The Water School, FGCU Home to New Program


“This is exactly the right time for Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) to debut ‘The Water School,’ but unfortunately for all the wrong reasons,” reflected Dr. S. Gregory Tolley, FGCU Professor of Marine Science who is now The Water School’s new Executive Director as well as being with the Coastal Watershed Institute. “Last year’s historic Blue-Green Algae and Red Tide blooms that produced such a devastating economic loss for Southwest Florida made everyone realize just how important water is to every aspect of our lives, including health, so everybody is thrilled that we are on the forefront of water quality education.”

Dr. Tolley has the distinction of being one of FGCU’s founding professors from 1997. “I am originally from Huntington, West Virginia, and received my undergraduate degree from Marshall University. I then earned my Ph.D. from the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg in Marine Science, and joined the faculty there after graduation. Shortly after that, the State of Florida announced it would start a brand new university in Fort Myers that became FGCU and that sounded like a nice challenge! I already had experience in this region, as I did a lot of research around the 10,000 Islands and the next thing you knew, I was one of the founding faculty members. I did not intend to stay this long, but FGCU grew on me, I continue to enjoy the challenges, and the faculty and staff are the greatest, so now it is over 20 years later, and here I still am!”

In Spring 2020, FGCU will break ground on the new home for “The Water School,” and once that is complete in 2021, the 116,000-square-foot, four-story building will be the largest on campus. “It will be roughly 50% laboratory space,” explained Dr. Tolley, “with offices and several multipurpose classrooms, with a large and welcoming atrium to encourage community usage. The building however will not be for the exclusive use of ‘The Water School,’ though we will be far-and-away its largest tenant. Total cost will be roughly $55 million, with the State committing nearly $46 million and FGCU the rest.”

When reflecting upon the planned new space, Dr. Tolley recalled FGCU’s beginnings: “Our first library was in a trailer; our first cafeteria was in a trailer, if that is what you can call a few coffee pots and vending machines; and my first office was in a trailer, but those things never really bothered me because I was born in a trailer! When we first opened our doors, we had less than 2,500 students and now there are over 15,000; watching FGCU grow has been a pretty amazing and fun ride!”

World Water Day

FGCU debuted “The Water School” on March 22 that marked “World Water Day.” While this may seem to coordinate with last summer’s devastating impacts, FGCU had the concept on its drawing board well before then. “Water has always been a focal point for FGCU, ever since our first day,” explained Dr. Tolley. “After all, this region is surrounded by water on three sides, with the Gulf of Mexico to the west, Florida Bay and the Everglades to the south, and Lake Okeechobee to the east, along with the Caloosahatchee River, leading us to form the Coastal Watershed Institute by 2004.”

Dr. Tolley said that he believes that “many folks in the general public are just now realizing that every drop of rain that hits a tree will eventually work its way into our watershed and into the Gulf, and it will pick up all kinds of nutrients and pollutants every step of the way, through our interconnected system, as water influences almost every aspect of our lives, from health to recreation to the environment to our economy. ‘The Water School’ will address all these issues, and that is why we began to focus on the concept many years ago, way before last year’s adverse headlines.”

“The Water School” just added a new faculty member for Environmental Sustainability, who has extensive experience in the private, business and academic sectors. “We also just hired a Blue-Green Algae specialist,” Dr. Tolley stated, “and next year will add a Climate Administration and Coastal Resiliency expert to examine and restore wetlands in conjunction with local communities, to understand the costs of rising sea levels. Another new faculty member next year will be an Environmental Economist to study the full impacts of Harmful Algae Blooms and water management issues along with cost benefit analysis, to help local governments realize the costs not only of Solutions A, B and C but the price if we do not do anything, to put that all into perspective, as you must know the costs in order to proceed, so that is very exciting for us.”

Currently, there are roughly 500 students in the program, with most in the two undergraduate majors and 50 to 60 at the Graduate level. “We employ professional internships,” Dr. Tolley related, “to hook up our students with area businesses, including performing environmental assessments for which they receive school credits as well as professional experience, so that is a two-way street and a great program.”

“The Water School” will work with other FGCU academic departments, Dr. Tolley offered, “like the Center for Agricultural Business, to link the benefits of agriculture with water, as well as with the Department of Engineering, to better deal with and find solutions for water issues. People complain about the manmade engineering that results in a lot of our water problems, but the United States Army Corps of Engineers only did what they were trained to do by pouring concrete, so we will concentrate on Environmental Engineering for greener solutions in a step-by-step progression.”

What’s In A Name

“The actual name, ‘The Water School,’ came to the game late,” exclaimed Dr. Tolley. “We explored several other options until we finally said, ‘Stop! This is simple, direct, easy to remember, says it all and captures exactly what we want to accomplish!’ The building, however, will not just be known as ‘The Water School,’ as it will have naming rights for a public/private partnership. We do not worry about any conflicts of interest, however, as academically, we have such strict peer reviews from colleagues from all across the nation and world before we release any information, that this will guarantee our integrity, to benefit society and be a part of the solution.”

The Water School, FGCU New ProgramAs “The Water School’s” initial Executive Director, “I am literally writing my job description while I do it!” smiled Dr. Tolley. “A big part of it is in building a strong connection with our business and environmental communities, while working closely with our local, countywide and municipal governments. We just established a partnership with the Village of Estero a few weeks ago, where our faculty and students will help them to manage a variety of issues, like in how to adapt to Climate Change. We are working with The Conservancy as well as partnering with the Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium on ways to research and better manage Red Tide. For ‘The Water School’ to be successful, we need to be a resource for our entire community; as I always tell people, my #1 job is to our community of students, and my #2 job is to our greater community, as we live here too as residents, so your quality of life is our quality of life.”

Toward this end, “our students need the necessary skill sets to address these issues for the benefit of the average person,” Dr. Tolley said, “as this is our home too that we all must take care of. We take water issues out into the community and serve as a much-needed resource to our local news media outlets, so our citizens have the best possible science and facts for their lives, families and businesses, because when other groups talk about water, they do so in a ‘fuzzy’ way, so people need to depend on us to be clear, so they can make their best possible decisions based on clarity and correct information. In doing this, we must avoid making political statements or taking political stands. Our students are part of the fabric of Southwest Florida, so by getting them out into the community, we hope they will remain here professionally, to be a part of our future.”

1,000 People A Day

“What many people are just learning about Blue-Green Algae is that it does not just affect us here in Southwest Florida but all over the nation and world,” Dr. Tolley reasoned. “This is a global problem caused by too many of us, on a landscape too small for us, with an infrastructure not built to handle it, and climate change is making all these problems worse, especially when you consider sea level rise. Our local situation is a classic case of what happens when you try to manage too many things through one system at the same time, like freshwater releases, maritime navigation, recreation, flood control, public health, and the local economy and environment, while having too many people living and working in a watershed region than it can historically handle – you end up with something that cannot operate all these disparate functions correctly. You also lose your historical perceptive when you add 1,000 new Floridians to the state each day – there are many Southwest Floridians who have no idea that the only reason Lake Okeechobee and the Caloosahatchee River are linked is due to manmade engineering.”

He hopes that citizens remember “At the end of the day, government works for us and we must keep them accountable for our environmental condition, to ensure they stay engaged on water issues and not move on to something else. It is so encouraging that the new Florida Governor, Ron DeSantis, made clean water such an immediate focus of his administration, and that our local city councils and county commissioners are all concentrating on it. My big concern, however, is that if we do not have a major bloom this year, they will all move on to the next thing, as it will take years to fix our current water situation, especially as we learn more about the threats to our health from Blue-Green Algae and Red Tide, even from something as simple as jumping into the water. Fortunately, US Representative Francis Rooney is on-board with water quality, and our regional State representatives are united in their support.”

Water is in the DNA of Southwest Florida, Dr. Tolley believes, “and it is in the DNA of FGCU since its earliest days. When prospective students and their parents tour our campus, our utilization of alternative energy concepts really impresses them! We do not have a lot of fancy landscaping as that takes fertilizers that harms the environment, and as a result, our students love our campus even more, because it is so natural. All of this says that we are an environmental university without controversy, making FGCU the ideal home for ‘The Water School,’ with the result that the Southwest Florida community takes great pride in us. That is why we are already one of the nation’s leading environmental study universities and will continue to rapidly climb that list. An exciting development is that the FGCU Foundation recently awarded ‘The Water School’s’ first two scholarships.”

Dr, Tolley has trouble containing his excitement over “The Water School” and the partnerships it will create, “not only in the academic world but in the business and professional communities, to build upon what we have been creating now for over 20 years. We are grateful to the State of Florida and to our own university for allowing us to grow and develop, and believe we will be a great deal of help with the ongoing water issues, not only in our own backyard but all over the Earth. Together, I am confident we will overcome these challenges, so this is a great time to be in Southwest Florida and at FGCU!”


By Gary Mooney