The Mouse Gets the Blame

In October 1971 the Orlando area had 5,854 hotel and motel rooms. Less than a year later it had added 6,000 rooms. Today it has 25,000, with 7,000 more under construction. Real-estate transactions doubled—boom!­as Disney World opened its gates.


Orlando’s Sun First National Bank handles good quick service the two and a half tons (boom!) of money trucked in each day from Disney World. That vast, ingenious amusement park has elicited widespread praise. “How,” one re­porter wrote, “can cynicism and despair con­tinue to clutch the minds of men and women who have experienced for even a few days the freedom of spirit that reigns here?”


Well, one man more or less clutched is Mr. Paul Pickett, chairman of the Board of Com­missioners of surrounding Orange County. “Unless he is a land speculator, owns a bank, or sells insurance,” he told me, “the average taxpayer around here has not only had zero profit from this tremendous growth —he is paying for it. And I don’t mean in our new bumper-to-bumper style of driving, in­crease in crime, and all that. I mean in cash, for new roads, additional law enforcement, welfare, and the rest. No hard feelings, but I wish the mouse had stayed in California.”


All roads in central Florida lead to Orlan­do, and the older roadsides, bearing the burns of the boom, can only be described as end-to­end junk heaps, with sprawling shopping centers and blinding blizzards of ugly signs.


I asked conservationist David Anthony what the consequences of all of this might be, and he startled me with his reply: “The prob­able death, by thirst, of southern Florida. Do you know what a polishing pond is?”


I admitted I did not. “It is a pond connected to a sewage plant by a pipe. It is a hideous green, choked with algae. The bottom is organic mud because the algae grow, die, and settle, carrying nutrients from the sewage flow. The pond is a nutrient trap.” He drew a circle and tapped it with the pencil: “Lake Okeechobee, upon which southeast Florida ultimately depends for its drinking water.”


He drew parallel lines into the top of the circle. “What used to be the Kissimmee River, now Canal 38. It used to meander through a wild marshland that soaked up and took out dangerous nutrients. Unfortunately, the area was subject to heavy flooding, so the engi­neers made a pipe out of the river, reducing the marshland from 45,000 acres to 8,000.


“At present 53 sewage plants around Or­lando discharge 27 million gallons a day into the system. The engineers have built a short­cut from the bathrooms and streets of central Florida to the major drinking-water reservoir of south Florida. Lake Okeechobee is becom­ing the polishing pond for central Florida.”


The U. S. Army Corps of Engineers reacts sharply to such charges, calling them “unduly alarming, pessimistic, and distorted.” A spokesman for the corps pointed out that south Florida relies directly upon Okeecho­bee water only in periods of prolonged drought. While conceding that the water quality of the Kissimmee has suffered a decline, the corps believes it is due to an increase in cattle in the lower basin more than an increase in people near Orlando. Like others in this con­troversy, the pointis disputed.* Both the corps and its opponents are assembling more data.