Walking the Water Tightrope

We are a small island whose economy is overwhelmingly dependent on tourism. We enjoy a plethora of hotel, dining, shopping and restaurant options because over 2 million people cross that bridge every year. And we enjoy the many amenities that those tourists make possible.

From fishing boat captain to housekeeper to server to cook, many of our island’s jobs flow from tourism.

Maintaining that flow over the bridge is essential to our lifestyle and our property values. It’s not just Fort Myers Beach that depends on tourism. The Lee County Visitor and Convention Bureau tells us that 1 in 5 jobs in Lee County are related to tourism. Visitors spend $3 billion in our area each year. Tourism is important.



 So is our water quality and they are directly related. A simple fact that many people have been trying to share with government officials for years, even more so over the last six months.

For many years, we have lived with water quality problems during the summer, when water from Lake Okeechobee is released to the coasts to relieve pressure on the dike protecting communities surrounding the lake. This water, added to runoff from the Caloosahatchee watershed, lowers the salinity in the river and estuary and turns the water brown. Most summers it’s noticeable, but not crippling. In 2013, we had a terrible summer of bad water. Efforts to find a solution ramped up and got some attention in Tallahassee. Then in January, we had record-breaking rain during the dry season and we got hit with more brown water in the middle of tourist season. The cry that went up got some attention in D.C.

The water cleared as the rains stopped, but then summer rains arrived and we are right back to brown water again. The water color along our shore varies by the day and we’re now used to suggesting visitors head further south or north for clear water, but we shouldn’t have to.

Governor Rick Scott has declared Lee County a disaster area and requested that the federal government follow suit. We’d like to think this means he finally gets it, but suspect it is just more political theater aimed at blaming the feds (Army Corps) for our water problems. But the Corps is locked into the release schedule (LORS) along with the South Florida Water Management District. (SFWMD). The state controls SFWMD, specifically the governor controls all the water districts, appointing directors, firing those who don’t toe the line and cutting the districts’ budgets. Our state lawmakers are also the ones who failed to use Amendment One money to buy land south of the lake. So his blaming the feds would be funny if it weren’t so sad.

To solve our water woes, it will take the feds and state working together and there is no sign of that. It will take all of South Florida uniting to find solutions, plural. While sending the water south is often cited as the ultimate solution, it cannot be achieved immediately. Nothing can. We’re trying to turn the Titanic here and it’s not going to happen this week, this summer or this year. But there are some solutions already in the pipeline that can make a difference sooner rather than later, while we work on the long-term solutions also.

We applaud the efforts of Sanibel Mayor Ruane and other Lee County mayors who are trying to gather representatives from all of South Florida to focus on solutions that work for everyone.

When a problem arises in a tourist destination, there is a tendency to want to hush it up. Don’t let the tourists see our problems, they might not come back.

On the other hand, anyone who has ever tried to get a government agency to do anything about a problem knows that if you don’t make some noise and ask for a solution, you aren’t ever going to see one. The squeaky wheel and all that.

So, here we are, the local newspaper, trying to walk a tightrope between supporting our area as a great place to live, work and play while urging residents and visitors to demand action on water quality issues for our area.

We know that each time we do a water quality story we are going to upset someone who would like us to gloss over our water problems. Just not talk about it. And for heavens sake, don’t show any photos.

We also know that when we don’t do a water quality story every week with the latest details and photos of our water status, that we are going to upset someone who thinks we’re covering up the problem.

Luckily we are used to that tightrope. We know that in any given week, we will be loved by some who agree with our coverage or editorial and we will be disliked by others who disagree with our coverage or editorial. It comes with the territory.

We will continue to bring readers the latest news on the water quality battle. We will continue to urge residents and visitors to contact their elected representatives and demand action. We will continue to urge our local governments to work with other government entities to demand a solution to the water issues that threaten our community.

We will also continue to promote Fort Myers Beach as a great place to live, work and play. There is more to our community than our water challenges. This is a great place to visit and live regardless of our water color.

Let’s work together and focus on solutions.


Missy Layfield