Rae Anne Wessel of Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation

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Six Questions!

Once a month or so, The Island Sand Paper asks a community leader 6 Questions. This edition features Rae Anne Wessel, the Natural Resource Policy Director for the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation (SCCF). Rae Anne serves in the capacity for the past 11 years, following 2 years on the SCCF Board of Directors.

Q1: With Florida Governor Rick Scott signing Senate Bill 10 to authorize water flow from Lake Okeechobee south to the Everglades, what is the bill’s strongest attribute?

The main component is the key component: water storage south of Lake Okeechobee! Our continued advocacy paid off, as southern storage is so important because this will be the biggest environmental driver of change for lake management in terms of where we will store the water. Lake levels affect our ecology and economy, with less water reducing the threat of a Herbert Hoover Dike failure. It will create a new outlet south, to reduce the flows to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries, to truly move water in the way Mother Nature intends, and that is from the north through the lake then south to the Everglades. Eventually, the biggest success of the measure will be Everglades restoration.

Representative Francis Rooney, Lake Okeechobee
Wessel and Representative Francis Rooney answer questions after the “Weighing in on the Water” presentation in February on Sanibel. Photos by Gary Mooney.

Q2: What is Southwest Florida’s #1 environmental issue today?

Yesterday’s #1 is today’s #1 will be tomorrow’s #1 – Water! That never goes away in terms of being our main priority.

Southwest Florida has a vibrant population, with Lee County being the fifth fastest growing metropolitan area in the nation, so our ability to provide clean drinking water to our expanding residential base is everything, because if we can’t provide that, then our citizens and environment and economy and Quality of Life either suffer badly or disappear, so water availability and quality is something with which we must actively work. We need to balance this population growth with land and water and wildlife conservation, through parks and preserves and 20/20 Conservation lands and all the rest, to act as sponges to filter our water supply to meet our present and future demands. Lee County is at a tipping point today, where we either initiate steps to cap our population, or continue to preserve enough lands to ensure not only water for our very survival, but for its essential byproducts, like fishing, recreation and wildlife that fuels our tourism industry.

Q3: How do you explain Caloosahatchee water levels from 2016 to 2017?

Last year and this are the poster children of why you need to consider how nature works, and adapt to her rather than trying to strong-arm her, pretending that we know better!

2016 was an El Nino event that in January of that year broke an 80-year record for the most rainfall, with about 14 inches. By last November, however, that turned into an equally record-setting La Nina that has now produced our driest era ever. This is climate change, whether people want to admit it or not, because what climate change brings is extremes, where areas shift rapidly from one to another, like flooding to severe drought. People don’t understand that this is the effect of global warming, as they just don’t get it, and will always tell you it is snowing somewhere!

The extremes from 2016 to 2017 underscore why we need more natural buffers, like marshes around rivers and estuaries, to aid against low flow in the dry years and flooding in wet ones, rather than building seawalls and dikes to artificially control water. We as a society simply do not value water enough, as hard as that is to believe. Water to this century will be what oil was to the last, as it will drive society, wars and corruption, as it becomes more scarce in a rapidly growing global population.

Q4: From where does Southwest Florida receive the bulk of its drinking water?

All of Southwest Florida’s water comes from the sky, through rainwater, and SB10 will allow the State to now accumulate a lot of that water that currently goes straight into the Gulf and is lost to tide. By sending it south, we will store the water that falls from the sky, as that is free water, in a natural filtration system to keep our estuaries clear, provide water to the Everglades and Florida Bay, and have clean drinking water.

Q5: The Unites States Government recently pulled out of the Paris Climate Accords; will that have a big effect on global climate change initiatives?

The US is one of the world’s leading economies, and we use more natural resources than any other nation; as a result, we should be the leader in this, as climate change is no longer up for debate. In our interconnected world, no one, but especially a nation like the United States, can be an isolationist, so yes, pulling out will make a difference. I thought the new President of France made a great case in hoping America will soon return to the table when he said, “Let’s Make The Planet Great Again!” How perfect is that, and I love that, as in many ways only the United States can make that happen!

We can’t be isolationists, because you cannot respect life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness if you cannot breathe or grow crops or have clean drinking water and everything else necessary for our existence. What message does this send out to the countries that have much less than we do, as they develop a reasonable expectation of how to benefit from a better life and society? Too often I hear people say we need to take steps to protect the planet, but honestly that is the wrong way to approach this. No matter what we do to it, the Earth will survive – maybe drastically different than today – but it will survive! It is in fact our ability to live on the planet that is at stake.

It is heartening to already see that individual states and even some cities are going ahead with environmental matters, initiatives and leadership by observing the climate readiness policies from the Paris Accord, as that is a tremendous aspect of the US Constitution. It inverts a lot of power into States’ Rights, so we can do at the state level what we will not do nationally, and if enough states come on board, that becomes a national policy whether the Federal branch approves or not.

Q6: What is the greatest thing about the SCCF?

Fifty years ago, some visionary people saw the need then, the same need we still have today, to preserve and protect our water, our most precious resource, and to research how to do that best, and that remans our mission every single day. Our executive director, Erick Lindblad, has been with us for over 30 years, and he is GREAT and does not receive near enough credit. He starts every one of our meetings by addressing our mission, to make sure we remain relevant, with a great Board that guided us throughout the decades, providing stable leadership for a very long time, and we accomplish so much with such a small staff. It is very humbling to be part of a pretty amazing team!”

 

Gary Mooney