the saltwater intrusion was accelerated when the Gov. Rick Scott-appointed state water commissioners, whose primary purpose is to protect the state’s water resources, determined that the wetlands could survive with less fresh water. This new minimum flow would allow the state to increase the pumping of fresh water for large-scale inland developments and agricultural interests. The drawdown of fresh water for these deep pocket lobbyists has taken fresh water away from the aquifer that feeds Chassahowitzka’s springs and many others nearby. As the fresh water flow in the estuaries has decreased, saltwater has moved upstream and taken its place. What had been verdant, semi-tropical forest is now mostly an open plain of grasses relieved by palms and dying hardwood trees. Recently, large algae blooms have begun appearing in the creeks.
When the saltwater intrusion began, my initial response was to turn my back on the devastation and canoe upriver towards the springs to photograph where the saltwater hadn't reached. In 2014, I began to photograph in the salt-damaged sawgrass savannas and spring creeks as a way of reckoning with the ecosystem loss and of understanding what has become of my native Florida.
This ruin is the fate of estuaries around the world as sea levels rise. With fierce storms increasing and extensive flooding along coastal areas, we are reminded that climate change is a very real priority and that the greed and shortsightedness of politicians and developers have put a great many at risk.