The Gainesville Sun, June 27, 2014
Jaclyn Lopez: Snail's tale shows challenges facing the water supply
TThe metal fence enclosing the crystal-clear waters of Coffee Spring on the Ichetucknee River does a good job protecting one the world's most imperiled freshwater mollusks from the thousands of recreationalists who flock to the river each year.
But the fence can't stop the ever-increasing loads of nitrates that wash from pastures and cropland and suburban lawns into the aquifer that feeds the region's hundreds of world-famous freshwater springs. Nor can it slow the ever-increasing withdrawals from the aquifer by the region's swelling population, an unsustainable draw-down that scientists say is opening the door to increased saltwater intrusion from ancient tables of seawater.
As a result, the only population of the Ichetucknee siltsnail in the world continues to fade toward extinction.
The story of the struggle to save this tiny snail with a translucent shell is much more than a one-note tale of whether or not we should protect this single species that lives in only 10-square yards of habitat. The broader challenge highlighted by the snail's steady demise is whether we're up to the task of protecting the long-term health of the irreplaceable water supply we all depend on.
Sadly, the siltsnail is one of hundreds of freshwater species from the Southeast whose declining health has long been indicating a steady drop in water quality across a region known world-wide for its unparalleled aquatic biodiversity.
Here in the Southeast our waterways are home to nearly 500 species of fishes, including almost two-thirds of U.S. fish species, as well as more than 250 mussels — more than 90 percent of the nation's mussel species. But thanks to pollution, development, logging, poor agricultural practices, dams, mining and other threats, more than 28 percent of the region's fishes, 48 percent of its crayfishes and 70 percent of its mussels are facing extinction.
Yet, the Southeast's aquatic species are some of the nation's least protected. The majority of them aren't on the endangered species list or safeguarded by any other law. But virtually every time steps are taken to protect one of these species — just as when the conservation group I work for petitioned and litigated to gain federal protection for the Ichetucknee siltsnail — there are invariably some who question why this one little species needs protecting at all.
Snails, of course, are far from expendable. They play an irreplaceable role recycling nutrients and providing food and calcium for many other animals including birds, amphibians, reptiles, small mammals and other invertebrates. And here amid an unprecedented human-caused extinction crisis, mollusks are among the most vulnerable to the many short-sighted environmental alterations we humans make.
Overall, scientists say plant and animals species are now going extinct at thousands of times their historic rate. And approximately 40 percent of recorded extinctions since the year 1500 have been mollusks, including 260 species of slugs and snails.
In fact, the choices — and potential benefits — we face with the Ichetucknee siltsnail are no different than those we faced with bald eagles, brown pelicans and host of other species that have battled back from the brink of extinction only after receiving the protection of the Endangered Species Act, which has prevented the extinction of 99 percent of the plants and animals it protects.
Protecting the bald eagle and the brown pelican motivated us to stop using the highly toxic chemicals that had turned many of the nation's waterways into toxic, shell-thinning soups that made it virtually impossible for some species to reproduce in sustainable numbers. The successful recovery of these species from the very brink of extinction offered clear demonstration that protecting plants and animals invariably protects the habitats we all share.
The challenge for Floridians is to understand that the story of the siltsnail is just as important. And our response to the challenge of protecting it must be just as swift and conclusive.
Jaclyn Lopez is a Florida native and attorney in the Florida office of the Center for Biological Diversity, where her work focuses on the protection and restoration of wild places, native ecosystems and imperiled species in the Southeast.
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