The “Save Our Water 2019” Forum, presented for the 3rd time by the Naples Daily News & News-Press at the Hyatt Regency Coconut Point in Bonita Springs before a sold-out audience of 600 people on Wednesday August 21, already boasted a star-studded lineup of local environmentalists, political leaders and water quality educators, but it was the unadvertised speaker who drew two standing ovations and the loudest applause. The day before the event, the Office of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis announced that the State’s Chief Executive would appear. Governor DeSantis arrived at approximately 11:30 a.m. and made roughly a 10-minute, off-the-cuff address.
“Water quality last year affected a broad cross-section of the people of our State,” began Governor DeSantis, “whether it was with restaurants, hotels, the fishing industry or property values – it was all aspects of life, with different people affected in different way. It is important to be good stewards of the land and water here, because it affects the economic image of our State. What people saw last summer, they might not know that was just Southwest Florida but anywhere in Florida, and asking themselves, ‘what is going on down there?’ so it was more than just this area that was affected, so we had to deal with it head on, without holding back, to swing for the fences as soon as we took office, as in the transition period, we spoke with many people who had a lot of really good ideas.
“Some of our advisors said they would probably need a month before they were ready to roll out the program, but we said, ‘No, No, No – we must do this right away, to show everyone there would be changes with the new administration, to move forward,’ because we could not do it unilaterally and needed the help of the Legislature, so we had to come out early to rally public support, to get more support from the Legislature. We wanted to be ready to go the first day, but we determined it was more important to visit the areas devastated by Hurricane Michael on day one, so we came down here and made the announcement on the second day.
“Another thing we thought really important was to install new leadership at the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD), and we put in a lot of good people there from Southwest Florida, like Chauncey Goss from Sanibel and the new Executive Director, Drew Bartlett, and I think that was the one thing that really changed that for the public, to have more confidence that they will deal with the issue in a really good way, so we did that right off the bat and that was a good thing to do.
“For water policies, we asked the Legislature to fund $2.5 billion over four years, and this was something Florida had not been willing to put up to that point, but my instinct was that this was something that needed to be tackled, as people were scared, especially the average Floridian, with all the stuff that was going on. This was a powerful issue that called for action, as water quality did not affect just one small aspect of the electorate, like the fishing or boating industry, so we had to act because we had a really broad base of support, and it was important that our citizens, when they would see their Legislators in the grocery store or Post Office, would tell them that this was a priority, to get this done.
“We asked the Legislature to appropriate $625 million for Water Resources the first year and ended up getting around $680 million and that was never done before in the State of Florida so that was really big! Just because we were successful this year, though, does not mean it is a lock we will receive that support over the next few years, as this is a large amount of money, so let your Legislators know this is a priority to you so that we hit our target amount of money. You can have all the resources you need, like the Blue-Green Algae Task Force and the State’s first-ever Chief Science Officer, to name a few, but you need the funds to apply to those resources so they are effective, to tackle Red Tide and Blue-Green Algae through institutions like Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) and the Mote Marine Laboratory, so I look forward to those recommendations. At FGCU, this is their bread-&-butter!”
“We recently attended a trade mission to Israel,” Governor DeSantis continued, “to get them involved in these kinds of partnerships and to even bid on some projects to clean water, so we reached halfway across the world on clean water, and that is significant. We are also working constructively with our own federal government to bring more resources to Florida and historically the federal government has not done the things that they agreed to for items like Everglades restoration, but now the Trump Administration agreed to fund $200 million for Everglades restoration. Another project Florida funded was $40 million to raise the Tamiami Trail to help water flow underneath it, but we needed the federal Government’s $60 million and we finally got the positive word that they will fully fund the Tamiami Trail project, so that is a very positive move.
“The federal government also partnered with us through the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to take a new approach in how to manage water levels in Lake Okeechobee, to minimize the damage caused by discharges, as the old approach caused negative effects and algae blooms, so the new approach mitigated the damage as much as possible. This has all kinds of positive ramifications; l want to point out that Standard & Poor’s provided Florida with a Triple A Credit Rating and one of their main reasons was because, in addition to our generally positive fiscal picture and health, one thing they specifically put in their report was that we are tackling our water issues and they view that as a fiscal and economic imperative, so that shows you how central clean water is for the State of Florida.
“Thank you to everyone here for what you have done, and I will just say that in going forward, there is a lot of momentum to address these things. The next Legislative Session begins in January, so when you see your Legislators out in your community or you call their offices, tell them that we are moving in the right direction, as they really take those conversations into account, and ask your neighbors to do the same, as when they hear this, it means more than any initiative from an organized group, so keep talking to them and tell them how much you appreciate their work from the last session and you want to see that continue, to move forward, as most people agree we need this to continue. I am excited to be a part of the clean water movement and I look forward to continue to work with you on this issue and to celebrate some more victories!”
Dead Turtle Impact
Cindy McCurry-Ross, Regional Editor of USA Today Florida Network, and Rob Moher, President & CEO of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, provided opening remarks. “Clean water is a global concern and deserves action and federal funding,” said McCurry-Ross. “I was in Italy last year when they showed heartbreaking photographs of all those sea turtles washing up dead and they asked if that was Florida and I had to say, ‘Yes.’” Moher added, “Pets and children and grandparents are all vulnerable, bringing a sense of urgency to our work. We have seen tremendous progress – just think where we were nine months ago! Governor DeSantis issued an ambitious Executive Order to get the State to take action so there is a silver lining to this crisis – it created a unique alignment of interests, so this is a historic moment for what our future will look like.”
FGCU President Dr. Michael Martin and Dr. Greg Tolley, Executive Director of FGCU’s new “Water School,” described the role education plays. “Good, bad or imperfect,” related Dr. Martin, “there are not many places on the planet where we can learn more from all these issues than Southwest Florida, so this is a unique place and what we learn and how to do it right will affect generations to come, not only here but around the world. The one issue that includes everyone is water!” Dr. Tolley added, “After last year’s Water Summit, I saw the light at the end of the tunnel, and I am still optimistic that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, but we don’t know how long that tunnel is or how long we still have yet to travel. Right now, we should focus on issues for which we can provide solutions, like what is coming into our estuaries and groundwater.”
Single, Not Triple Digits
Prior to Governor DeSantis’ appearance, the main Guest Speaker was to be Noah Valenstein, Secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. “I have very clear memories of what we all witnessed here a year ago at this time. Jacki Liszak, Executive Director of the Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce, took me on a tour and we stopped at a waterside restaurant. We were one of only two tables with customers, and you could see the pain on our waitress’s face when she told us that by this point in her shift, she should have triple figures in tips, and she was still in single digits! The change now is in how the state has now come together to address and handle water quality, and this jam-packed room is an example of that. I think we are in the next major environmental boom, maybe not yet in the entire United States, but certainly here in Florida.”
Save Our Water 2019 featured presentations as well by Chris Pettit, Director of the Office of Agriculture & Consumer Services’ Office of Water Policy; Marisa Carrozzo of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida; and Rae Ann Wessel of the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, along with four panel groups. The Legislative Policy Panel included Florida House of Representative Dane Eagle (R-77), Florida House Representative Robert Rommel (R-106), and Florida State Senator Kathleen Passidomo (R-28), along with Aliki Moncrief, Executive Director of Florida Conservation Voters. The Public Health Panel featured Professor Barry Rosen of FGCU’s Water School, Calusa Waterkeeper John Cassani and Howard Simon, formerly of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
The Water Quality Projects Panel included Lieutenant Colonel Jennifer Reynolds of the USACE, Governing Board Member Charlette Roman and Executive Director Drew Bartlett of the SFWMD and Tom Frick, Director of the Division of Environmental Assessment & Restoration. The Water Summit concluded with the Personal Advocacy Panel with Dr. Serge Thomas of FGCU; Trish Fancher, Executive Director of Keep Lee County Beautiful; John Lai, President & CEO of the Sanibel-Captiva Chamber of Commerce and Captain Daniel Andrews, cofounder of Captains for Clean Water.
“Find your tribe and work together to fix this,” advised Fancher, “rather than blaming each other; find your passion and dig in!” Lai stated, “Education is the key, so if you have the knowledge we need, get involved; if not, join an organization and learn. Find the 90% we all agree on and do not argue over the 10% we do not.”
Captain Andrews concluded, “You all here today are already involved, so don’t preach to the choir! Rather, find ten more people who are not here and get them involved as well, and we will fix our water!”
By Gary Mooney