Jennifer Hecker of Charlotte Harbor National Estuary Program

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6 Questions

Once a month or so, The Island Sand Paper asks a community leader “6 Questions.” This edition features Jennifer Hecker of the Charlotte Harbor National Estuary Program (CHNEP). Jennifer is the Executive Director, serving since October 2016. For information on the CHNEP, call 941-575-5090 or see www.CHNEP.org.

Q1: What are the biggest ramifications good & bad of Florida passing Senate Bill 10?

It is fundamental – it starts to restore the natural hydrology to the Caloosahatchee River locally and to the entire state overall by allowing water to flow south again through Lake Okeechobee and into the Everglades, so this is a very positive development. It will reduce some of the pollutants into the river, and that was one of our primary goals, so I am very pleased by that. Its victory moves forward the effort to re-energize the Everglades, and it goes hand-in-hand with other initiatives, like restoring sea grass gardens and aquatic grasses, to become a different but important piece of the puzzle. It shows that if we come together and work in the same direction and support each other, we can achieve an important goal for the Everglades and Caloosahatchee River.

The obvious downside is it does not meet the complete goal of restoring the full hydrology network, and the total storage south of Lake Okeechobee is not as much as in the initial plan, but it is an excellent start.

Q2: How will the C-43 Reservoir, currently under construction near the eastern boundary of Lee County, best benefit the Caloosahatchee River region?

Just like with the Senate Bill 10 reservoir, I am also very excited about this project coming to completion in a timely manner, as this is another crucial piece of the restoration puzzle. It will be very helpful to restore more of the river area’s hydrology, as well as to help with storage in high flow, rainy years, while feeding water back into the Caloosahatchee in dry seasons like this year. Sometimes in the same year we get too much and too little water, like in 2016, and this will help to moderate some of that.

People have the misconception, l think, that its primary purpose is to control flooding like in Winter and Spring 2016, but that is not what it is really designed to do. The true essence of the C-43 Reservoir is to provide water back into the river when it does not have sufficient flow and its salinity is too high.

C-43 is not the complete fix all alone, but a piece to the water quality puzzle, as that is the central element – we need all these projects to work together and complement each other to solve complicated issues like pollution, so we have to look at all aspects, to get them to fit together and create the answer, as there is no one silver bullet!

Q3: Why is it imperative for Lee County to eventually purchase the Edison Farms property?

The Charlotte Harbor National Estuary Program is governed by a management team that includes representatives from seven surrounding counties, and this management conference reviewed Edison Farms specifically. They unanimously voted to support its acquisition because of its regional significance, and that is really something when you get a multitude of citizens and communities and counties to come together to save something that affects so many.

Edison Farms is another big piece of the puzzle. It is home for endangered species, like the panther, and that is so important, as well as maintaining the region’s natural hydrology, as it feeds directly into three tributaries and the Estero Bay. It is 90% wetland so from a water resource perspective, it is a critical parcel to protect and preserve, and that is why the CHNEP took up the issue, with its position to support Lee County’s acquisition effort to save the property.

Q4: Why should the Town of Fort Myers Beach join the CHNEP as a dues-paying member?

The Town of Fort Myers Beach is actually one of the founding members of the CHNEP! But now, it is one of the only cities or towns in our area that does not provide direct financial support, so hopefully I can nudge Town Council into appropriating us into their budget cycle at a nominal level, as they previously have done. We are circling back to reinstate our historical partnership, to sustain our water resources. The Town remained a very active member up until just recently, when there were staff changes at the Town that caused that lapse to ensue. I will make a presentation to Town Council at their meeting on Monday, August 21, to rejoin us at a very modest investment, as a financial demonstration from the beach community to the program.

This helps us to justify to the federal government that our communities value the CHNEP with more than just lip service. It says a lot to potential funders, that communities put their financial investment forward, to affirm the process and our program. This is an important point, especially now, as there are budget proposals to eliminate agencies like the CHNEP, and that means a loss of millions of dollars in funding to protect our water resources.

A lot of people look at programs like the CHNEP and don’t know where the money goes, so we encourage you to visit our website to see where we physically put our resources, to get seagrasses back and improve water quality and water habitat and fisheries that have a direct effect on our economy and quality of life. We work with private businesses and citizens and scientists to stretch every dollar as far as we can, and for us that is very far! For every dollar entrusted to the CHNEP, we get $35 worth of restoration, so this is a demonstration of how we have done to achieve better results!

Q5: What is the biggest environmental issue facing Southwest Florida today?

I do feel strongly that our water resource is fundamental to our economy and our environment and to our wildlife and our citizens, so if we cannot adequately protect that, there is a negative effect on everything else. Recent science shows that we have a lot of serious water quality challenges in Southwest Florida, and with our increasing population these can easily become more widespread, as a declining resource, so we must protect our investment; we must turn the tide, if you will.

A corresponding threat is the potential loss of funding and federal government support for this public resource. We work closely with area non-profits to stretch our dollars, but we cannot assume all responsibilities that government programs provide to protect and restore our water and that is our huge fear! Everything depends on funding, so if this is cut or eliminated, we face a double or triple whammy with so many water initiatives under pressure, with not enough resources so keep everything going. We need to increase and not decrease funding if we expect our water to improve.

Q6: What the greatest thing about the CHNEP?

The consensus we can build, based on the best scientific evidence available, and our ability to use this to foster agreement and support between diverse partners such as governments, community leaders and scientists, to all come together, to work together, and to pool our resources to protect our water, our most crucial resource! If not for the CHNEP, people and organizations would work independently and not as efficiently, and might miss out on a lot of opportunities, so we are the outlet to collaborate and consensus-build across the entire region, to coordinate efforts and share resources and knowledge, to make information easy and fast.

I really believe that if we work together, if we formulate legislative priorities and advances together, we can bring more resources back to our region, to budget more accomplishments, and this is our vision. Our Comprehensive Management Plan was not put together by our staff, but through our management conference, with technicians and citizens, community groups and governments, scientists and elected officials, and many other leaders. This is really something when you get so many different people and perspectives to build together a common vision and common priorities, that carry more weight to move forward than we all can do individually.

In fact, the CHNEP is now in the process of updating our plan this year, to address new challenges, such as sea level rise and the dangers posed by pollutants like micro-plastics in our region that are very dangerous and almost invisible in our water, that go right up the food chain into the human body. The bottom line now is we need to reassess all our objectives to make sure that what we do is in a forward-thinking manner. This is an exciting and challenging time, and it is more important than ever for the CHNEP to be here and engaged, to protect our water resources, and we hope we can continue to do that!

 

Gary Mooney