Back from a recent three-day outing in the Everglades, a trip he takes every now and then to remind himself of the importance of saving the environment, award-winning author Carl Hiaasen stood at a podium on the University of Miami campus last Thursday and talked about his book Hoot, a 2004 young adult novel about two friends who try to stop a construction project that would destroy a colony of burrowing owls.
“I ripped a page out of my own childhood,” Hiaasen said, going on to explain that he grew up in the city of Plantation, Florida, where he and his friends did a lot of fishing and camping. “As development roared into that section of Broward County, in those days their solution to having burrowing owls on property was to bulldoze them, nests and babies and all. My friends and I were young. We didn’t understand the politics of development. We just knew they were killing these birds.”
UM honored the Miami Herald columnist and New York Times bestselling author last Thursday, bestowing upon him the Reitmeister-Abess Center Environmental Stewardship Award during a ceremony that also served as the groundbreaking for an innovative project that will purify wastewater at one of UM’s residential colleges.
“Hoot is a gem that gives a voice to two usually voiceless populations: burrowing owls and young people,” UM President Donna E. Shalala said. “This alone would make Carl the ideal recipient of the award.”
Hiaasen also is the author of Flush, a book about a casino boat owner who has been illegally dumping raw sewage into the harbor, and the kids who try to gather proof of his misdeeds.
Sponsored by UM’s Leonard and Jayne Abess Center for Ecosystem Science and Policy and the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, the award recognizes efforts to protect endangered species and water resources. It is named after Louis Aaron Reitmeister, a businessman who wrote about a variety of topics, including the environment.
Kenny Broad, an associate professor of marine affairs and policy and director of the Abess Center, said both Hoot and Flush reflect the two major themes of the Reitmeister-Abess Award.
“Your books have affected many of us, including my little kids who are here now,” said Broad, an experienced cave diver known for exploring underwater sinkholes called “blue holes.”
After the award segment of the ceremony had concluded, members of the audience, which included Leonard Abess, vice chair of the UM Board of Trustees, and his wife, Jayne, learned about UM’s Net-Zero dorm water project that will treat and purify wastewater at Eaton Residential College, making it safe for showering, washing clothes, and doing laundry.
The project will be the first low-energy direct potable reuse system that will destroy organic pollutants, according to James Englehardt, the UM professor of environmental engineer and principal investigator of the project. Other similar systems, Englehardt explained, used high-energy membrane technology, which did not destroy pollutants.
Funded by the National Science Foundation, the Net-Zero initiative will be installed at Eaton this summer and is expected to go to the water tap lines by January 1, 2012. But because the project is a research endeavor, students will not be allowed to drink the water, only to bathe with it and use it for other purposes such as laundry.
Englehardt said it will serve as a model for buildings of the future.
“California spends 22 percent of its energy just moving water back and forth from central treatment plants, and as a nation, we release 17 billion pounds of toxic chemicals and pesticides into the environment every year, resulting in a two milligram per liter loading on our waters. As environmental engineers we have to remove that from your water before it reaches your tap,” Englehardt said.
“Now, imagine a world where each building turns its wastewater back into drinking water. Then we wouldn’t have to take a half billion gallons of water out of the Everglades everyday in Miami-Dade County alone,” he continued. “We wouldn’t have to treat that 17 billion pounds of toxic chemicals, only the pharmaceuticals and cleaning products that go down our drains. And those we can focus on and destroy permanently.”