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Shannon Nickinson: We must learn that we can’t fight the water forever

 David Waggonner gave the Pensacola area a lot to chew on.

How much of his philosophy about environmentally sensible stormwater management we ultimately will swallow remains to be seen.

But you can’t say the case hasn’t been made.

Waggonner is an architect who is the guru behind the Greater New Orleans Water Urban Plan. He spoke several times last week in Northwest Florida to civic leaders, elected officials and citizens about his experience in flood management in New Orleans and elsewhere.

Waggonner’s philosophy suggests embracing the power water has in shaping the topography and development of coastal cities. He’s a measured, quiet speaker.

He tied the prevailing philosophy of “more! faster! now!” to the love of concrete, pumps and asphalt.

Waggonner, who toured the Pensacola area with an 18th century map of the city, would rather see stormwater treated where it falls. He wants it to percolate through the ground in rain gardens, water-centric public parks, landscaping and other features.

It is a view of the interaction between man and nature that will resonate with the environmentally minded folks who call Northwest Florida home. And happily, there are lots of them here.

But he didn’t ignore the politicians’ impulse to  impose technology on nature.

Speaking Friday at the Pensacola Bay Center, Waggonner had about 100 citizens in attendance. Escambia County’s commissioners, Pensacola’s City Council members, County Administrator Jack Brown and Mayor Ashton Hayward also were in the audience.

He said that he understands politicians. His father was Joe D. Waggonner, a Democratic U.S. Congressman from Louisiana.

“Florida knows about water pretty well,” he said. “I think that’s innate here.”

Where he comes from, he said, too many folks fail to grasp the concept that you can’t fight the water forever. Floridians seem to be ahead of Louisianans on that score.

Waggonner said that if sea levels rise as predicted, coastal communities like ours will be on the front line of those changes.

“The leadership role Northwest Florida should play is significant,” Waggonner said. “If you here get knowledge about this, think about the leadership position you’d have.”

So maybe you aren’t moved by the argument that water ultimately will go where it wants to go, no matter how many pumping stations we build. Maybe the practical and philosophical merits of “green” design are not what spin your wheels.

But if it is power that you seek, let Waggonner’s argument wash over your pert ears.

Because one day, Don Gaetz will no longer be president of the Florida Senate. And when he isn’t, elected officials from around here will be churned-and-burned through the halls of Tallahassee with nary a second glance.

We lack the population and the money that our brothers and sisters in Central and South Florida command.

So if we can develop an expertise in something besides being the poorest large county in the state, we can make our voice worth listening to.

That would be the kind of thing you could take to the bank — and the ballot box.

Shannon Nickinson is editor of www.progresspromise.com, a news and analysis website in Pensacola. Follow her on Twitter @snickinson. Her column appears courtesy of ContextFlorida.

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