The Southwest Florida Chapter of the American Water Resources Association (AWRA) held its 29th Annual Conference at Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) on Friday, January 24, before a jam-packed room of roughly 120 people. Since it broke ground on March 22, 2019, for The Water School to explore water-based issues and solutions, ten of the fifteen speakers were from FGCU.
In his welcoming remarks, FGCU Provost Dr. James Llorens stated, “The research we will advance through The Water School will focus on one unique research area and that is water, but the results we attain will spread throughout the state and nation in science, business and all other related disciplines.” Roger Copp, Florida AWRA President, added, “We follow a multidisciplinary non-political focus on water, while involving as many people as possible in this movement, with our proceeds helping students to pursue the discipline of water. In 2019, we contributed $25,000 in scholarships, and this year we will increase that to $38,000 to foster a new generation of water resource folks who are smarter than I am! We are happy to announce as well that Florida will host the National AWRA Meeting this November in Orlando.”
Chauncey Goss, Chair of the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD), gave the Opening Remarks. “Our area was Ground Zero for the 2018 Blue-Green Algae and Red Tide outbreaks, but fortunately in 2019, God was good to us, as it was an average rainfall year, and all I want is average, as extreme years are tough! The United States Army Corps of Engineers took a new approach last year and lowered Lake Okeechobee in the spring, so subsequently they did not have to release water down the Caloosahatchee and Saint Lucie Rivers in the summer when we did not want it, and that contained the Blue-Green Algae. Governor Ron DeSantis, in his second day in office, issued his Executive Order on water, and that set the policy and funding levels to combat water at $625 million and the State Legislature was very good to us and allocated even more. The Governor requested another $625 million this year and the Legislature is in session right now. The Governor appointed a new Blue-Green Algae Task Force with Dr. Mike Parsons of FGCU on the panel and their recommendations are now Senate Bill 712 that we hope becomes law this year.”
Three large water storage reservoir projects motivate Goss. “These are the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) Reservoir and well as the C-43 and C-44. We will start the EAA as soon as we receive the Army Corps permit, the C-44 on the east coast started to fill last month and that is exciting, and C-43 is right in our backyard, with construction well underway, so it is fun to watch that move along. In his Executive Order, Governor DeSantis made sure these have water quality components and we took public comment on that this week in LaBelle, as that will be really important. Governor DeSantis last week set aside 20,000 acres in the middle of the Everglades previously earmarked for oil exploration and drilling and now, on that land, that will never happen. Next week will be one year since he appointed me to the SFWMD and we are following his directive to restore the flow of water to the Everglades. It is hard work, but fun, and we have a great staff, so I am really looking forward to a terrific 2020!”
FGCU Research & Programs
In the first session, “The FGCU Water School: Prominent Research & Programs,” Dr. Greg Tolley, Executive Director of The Water School, explained, “When we broke ground last March 22 on The Water School, our region at that time was still recovering from the water crises from a couple of years – from fall of 2017 with Hurricane Irma and the next year from the fifth-longest Red Tide in Florida history and the extensive Blue-Green Algae bloom from Lake Okeechobee all the way down the Caloosahatchee, so that made a research institution to combat these issues crucial, and to train future water leaders to better inform our citizenry for their health, ecosystem, and economic development. Water is not always our friend, when you consider Climate Change, hurricanes, Blue-Green Algae blooms and all the rest, so we must use a systematic approach to avoid potential conflicts well into the future that may bring unintended consequences, and that is what will set The Water School apart, to protect the economy and quality of life that Southwest Florida loves and expects.”
Dr. Parsons of The Water School, Director of the Vester Field Research Station, and Blue-Green Algae Task Force Member, stated, “The 2018 cyanobacteria algae blooms got so bad that they flowed down the Cape Coral canals and led to massive fish kills and discolored water that smelled so bad it was like sewage, and became terrible for homeowners, businesses and our economy. It affected a lot of different organisms, including people! Cyanobacteria blooms are in every single state in the nation and all parts of the world, so this is not just a phenomenon here but a real trend.
Cyanobacteria like nutrients, particularly nitrogen. Lake Okeechobee has a phosphorous Basic Management Plan but not one for nitrogen, so we suspect that nitrogen plays a high role in Microsystin blooms. Red Tide is a different beast. That is a natural phenomenon that develops 50 miles off the coast, but as it moves closer to the shore, nutrients from Saharan dust that blows all across the Atlantic Ocean from Africa leads to fish kills. Nutrients from runoff plays a role but not a dominant role, as Red Tide needs a very specific set of conditions to bloom, so this is a hard problem to figure out.”
In trying to analyze future water quality issues, “you must take population growth into account,” stressed Dr. Parsons. “Florida is adding roughly 1,000 people a day, we expect Lee County’s population grow by 300,000 by 2030, and Collier County another 120,000 over that same time frame, and that is now just 10 years down the road! We need land use plans, water management programs, stormwater treatment plants, and a lot more data to prevent further strain on the system. What you can do is to use less or no fertilizer, plant native Florida landscaping and similar efforts. There is a long road ahead of us, but I am hopeful and optimistic!”
Dr. Barry Rosen of The Water School noted, “Cyanobacteria is speed dating! They grow fast because all they have to do is split in half and by the end of the day, one cell becomes eight and that is how you get a bloom. Cyanotoxins are highly potent but you have to get them in your mouth through food or drinking water. We still don’t know about breathing through the air and that is what we are working on right now.”
Fritz Roka, Executive Director of the FGCU Center for Agribusiness, said, “It is extremely important for us to get a handle on water issues so we do not repeat the same mistakes as those who came before us. Fifty years from now, we don’t want people looking back at us and saying, ‘Those people weren’t very smart,’ like we do with those from a 100 years ago, who were doing their best for the public interest. Like Mike, I am an optimist that we will make better decisions.”
Jennifer Jones, Executive Director of the FCGU Center for Environment & Sustainability Education, related, “Environmental education alone will not get us out of this! We need to change our behavior because we can have all the education in the world, but if we take no action, it will not do us any good. We need to make environmental education local, personal and relevant in our jobs and life and family, and that is the Center for Environment & Sustainability Education’s priority, to nurture an engaged citizenry through systematic change.”
Climate Change Preparedness
During the presentation “Climate Change Preparedness and Community Engagement in Southwest Florida,” Dr. Mike Savarese of The Water School said, “You prepare a community for Climate Change through Context, Voluntary Analysis, a Reliable Strategy and then Implementation of the Adopted Plan, including how to allocate the money necessary to achieve the goal. At current levels, we will have extreme temperatures and sea level rise. By the year 2100, temperature elevation will be as high as 4 to 5 degrees Centigrade rather than our current target of 1.5 degree, meaning that sea level rise may be as much as 8 feet. If we keep burning fossil fuels at the present pace, we can be reasonably sure that it will be business as usual through the year 2060, with life as we know it still sustainable, but without effective adopted plans, there is no way to reduce these results. Like others here, however, I am hopeful and not fearful, but 2060 is not that far away! Climate Change must bring us together because it knows no political boundaries, meaning we have to share our resources, including funding.”
Dr. Darren Rumbold of The Water School noted that the nutrient load in Southwest Florida from the “C-43 (watershed) basin that is our own backyard, between the tidal basin and Lake Okeechobee, is as large or larger than that coming from the lake, but every time I speak with the media, they only say that the lake discharges are the problem, no matter what I say! These nutrients change the color of the water, and that leads to horrific economic results, as that dirty water is what the tourists see. My take-home message is that we focus too much on the lake and miss opportunities to solve water quality problems right here in our own backyard, in the C-43 basin, without relying on anyone else, but like others here today, I view this with optimism.”
Eat The Whole Elephant
The final speaker of the conference was Dr. Tom Frazer, the Chief Science Officer & Advisor to Governor Ron DeSantis. “My goal is transparency and to cut through the soundbites to form an effective policy that includes the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission, Department of Agriculture, all the Water Management Districts, and all the people involved from the private sector and academic community. The Governor wants to focus on the environment and the Blue-Green Algae Task Force, and my job is to capture their comments and put them forward as recommendations, then to move those forward aggressively. We produced that document in October, with ways to reduce nutrients in our water, Basic Action Management Plans, Blue-Green Algae blooms, septic and sanitary sewer systems, public health, science-based decision making, and monitoring, among other things. This is now Senate Bill 712 that is moving through the system right now, and I think we are making significant progress. Dr. Parsons is on that Task Force and this community is lucky to have him!”
Dr. Frazer addressed Basic Management Action Plans, Best Management Practices, Onsite Sewage Treatment & Disposal septic tank systems, Florida’s aging infrastructure, stormwater treatment systems, innovative technology, and public health, stating, “We need science-based decision-making on all these, based on acquiring good data and a solid monitoring program, because these are the hallmarks of the Blue-Green Algae Task Force recommendations. The State must invest in water quality monitoring and strategy with the Water Management Districts, because until we expand water quality monitoring in each area, we will never be able to eat the whole elephant!
“These are not just Southwest Florida problems but affect systems all over the State, so as we move forward, all these actions go far beyond the Southwest Florida landscape. The Blue-Green Algae Task Force is very aggressive in ensuring that these recommendations will make it into public policy and I hope the Legislature comes out with that this March!”