Aerial view of the Everglades and Lake Okeechobee

After the Aquifer

Letter to America by Stephanie Anderson

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“Live smaller” became a greeting, a wish, a command, a prayer.

 
After the aquifer surrendered to salt, South Florida dipped a city-sized straw into Lake Okeechobee and drank. The lake, more accustomed to being dumped into than emptied, felt semi-hopeful.

At first things were orderly. Mostly. The police handled the protesters. The people showered and ran dishwashers and washed clothes on their neighborhood’s assigned water days. “Like before,” they said. On unassigned days they sometimes turned on a faucet, but no water came out. “Silly me,” they said, a little edge in their voice. “Old habits.”

On Mondays everyone drove to their polling places for rations of FEMA water. No one asked what aquifer, lake, or river provided those glorious ten-gallon gifts. The lines were long, but people had their phones. While they waited, TV politicians reminded viewers that “the climate has always changed.” The lake begged to differ.

The rich took flight like the great blue herons that once stalked the canals, before engineers routed all water to the lake. The rich relocated gracefully, like leaving a restaurant: they paid their tabs, sold their homes and cars and businesses, and boarded planes. “Why would anyone stay?” they wondered. “Why don’t these people do something?”

It took a few years, but South Floridians accepted—mostly—that golf courses, waterparks, landscape irrigation, swimming pools, car washes, private wells, houses larger than 2,000 square feet, and free public bathrooms were no longer possible. “Live smaller” became a greeting, a wish, a command, a prayer. People diverted their streams of money to thousand-dollar water bills and rainwater storage units, to triple-price groceries and gas. The cost of water flowing from hand to hand.

The people installed state-mandated showerheads that shut the water off after two minutes. Meters that monitored their home’s weekly supply. Locks on guest room closets stacked with black market FEMA bottles. The federal government sent letters thanking people for their patriotism. “We see your sacrifice as akin to that of wartime families,” the letters read. “Please refrain from sharing negative news on social media, as doing so can cause unnecessary panic.”

Construction stopped on the desalination plants when oil hit $200 a barrel, which meant the oil-turned-water companies would lose money manufacturing fresh water. The oil-turned-water companies hated losing money. Congress responded like a fish stuck on shore. “We’ve helped hundreds of countries during natural disasters,” the TV politicians complained. “Where is the world when the U.S. needs help?” Then Hurricane Louise hit Miami as a Category 5 and flattened the half-built plants and large swaths of the city, and the question of funding evaporated.

Florida quietly launched a program that provided $5,000 in moving costs and another $5,000 in lost property compensation for households earning less than $40,000 a year. The state denied it was shipping out those who couldn’t “adapt properly.”

The police continued to handle the protesters.

Lake Okeechobee was generous, as lakes are. It gave away half of itself in five years. But the lake was worried. The rains did not come, and there were so many city-sized straws. The marshes had dried up, so the lake couldn’t clean itself. Algae and hydrilla bobbed on the surface. Most of the lake’s friends—alligators and purple gallinules, deer and mud turtles—were either dead or gone. A 15-foot wall replaced its original banks. “For your protection,” the engineers said, but the lake, once again, begged to differ. Alone at night it wondered, “Who am I? What is my purpose?”

Difficult choices were made. That sentence lacks a subject because no one took responsibility for, well, anything that had happened or failed to happen in the last 100 years.

Neighborhoods “of limited value” lost water service first. Nursing homes returned residents to their families, in many cases by force. A man broke into a home where a 12-year-old girl was alone with the family’s water; he took the water and nothing else. FEMA shipments required military escorts after a guerilla-style attack on I-95. The federal government elevated water theft to a felony nationwide. Never hurts to think ahead.

Caravans of people, in cars and on foot, pooled at the Florida-Georgia line, waiting to be processed as climate refugees. “Georgia needs more time to decide whether or not to accept Floridians,” the state said in a press release, while simultaneously arranging free bus service to Alabama and South Carolina.

From then on, the army handled the protesters.

The lake did not feel like a lake anymore, not with helicopter searchlights crisscrossing its waters every night. Not when scientists said less than a year’s worth of water remained. The lake could barely remember the frog’s song or the anhinga’s feathery touch. “I am just storage,” it concluded, “with a razor-wire crown.”

So the lake did something scientists never could explain. One night, it disappeared. Where it went no person knew. But the mosquitoes knew. The anole lizards knew. So did the lily pads and the swamp rosemallow and the bulrushes.

Here’s the secret they kept: that night, the lake parted the muck, drained its waters through the limestone underneath, and hid in the empty aquifer. The lake listened as people packed their homes and drove away, as others looted the cities left behind. As the hum of highways faded and the shouts of children on playgrounds disappeared. As human footsteps went, for a time at least, silent.

 

 

Stephanie AndersonStephanie Anderson holds an MFA from Florida Atlantic University, where she also teaches literature, creative writing, and composition. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, TriQuarterly, Flyway, Hotel Amerika, The Chronicle Review, Sweet and others. Her debut nonfiction book, One Size Fits None: A Farm Girl’s Search for the Promise of Regenerative Agriculture, appeared in January 2019 with University of Nebraska Press.

Read “A Farm Girl’s Search for the Promise of Regenerative Agriculture,” an excerpt from One Size Fits None by Stephanie Anderson appearing in Terrain.org.

Header photo by pisaphotography, courtesy Shutterstock.

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