Clewiston Students Speak
The South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) is the oldest and largest of the State of Florida’s five water management districts, overseeing water resources in the 16-county region that stretches from Orlando to the Florida Keys, serving a population of just under 9 million people, along with unique ecosystems like Lake Okeechobee and The Everglades. The SFWMD office is in West Palm Beach, with its Board Meetings historically there, but Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, shortly after taking office in early 2019, replaced all nine members with new people who brought their November Board Meeting to the West Coast for the first time since June 2016, to the Cohen Center at Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU).
The SFWMD meeting actually began with just eight members: Chair Chauncey Goss of Sanibel, along with Vice Chair Scott Wagner and Ron Bergeron Sr., Carlos Martinez, Cheryl Meads, Charlotte Roman, Jay Steinle and Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch. The first order of business was swearing in the newest Board Member, Ben Butler, who manages his family-owned dairy farm, Butler Oaks Farm. Following his swearing-in ceremony, Butler stated, “My family has lived, worked and played all around South Florida for generations. We always pride ourselves on being good stewards of one of Florida’s most precious natural resources: water!”
After Butler’s ceremony, Chair Goss noted, “We are not in West Palm Beach today, but in Southwest Florida for the first time since June 2016, to better access our 16-county area. We are on the beautiful campus of FGCU that is perfectly positioned as a research resource for water. It has an outstanding school of Agriculture, as agriculture was the root of the Southwest Florida economy. It is home to the School of Hospitality & Management, along with Construction, as Tourism and expansion now fuel the area, and will soon house The Water School, so FGCU proves we are all in this together.”
Elected Official Comments
“We are in a unique situation, as we are at the very bottom of the Caloosahatchee River, so whatever is in that water is a big concern to us,” said Sanibel Vice Mayor Mick Denham. “I have been on Sanibel Council for fifteen years and water is now on our Council agenda at every meeting. I am happy to say that recently, we are very encouraged by you and what Governor DeSantis is doing, especially with your emphasis on criteria to measure Best Management Practices, as that can solve a lot of problems, so please keep your continued focus on that.”
Florida Agricultural Best Management Practices are practical, cost-effective actions from agriculture producers to conserve water and reduce nutrients like fertilizers and animal waste from polluting water, but no governmental agency monitors whether they employ these methods or their success.
Fort Myers Beach Council member Bruce Butcher was in attendance and stated, “I appreciate what this new body is doing to clean up our water, however, I am more concerned about pollution sources. We spend hundreds of millions of dollars to clean the water, but I keep asking myself, ‘Why do we have to clean up water after it is dirty; why not solve the problem at the pollution source. I lived near Lake Erie for years and when I was young, I boated with my parents and fell asleep on the Raisin River by the Michigan/Ohio border, and I woke up with a strong headache and wondered why. My parents said, ‘look at the water,’ and it was all smoky-grey with big clumps of pollution from the automobile industry plants. Lake Erie was a dead lake and the Cuyahoga River caught on fire and the nation passed the Clean Water Act that prohibited those pollution dumpings with large fines and jail sentences and low-&-behold, Lake Erie came back to life with greatly improved water and it was that simple! Your priority should not be on cleaning up dirty water but in emphasizing keeping water clean to begin with, in my humble opinion.”
Future Tied to Water Quality
Public Comment followed, with Sanibel resident Robert Brooks explaining, “I am a founding board member of the Florida Economic Council for tourism-based businesses in Southwest Florida, and clean beaches and usable water is the backbone of our businesses, so we support any and all efforts to clean our beaches and water, including funding for research projects. A year ago, Blue-Green Algae and Red Tide devastated our tourism-related industries, and now we know we are the canary in the coal mine. I got on my boat Tuesday and passed by the Sanibel Lighthouse, then Fort Myers Beach and returned north in water unfortunately with Red Tide again, and while I saw a lot of dead fish, I fortunately did not see a lot of dead game fish, so hopefully things are not as bad as last year. I listened to Bruce Butcher and agree the sources of the pollution needs to be the focus, so get on that and get on that fast! Please get down to the nutrient source pollutants because in my opinion that is what is fueling Red Tide.”
Clewiston students Olivia Williams and Mark Falk spoke for their roughly forty fellow Future Farmers of America classmates in attendance, many of whom held, “Slow the Flow” protest signs. “Ninety-five percent of the nutrients that come into Lake Okeechobee are from north of the Lake, so we need to concentrate on the Lake Okeechobee Water Restoration Plan, as this is my future,” implored Williams. “I truly support science-based solutions for the Lake, as I believe future generations have the right to enjoy the Lake.” “My future depends on water quality,” agreed Falk, “not only for fishing and recreational use but also for the income of Clewiston and other surrounding areas. I support the Watershed Plan to not only keep the Lake healthy but reduce the releases to the coasts, to keep the Lake water and the coasts clean.”
Board Member Comments
“So much has happened since we last met,” said Steinle. “We had the C-43 Reservoir groundbreaking and C-44 is on-line, so these are exciting and impactful projects that are happening now, with more on the horizon.” “C-43 and C-44 are amazing,” echoed Thurlow-Lippisch. “The amount of water that goes into these things is unbelievable and the size of these reservoirs is mind-boggling – you cannot see the sides from one end to the other. We are building projects that are bigger than the pyramids – we are living in an incredible time!”
Meads addressed the Clewiston students: “I appreciate the power of the young people here; you are fantastic and overwhelm me emotionally. You are almost old enough to vote and your vote matters so find politicians that support you and vote for and support them and don’t give up. You see what happens when the wrong people are in control, as it takes bright strong leaders to take you where you want to go.” Wagner added, “All of you students are a constant reaffirmation that everything we are doing matters, because what matters to you matters to us. This is not the time to pat ourselves on the back but to get moving faster.”
Martinez concurred, offering, “You young people have incredible power, so stay engaged and use that power to do good! When Governor DeSantis first introduced us nine months ago, my priority was to best represent Dade County, but now my Number One priority is to stop the harmful discharges to the East and West Coasts, to be steadfast that it never happens again.”
Roman credited Governor DeSantis for their success to date. “Nine months ago, we hit the ground running, using the Governor’s Executive Order as the road map.” Bergeron, on the other hand, thanked “the local elected officials and the stakeholders here today, as your input is so important. We represent 8.7 million people in a project that will save one of the natural wonders on the entire planet, in the largest restoration job in the history of the world, with ties to jobs, the environment, economy and quality of life. As we move forward with Everglades restoration, it can no longer be all about ‘Me’ but ‘We!’ If we can fly a rocketship to the moon, we can save the water on our planet – Long Live The Everglades!”
Caloosahatchee Projects Update
Providing an update on Caloosahatchee Estuary Projects, Jennifer Leeds of the SFWMD Staff gave the Board project overviews to help clean and test the water in the Caloosahatchee River, including the recent groundbreaking for the C-43 Reservoir in Hendry County to hold and clean 178,000 acre-feet of water for eventual release down the Caloosahatchee, additional storage in Lake Hicpochee, and nitrogen testing options. The SFWMD will host public meetings beginning in January to consider up to twenty-five different water treatment technologies for C-43, with the Board making the final determination next Fall.