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Southwest Florida's water quality driven by policy and politics

Multiple agencies work hand in hand to improve water
Water quality a priority in Southwest Florida
Posted at 9:17 PM, Aug 02, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-03 12:17:38-04

LEE COUNTY, Fla. — Governor Ron Desantis made water quality his top priority, following the disastrous blue green algae and red tide events of 2018. He appointed a new governing board of the South Florida Water Management District, which manages water supply across 16 counties, from Orlando down to the Keys. He also called for the creation of the Blue Green Algae Task Force to address harmful discharges from Lake Okeechobee.

Too much water discharged from Lake Okeechobee can result in toxic algal blooms. SFWMD Chairman Chauncey Goss says, "Our primary function is flood control. But we also need to make sure that we don't hurt the environment, and the economy, and our health."

Goss, along with Dr. Michael Parsons, Director of FGCU's Vester Research Field Station and member of the Blue Green Algae Task Force, agree that it started with a new state leader.

Parsons says, "I think that Governor DeSantis wanted to basically just start with a clean slate. And so, the blue green algae task force was a new task force to keep it together." Goss says, "He said, I don't wanna see that happen again, and I want to do what I can to fix that. So he basically, when he appointed us, that was our charge." Goss adds, "The Governor has asked for a lot of money. $2.5 billion over four years. The legislature has been giving us that money. In 650,000,000 + increments. That's wonderful. That lets us get some of these projects done."

Goss, who is from Sanibel, agrees that the East Coast of Florida gets more attention than Southwest Florida. He says, "I think geography has a lot to do with it. They are much closer to the lake than we are. They feel the impact much more immediately than we do." Parson agrees. He adds, "Part of it is political. There are significant voices on the East Coast. And they seem to be pretty united. We've always had a voice here, but maybe we didn't yell as loudly as the East Coast does. I think that's a bit different now. I think we have a pretty good consolidated team, especially when you bring in all of the chambers of commerce here. They're pretty united on water quality being an issue. But you know, the Coloosahatchee. It can handle more water. But it can't handle a ton of water."

Goss says agencies from the federal level to local leaders have their role in contributing to water quality. He says, "I think the pole in the tent is, and the one thing we really need to work on in the state, and it's hard, is water quality. And that's trying to get the nutrients out of the water. And it's figuring out where they're coming from and it's figuring out how to stop them."

Goss also believes that taxpayers expect the government to get involved. He says, "That's where I think we're looking at really good policies coming out out of legislature. And we are seeing money to work on some of these projects." Parsons adds, "We need to make sure it just doesn't drag out through years and years and years. Because then we risk losing the public's focus. And then, maybe the cynicism would sit in saying, 'Well, nothings really being done.' So, we got to keep the pedal to the metal, if you will, and keep trying to keep moving forward."

Parsons would like to evaluate some of the basic management action plans. He explains, "For example, on paper, they say these actions are reducing nutrients by this much. But, we don't have the fielding, the empirical data to demonstrate an actual, it is doing that. And those should be some things that we should look at." He says, "I think the public pressure and the interest is going to be needed to get the legislature to move some of these ideas forward."