Bonita Springs Hosts Forum
The City of Bonita Springs hosted “Waterways & Water Quality” at its City Hall on Wednesday evening, October 16, before a packed room of roughly 125 people, including approximately a dozen elected officials, including Fort Myers Beach Vice Mayor Ray Murphy and Council member Bruce Butcher and District 3 Lee County Commissioner Raymond Sandelli.
Bonita Springs Mayor Peter Simmons moderated the expert panel of Chauncey Goss, Board Chair of the South Florida Water Management District; Dr. Michael Parsons from the Florida Gulf Coast University Water School who is Director of the Vester Marine & Environmental Science Research Field Station and a member of Governor Ron DeSantis’ Blue-Green Algae Task Force; and Sanibel Mayor Kevin Ruane, the President of the Florida League of Mayors. Following the panel discussion, the three took part in a question-and-answer session.
“When I think about our water one year ago, compared to this year, it makes me think of a country song – ‘Thank God, Thank the Government, Thank the Governor!’ Thank God for the lack of rain this year. Thank the Government because the stars are all starting to align. Thank Governor DeSantis, who campaigned on Water Quality and this is very unusual for a Republican, and he governs on Water Quality and this is very unusual for a Republican, and he kept his campaign promise, and that is very unusual for any elected official! It is up to each of us to keep up the pressure on our Florida and Federal Government officials, so everybody keeps their focus on water.”
Goss said he believes that a major reason for this summer’s cleaner water is the “United States Army Corps of Engineers’ flexibility – I call this logic – to send water from Lake Okeechobee down the Caloosahatchee River in the dry season when we need it, while creating more storage for the wet season, so they don’t release it when we don’t, and a big part of that change in philosophy are packed rooms of citizens like tonight. We have momentum and that is another reason why Governor DeSantis announced earlier today he will accept the recommendations from Dr. Parsons and the Blue-Green Algae Task Force, to push the Florida Legislature to codify them into law, and that is fantastic, as this is leadership we have not seen for some time.”
He explained that the South Florida Water Management District “stretches from Orlando to the Keys, covering 16 counties with 1,461 employees, managed by 8 Board Members, as we currently have one opening. We serve at the pleasure of the Governor, without compensation, and he has given us our marching orders, with no ambiguity, so we all move in the same direction. We work closely with the Army Corps, though they don’t have the same sense of urgency we do, so stay on your Federal representatives, to give them that same sense of urgency that we feel.”
Dr. Michael Parsons
“The press release from Governor DeSantis is really good news, as we put a lot of energy into the Blue-Green Algae Task Force, including learning what the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and Florida Departments of Health and Agriculture can and cannot do, as they have a lot of restrictions by law. We were often frustrated and would ask, ‘Why do you do that?’ and they would tell us because the law does not allow us to do anything else. This was one of the advantages of the Blue-Green Algae Task Force – being academics, we could look at the laws and restrictions from the outside, with a fresh perspective.”
One initiative the Blue-Green Algae Task Force focused on was Best Management Practices through the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, as a method for farmers and ranchers to lower nutrient levels in water. “These provide guidelines for when and how much fertilizer to apply, and they basically agree to do this as the best way to achieve nutrient reduction, like 30% less phosphorous, but there was no monitoring to learn whether or not these Best Management Practices achieved the goals, or if we need to do it another way, so we learned that while they looked good on paper, we needed measurable guidelines to get a better handle on the actual numbers. Our job on the Task Force is not over, but just beginning, to assess the effectiveness on nutrient reduction through real numbers.”
Dr. Parsons stated that he is a Board Member for the Greater Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce “and we were Ground Zero last year, as poor water quality affected everyone and spurred many people into finally taking action. The situation became so bad last year that unfortunately we all learned that water quality was built on a house of cards, with the system poorly managed, and we reacted with an uproar, and that is why action finally happened.”
Mayor Kevin Ruane
“As President of the Florida League of Mayors, we have 412 mayors in Florida, with a 51-person Board, and that large Board unanimously adopted an initiative for water quality and quantity. Simply put, quantity is about projects and quality about the water in our own backyard! We have water quantity projects through 2030, but water quality is something we can control through our own actions, so that we can challenge other cities to do it as well, meaning we must walk the walk to talk the talk!”
He explained, “On Sanibel, we use only natural fertilizers and landscapers must pass a test to work on our island, and we have strict code enforcement to ensure that they remain in compliance. We are almost 100% sewered, with our last 38 properties becoming connected to the system, so these are just a few examples. Governor DeSantis put in the budget $50 million for septic tank conversion, and I told him that was not enough, but the State received very few applications, so Sanibel was able to receive $500,000 for our final 38 connections.”
Mayor Ruane recalled, “Last year on Sanibel, we removed 850 thousand pounds of dead fish from our beaches and it was absolutely horrible! ‘The Weather Channel’ interviewed me on a weekly basis and that is not the type of national publicity that we want. When we speak to our State and Federal leaders in Tallahassee and Washington, DC, we successfully make the case that the 16 counties affected by Lake Okeechobee account for $1.3 trillion in real estate value and that is 57% of the entire State, and tourism in these counties is another $700 billion, so that is $2 trillion total. We need $16 to $18 billion to fix water here and 10% of $2 trillion is $20 billion and bad water can easily cause us to lose 10% of that value, so that is what makes us a great investment.”
Goss concluded, “Most people moved here because it is gorgeous! If we try to regulate everyone into clean water, many will fight it, but if we educate them, I think most people will cooperate, once they understand that since we are all part of the problem, we can all be part of the solution!”