SWF Water Conference Urges Unity

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    Why Can’t We Be Friends

    We’ve all been hearing that song by the band “War” now for over 40 years, but rather than being a catchy musical tune, it has become the pathway to success preached by many area water quality leaders at the 26th annual Southwest Florida Water Resources Conference at Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) on Friday, January 13.

    Outgoing FGCU president Dr. Wilson Bradshaw welcomed the 130 advocates, drawing upon the university’s environmental legacy. “FGCU does not do environmental policy for shtick, but it is something we practice every day. We have one of the largest solar fields in the Southeast that provides 85% of the power for three of the largest buildings on campus. FGCU offers major and graduate degrees in Environmental Science and Environmental Engineering, and those vocations are what people are starting to associate with us.”

    Conference co-chair Karen Miller said, “In our 26-year history, our four largest turnouts are the last 4 years, proving the increased public interest in water. We must come together to achieve solutions because water problems are not the fault of any one entity, nor will one alone fix these issues.”

    Over 130 advocates attend the 26th annual Southwest Florida Water Resource Conference at FGCU. Photos by Gary Mooney.

    Threading 45 Needles

    “One main problem is there are about 45 different special interest groups in the Southwest Florida water quality process,” said Woody Wodraska of Wodraska Partners Incorporated. “The only common thing they often worry about is ‘how are you going to take care of me,’ so we end up trying to thread 45 needles with a solution with which everyone agrees. As a result, we created a monster rather than acting in the best interest of Florida, and that should be our guiding principal rather than to maximize the value to all the special interests. Compromise is necessary but often does not exist in this current climate.”

    Daniel DeLisi of DeLisi Incorporated agreed, saying “there are no absolutes and that is why cooperation matters. You get things done when you cooperate and do not when you don’t and it is that simple. Among the groups trying to regulate the Everglades are the Federal Government, Florida Bay, two Indian tribes, agriculture, Lake Okeechobee communities, the millions who live in Southeast Florida, Caloosahatchee River advocates, the millions who live along the Southwest Coast, and the rest of Florida because we need state funding to make this a reality so legislative representatives from the Panhandle and elsewhere must get on board and be OK with this.”

    Consensus building is crucial, Dan explains, “to figure out the issues and what you want to achieve proactively. This region set a policy in 2014 to make the C-43 reservoir construction our top priority, as that was not to begin for another 5 to 10 years, but C-43 work was underway in 2016! This would not occur if we did not speak with one voice.”

    He explains that Southwest Florida missed a prime opportunity in 2015, “in what was to be The Year of Water because water was what everyone in Tallahassee was talking about, but no one was on the same page, so we received one of the lowest Everglades restoration appropriations ever with $56 million, leading to 2016 becoming The Year of Reconciliation. Everyone cooperated and we passed Legacy Florida and received $218 million that was the highest ever for Everglades restoration.” Dan sadly sees ominous signs for 2017 “because again we are not speaking with one voice and that clouds what we need to do to move forward.”

    The Rising Tide

    Rhonda Haag, a former Fort Myers Beach resident, represents the Southeast Regional Compact, formed 12 years ago by Broward, Dade, Monroe, and Palm Beach Counties to combat sea level rise. “We see sea level rise every day and do not care if it is natural or man-made, or if the State believes in it or not; we came together and agreed that the sea level is rising so we must prepare for it, because when the ocean floods our drinking wells and the Keys go underwater, it is too late. By working together, we make strides while passing along our knowledge to the State to help them plan, and that is how we rely on each other. We brought in cities to help coordinate their action plans, with a regional focus on county properties. We stay lean and mean, and do not let politics interfere with the process!”

    Former Lee County Commissioner Ray Judah is no fan of Big Sugar that spent almost one million dollars to defeat him in 2012, after holding the District 3 seat that includes Fort Myers Beach for 24 years, but even he encourages participation with US Sugar to solve the Everglades issues. “I do not encourage restoring the Lake Okeechobee water flow south to drive the sugar industry out of business; in fact the 50,000 acres Amendment 1 of several years back authorized the State to buy from them for a southern reservoir is less than 15% of its 450,000 total acres. They are an employment force and we want to work with them, while protecting our endangered Everglades that are desperate for water, and restoring the severed connection between the lake and the Everglades to bring water to the Biscayne aquifer and Florida Bay.”

    Kenneth McDonald of the US Fish & Wildlife Service agreed with Judah, saying that “land purchase has its limits; we cannot buy the whole state and cannot buy our way out of this problem.”

    Ron Edenfield of RMEC Environmental Engineers stressed the 3 Cs of “Cooperation, Collaboration, and Communication. You cannot get far unless you have that, and often with your enemies! Maybe we need to add a 4th C – Commitment!”

    Keynote speaker Dr. Carol Collier from Drexel University said that while “we need top-down government for certain things, there is a great need to do bottom-up for water and to protect our natural resources. In this troubled political time we cannot wait for top-down action but must do it ourselves from the bottom-up, starting with how to get people to appreciate the water quality of their own backyard, and why improving water in the Midwest improves water in Southwest Florida. When we first put rival groups together, you hear the discord the first year, but by the second they often see the progress, though it is a slow process to build trust.”

    Hang Together or Hang Separately

    Jennifer Hecker represents the Charlotte Harbor National Estuary Program that is one of 28 in the nation, serving 8 Southwest Florida counties and 10 major cities to bring people together to protect and restore water. “Outreach and education are crucial to better manage stormwater while reducing pollution into area waterways. We use local dollars as matching funds to vastly expand our money – we transform every $1 we have into $35 from other sources to increase restoration in our region, with oyster habitat an excellent example, with over 300,000 new oysters taking root in new beds. Partnerships allow us, directly and indirectly, to engage in community surveying and mapping to troubleshoot problems before they reach the crisis level.”

    “You need collaboration in big projects like the Everglades because we already have enough people working against us, so when we are a unifying force we build political support to bring resources home to save our resources at home,” Hecker said. “As a coalition, we go beyond government and traditional partners to garner political capital and funding. Several Florida areas are ultra-successful doing this, while Southwest Florida is often at a disadvantage in getting our share because we don’t have enough consensus and collaboration to grow the pie for projects in this region.”

    “Real leadership comes from visionaries who put their self-interest on the back burner to improve the quality of life for all,” emphasized Kevin Morris of the Peace River Manasota Regional Water Supply Authority. “We need this collaborative spirit to subordinate our self-interest, while engaging in master planning, stakeholder identification, and investing in relationships. It takes 6 to 8 years to tackle a large water quality issue, and it is difficult to find elected officials who see beyond the next election.”

    Keith Laakkonen from the Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve and formerly Fort Myers Beach Environmental Services Coordinator concluded the conference.

    “We need a balancing act: estuaries are important for wildlife, drinking water, fishing, and recreation – people travel from all over to fish and go birding, meaning a healthy estuary is a healthy economy, so local municipalities, non-profits and private partners must work together. Because of our rapid population growth, Southwest Florida developed quickly before anyone understood our water issues, but since we engineered our way into this, we can engineer our way out of it.”

    Perhaps the great American statesman Benjamin Franklin best summed up the state of the Southwest Florida water quality movement over 240 years ago, when at the signing of The Declaration of Independence he said, “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately!”

     

    Gary Mooney