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`Our Jeremiah' sees water going down the tubes

HENRY Swanson approaches environmental issues with a fervor that would do a Greenpeace volunteer proud. Yet his style of radicalism may owe as much to Old Testament prophecy as to modern political activism. To many people in this part of Florida, the lanky, silver-haired Swanson is ``our Jeremiah.'' ``I want to stay 10 years ahead,'' he says, smiling but unmistakably serious. His current ``cry in the wilderness'' concerns central Florida's water problems.

``There are two sides to the hydrologic coin,'' says Mr. Swanson, ``wetlands and high-recharge lands.'' Everybody's worried about the wetlands, ``but I'm more concerned with `high-recharge' lands'' -- the well-drained expanses that allow water to seep through to natural underground reservoirs, called aquifers. This drier acreage is a primary target for developers, but if it's built on and paved, he avers, the ground water -- a vital resource here -- isn't replenished.

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He points to the rapid rate at which housing developments are replacing orange groves, which occupied some of the best recharge land. The danger, he concludes, is that development and population could overwhelm the region's fragile natural waterworks. He foresees a time of ``water wars'' in Florida, with communities competing for the scarce drinking water left.

Some think this concern is overstated. John DeGrove, director of the Joint Center for Environmental and Urban Problems at Florida Atlantic and Florida International Universities, is one of them. It's a matter of emphasis, he says. ``Being concerned over recharge is important,'' he argues, ``but pollution of ground water is the crucial problem.'' On that front, he says, the state is beginning to frame tough policies, and some local areas have already forced the replacement of faulty gasoline storage tanks, one major source of pollution. Dr. DeGrove sees little chance of a water shortage in the state.

Swanson, however, does see that possibility as the concrete expanses multiply. He's been a tireless campaigner for a ``blue-belt law'' -- designed to lower the taxes on high-recharge lands and thus give owners a reason to keep them open. Others sympathize with the idea, but when it comes to speaking out for it at every opportunity, Henry Swanson is ``a one person show,'' says Bill Partington, head of the Florida Conservation Foundation.

He doubts the lone crusader has much chance of successfully swaying state lawmakers, but he has few doubts that Swanson -- with his endless round of service club talks -- has helped ignite environmental awareness. ``In his own way down through the years,'' says Mr. Partington, ``Henry has been one of the voices.''

Barry Allen, an economist at nearby Rollins College, thinks Swanson's views on ground water replenishment may yet win a wider hearing. ``He was out ahead of the pack on a lot of issues, and I think he's out in front on this one too.''

Henry Swanson may be a ``Jeremiah'' to some, but fiery doomsaying rarely surfaces during a chat in his tree-canopied backyard in Winter Park, a few miles from downtown Orlando. Here's a kindly, congenial man whose major passion, it seems, is the ``red admiral'' butterflies that dive and flit around his ``honey chair.'' That humble piece of metal lawn furniture, dabbed with some watered-down honey, has served for almost nine years as a butterfly feeding station. The winged, orange-and-black visitors return every afternoon around 4 o'clock.

The butterflies have a special place in Swanson's life. As he explains it, they're his tie to nature's unspoiled, peaceful side. ``It's God saying, `Hey, slow down, take a look at the sunsets and the trees.' ''

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That hasn't always been easy for someone whose last quarter of a century has been consumed by concerns over what he sees as nature's struggle to survive in this state.

While serving as agriculture agent for Orange County in 1959, Swanson was among the first to warn folks in and around the then small, placid city of Orlando that ``the people are coming!'' He recalls being shocked back then by a US Department of Agriculture study indicating that 50 percent of the cropland in central Florida would disappear by 1975. Only one thing came to mind: ``I should be telling the farmers!'' So he ``got a little talk together'' and began delivering it to farmers' groups and others.

The response? ``People thought, `Swanson? He's a nut.' '' But by Disney World's arrival in 1968, he chuckles, ``They said, `This nut, maybe he's got something here.' ''

The explosive population growth of the last decade and a half confirmed Swanson's earlier prophecies. However, that hasn't meant everyone is ready to heed his current admonitions about dangers to the water supply. The movers and shakers of Orlando and environs may have a place in their heart for this amiable man who tames butterflies and propounds theories of ground-water depletion. But heed his warning to rein in growth? That's another matter.

There are three basic resources, Swanson explains -- land, water, and air. ``They're an equilateral triangle, with land as the base. And land use determines the quality and quantity of the future water supply, and it also affects the quality of the air.'' Change the land by putting down asphalt and concrete, he continues, and the water coming down as rain becomes runoff, tainted with oil and other pollutants, instead of soaking in.

And there are only three things you can do with that fouled ``storm water,'' he asserts. You can let it flow into the nearest lake, and wait until, 30 or 40 years later, someone asks, ``What has happened to this lake?''

Or you can send it straight down vertical drain pipes, of which there are 400 in the Orlando area and 1,236 in the state, according to Swanson. They vary in depth from 250 to 1,049 feet, he adds. The dirty water that goes down these pipes helps maintain underground water pressure and prevents some of Florida's famous ``sink holes,'' but it also pollutes the ground water.

Finally, says Swanson, you can dig canals through developed areas and run the water to a stream on its way to the ocean. That, too, has its economic and environmental drawbacks -- such as the cost of right-of-ways. But the basic problem, he says, is ``when you take water out, you're not recycling like nature intended.''

What can be done? A ``blue-belt law'' would help, says Swanson. But the basic solution, in his view, lies in a change of attitude. Greed has to be countered by a code of stewardship, he says. To this lone crusader, the fundamental responsibility is clear: ``God owns everything; we take care of it.''

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