Tuesday, April 8, 2008

The View Through My Mask

In the year of my sixteenth summer, I discovered one of the best of lifes bargains. Scuba diving. My romantic interest at the time just happened to have a set of scuba gear and offered to teach me how to do it, using the reservoir behind the local dam as my classroom. My first two attempts were rather disasterious. As tall and skinny as I was, the heavy tanks almost brought me to my knees. Those flopping flippers didnt help either. (Warning: Dont attempt this if you want to be known as Miss Poise) Submerging beneath the water, the weight of the tanks played tricks on me and I found myself flat on my back, arms and legs flailing like an upside down turtle trying to right itself. However, prince charming came to the rescue and on the third try, off I went.

I had expected to see a bunch of dead trees, drowned by the water that had created the reservoir. Instead, the view through my mask revealed a lush, green, gently swaying forest while fish, small and large, lazily wound their way through this living wonderland. I sadly bid adieu to summer that year, as well as prince charming. It would be 12 long years before I donned another mask.

The tide of life carried me from the cold environs of that reservoir in Michigan to the sunny shores of Miami and when my first born son, already a whiz at snorkeling, turned eight, we headed for the Keys to get our first glimpse of a coral reef. We found a reef, situated just outside a protected swimming area on the Atlantic side of an island whose name I dont recall. I was suprised that a reef could be found in such shallow water and opted to sit atop the berm surrounding the swimming area to watch my son wade off into his great adventure. And great it was. He encountered a small squid that shot a stream of ink at him as he disturbed its quiet solitude and unable to quell his excitement, called for me to join him.

The moment I slipped under the water I realized this was a whole new world. The colors, from simple to sublime, of this little reef would have made any artist drool. Tiny fish dressed in a rainbow of varing colors darted in and out from the corals protective cover as if they were a bunch of children playing hide and seek. Small sea creatures, the likes of which I had never seen, moved around, over and under the coral ignoring our intrusion. The coral itself was a thing of wonder. Its colors, intricate designs, shapes and sizes made it look as if it had been placed there by a master carver, yet, it was a living thing capable of dying just as we are. Too soon, it was time to pack up and head home. As grand as this little patch of reef was, even bigger and more wonderous views could be found in Florida Bay, a favorite of divers and snorklers on the west side of the chain of Keys. The water was so clear that during the mid-sixties a statue known as the Christ of the Abyss was placed as an underwater attraction just off Key Largo.

Today, that underwater wonderland is vastly changed. The coral reefs in Florida Bay as well as the reefs that run up along the Florida coast are dying. The sewerage effluent, pesticides, phosphorous, fertilizers and oil tainted run-off we have pumped into the ocean, the Everglades and our rivers have finally taken their toll. As of 2003, just 7.2 percent of the coral on the Florida Reef Tract was still alive. It might not seem like a big deal to someone whose never seen a reef up close but if fish is one of your favorite meals, it should be. The reefs are the nurseries for many of the fish species we love to eat. When the obituary for our reefs is written it will include a long list of victims that perished with them.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

My War

Sometimes I think it was a curse to be born with a mile wide streak of frugality. Other times Im happy to have been so blessed. Take this global warming thing for instance, who knew that what I perceived as protecting my hard earned money by conserving energy would become a mainstream issue some 20 years later.

It all began in the late 80's. Everytime I sat down to write a check to FPL, the insult to my frugal nature finally demanded that I declare war on that out of control spinning meter whose monthly readings were robbing me of my hard earned dollars. I surveyed my humble abode, built at a time when insulation wasnt a part of Florida's vocabulary and my war plan started to take shape. Insulating those bare, ugly, interior block walls was the first step in my campaign. I was more than willing to sacrifice the wee bit of floor space necessary to accomplish this, not realizing at the moment, that the huge expanse of wonderfully smooth new wallboard would allow my passion for wallpaper to run wild. Next, the awning windows had to go. It didnt make much sense to replace the old A/C wall unit with the most efficient central unit available at the time if all the cool air would be lost thru those leaky old windows, so out they went and in came the new. I was quite pleased with the noticably slower spin of that grinning meter parked just outside my kitchen window and the gradually declining monthly tithe to FPL after completing this phase of my campaign.

I soon began plotting my next offensive and set my sights on replacing the major appliances that resided within my war zone. One by one they fell, over the course of the next few years. The water heater and stove, being the highest ranked offenders, were the first to go. The old washer and dryer as well as the fridge found other employment as each of my shinny new ones sporting an energy saver label arrived.

The final campaign was replacing every lightbulb both inside and out with new compact flourescents. While most of these curley little wonders were hidden from view by shades of one sort or another, the bathroom light fixtures and diningroom chandelier, the most used in the house, were major obsticals. However, as a seasoned warrior, I knew that spending a few extra dollars would easily overcome the problem and what better excuse than saving money can a girl have to embark on a shopping spree. Replacing those old fixtures felt as good as getting the last of an old perm cut off. Thanks to FPL's method of billing I was able to keep track of the ever decreasing amount of energy we used during the years it took to win my war and finally, quite smug with myself, I declared victory.

But alas, the demise of that once new A/C unit in ' 03, after 17 years of service, gave me the opportunity to upgrade to the newest energy saving technologies and the hurricanes of ' 04 convinced me that it was time to replace the windows with new models that resist hurricane force winds and of course while I was at it, I made sure that they were the most energy efficient. The result of my efforts have paid off with a reduction in my electric bill of between 50 and 75 percent depending on the time of the year. Nothing to sneeze at, I might say. While some may think that spending the money to accomplish my goal was far more than I could ever recoup, thats not the case. Between the money I have saved every month over the years, the lower insurance rates because of the new windows and the increased value of my home because of its efficiency, I am way ahead of the game.

Although my war began simply because of my frugal nature, if I were just starting out today, I would do it because of what I know. Electricity isnt really cheap. The price we see on our bills each month only scratches the surface of its true cost. Washington gives billions of our tax dollars to the energy industry each year. We subsidize the cost for research and development, extending and improving the grid, medical care for millions of people affected by the pollution expelled from coal fired power plants, clean up of mercury polluted lakes, rivers and streams as well as abandoned coal mining sites and polluted water wells in areas where coal has been mined. Clean coal has been touted as the ideal source of new energy production but there still is no such thing available and coal mining can never be anything but destructive.

Nuclear energy presents another set of problems. We have nowhere to store the waste it produces, so it remains in ponds at its generating sites.The storage area in Nevada that was supposed to be its final resting place has been found to have both geological and water seepage problems preventing completion of the repository unless the necessary oversight rules that science demands are ignored. Our government had promised, when licensing the construction of our existing nuclear plants, that it would have a repository up and running by now. Its in default of that agreement and was sued by Duke Energy. Taxpayers now owe them $56 million dollars plus annual reimbursements for future on site storage costs. No doubt more lawsuits will follow. With another 120 plants in operation that could really get expensive. The government also volunteeres our taxs to be used to pay for catastrophic damages if there happenes to be an accident, otherwise none of these facilities would have been built because the owners wouldnt ante up for the necessary insurance coverage. The same rules apply to any newly constructed plants. Uranium companies were once required by law to pay into a superfund to clean up the mess left from uranium enrichment, the law expired in 1995. Now taxpayers absorb the entire cost. Some tout nuclear electric production as the cheapest, does it sound like it to you?
Natural gas is used to produce some of the electricity in our country. Our own resources will not be sufficient to meet our demands in the comming decades. Measures are being undertaken to ship gas, in liquid form, from foreign countries. (And we're supposedly weaning ourselves off of foreign energy? ) Questions concerning safety in shipping and storage as well as security issues still plague the success of such a venture. As ratepayers and taxpayers we will once again pick up the tab to make it viable.

All of these options are far more costly to us than we should be willing to accept and we have the power to change the final outcome simply by reducing the amount of energy we use. Changing all our lightbulbs to compact flourescents may seem like small potatoes but if every household in Florida switched we could eliminate the need for one new, tax guzzeling, coal or nuclear fired power plant in our state. The 100 watt bulb sitting in your lamp post, if run nightly from 9 pm to 6am, costs you $31.45 a year. A compact flourescent would cost $7.24. A real bargain. Switching to a solar hotwater heater would knock about 25 percent off an electric bill instantly and payback for a family of four would take about four years using the available rebates, a pretty good deal I'd say. Reducing energy consumption will soon become a mandate both by government and pricing unless we take matters into our own hands, first. Join the Frugal Granny, hold up your wallets and just say no. We have better things to do with our money than subsidizing electric companies. Shopping comes to mind. Maybe a vacation? hmmmmmmmm.......................

Changes in My World

For as far back as I can remember, nature was a part of me. I had no fear of its insects, snakes and critters large or small, although after a particular encounter involving some nasty spider bites, I learned to admire those little rascals from a respectable distance. I always assumed that things would stay the same. The same wildflowers would bloom every spring, the birds would return from their winter habitat, the lake and river waters would run clear, the bear and deer and bobcats would always be there sulking through the woods just out of eyesite, the coral reefs would live forever and there would always be bountiful amounts of fish in the oceans.
I was too busy to pay attention to the subtle changes that were happening.

It wasnt until '98, when my son gave me my first computer that I was capable of getting online and I joined a couple of messageboards devoted to talking about the environment, that I realized things could not stay the same. And once I started giving serious thought to it, I knew those changes had been happening right before my very blinded eyes.

The one thing I did pay attention to was the increasing cost of living. Talk about an elephant in the room, this issue couldnt be ignored and I attacked it head-on. I was determined to reduce those high electric and water bills.