Beebe on Dunn, 'Drying Up: The Fresh Water Crisis in Florida'

John M. Dunn
Kathie Beebe

John M. Dunn. Drying Up: The Fresh Water Crisis in Florida. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2019. 272 pp. $24.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8130-5620-3.

Reviewed by Kathie Beebe (Florida State University) Published on H-Florida (December, 2019) Commissioned by Jeanine A. Clark Bremer (Northern Illinois University)

Printable Version:

Americans today are wrestling with a myriad of problems due to imposing their will upon the environment. While Drying Up focuses specifically upon the ongoing freshwater crisis in Florida, we learn here how Floridians contributed to ongoing calamity through callous disregard of how their behavior dramatically impacted their most important natural resource, water. Florida, John Dunn argues, has reached the point wherein many communities are facing water problems; many sectors of the state’s society bear responsibility for this situation and now must work in a united fashion to proactively address this situation. This book spans centuries of Florida’s water history, from the time when Paleoindians inhabited the state to today. Industrialists, politicians, agriculturalists, municipalities, and the average citizen all will think twice when drinking a glass of water after reading it.

In arguing compellingly that Floridians must act now by educating themselves about their water crisis and entering into discussions to resolve this important issue, Dunn—a journalist and water activist—presents evidence in a topical and chronological framework, lacing his account with polemical condemnation of how Floridians have misused water. The first three chapters review the present water situation in Florida, while the next eight chapters move chronologically through the state’s intimate experiences with water problems. The concluding three chapters offer suggestions for possible solutions to Florida’s water issues. While Dunn sequenced his chapters to emphasize the seriousness of the water problems (while at the same time successfully showing how they occurred), readers may experience temporal whiplash as he jumps back and forth between historical periods.

Floridians who think they possess an endless supply of water will find their beliefs challenged after reading Dunn’s first section. Citizens waste more than half of the state’s daily water usage simply by watering their lawns. Floridians also utilize precious freshwater resources to wash their cars and flush their toilets. Water is frequently removed faster than replenished in more populated South Florida, which lacks the more abundant water resources of the state’s less populous northern part. Dunn painstakingly examines the current water situation by focusing on contamination of this natural resource, the state’s aging and deteriorating water infrastructure, budget cuts that prevent any wholesale policing of regulations, and the troubled state of Florida’s springs.

After educating Floridians about their ongoing water crisis, Dunn recounts how the state reached this unenviable position. Since close to 67 percent of Florida’s population are newcomers, many current citizens fail to comprehend the state’s history and the critical nature of the water problem. Beginning with what Dunn terms the “drainage crusade” launched a century ago to make room for the real estate boom, Floridians enthusiastically altered their water landscape during the twentieth century. Dunn argues that the main culprits in destroying hundreds of thousands of acres of wetlands were the Army Corps of Engineers, the Florida Department of Transportation, and businessmen. His analysis particularly focuses on the 1970s onward. In so doing he illuminates water wars between states and regional water management districts, the commercial interests of Big Sugar, and the problematic concept of sharing water resources, better known as the “tragedy of the commons” made famous by Garrett Hardin in his 1968 article of the same name.

Dunn’s final section reassures readers that solutions exist to Florida’s water crisis, but all Floridians need to hold governmental leaders accountable for ensuring that the state’s water future becomes more promising. Here he communicates recommendations provided by experts in the field, including stricter enforcement and compliance regulations, conserving state water resources, using modern-day engineering methods more wisely, teamwork between environmental and agricultural communities, and funding necessary improvements. For example, utilizing green infrastructure, collaborating on restoration projects, and creating water policies crafted by scientists with the trust of the public are for him compelling. However, ending his book, Dunn leaves the reader uneasy in sharing the following comment by environmental attorney Heather Obara: “It all depends on how the governor is being influenced in Tallahassee” (p. 252).

As a water advocate, Dunn’s passion for ensuring Florida’s water future is clear. In constructing his account, he has relied on books, government documents, and newspaper and web articles. However, his most convincing sources are experts in the field whom he has interviewed. Scientists, hydrologists, members of Riverkeepers (a nonprofit group seeking to ensure that rivers remain clean and healthy), a retired DEP administrator, a former ranch owner, restoration project leaders, environmental attorneys, and state and local politicians: their stories and insights are highlighted here. Yet, Dunn does not interview people who might be termed the opposition—individuals who have excessively used the water resources or have not strongly supported stricter regulatory measures. Interviews of businesspeople involved in agriculture and politicians with more conservative leanings would possibly have forced them to reveal their perceptions of (and solutions for) Florida’s water challenges.

However, in the end, Dunn’s Drying Up accomplishes his goal: revealing Florida’s water crisis, documenting the state’s history with its water resource, and arguing that Floridians must take proactive measures to address their state’s dire water situation. All Floridians interested in the state’s history in general or its conflicted relationship with its water resource more specifically should read this compelling book.


Citation: Kathie Beebe. Review of Dunn, John M., Drying Up: The Fresh Water Crisis in Florida. H-Florida, H-Net Reviews. December, 2019. URL:

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