Water quality can’t be taken for granted. Now, Southwest Floridians are paying attention and standing up, with a slate of recent environmental efforts and wins. Here’s a look at where we’ve been, where we are and where we’re going in the fight to protect the heart of the region.
The red tide disaster in July 2018 is an ecological catastrophe locals remember well. While the news revealed that 4 million pounds of marine life were killed because of red and blue-green algae outbreaks, we recall the white-bellied mangrove snappers washing up on our beaches, the manatees that drifted lifelessly in the Gulf and the smell of stagnant blooms caught in the corners of our canals. As devastating as the harmful algal blooms were from the Lake Okeechobee release, it became a rallying cry to push water quality to the top of Southwest Florida’s docket.
When Governor Ron DeSantis announced an unprecedented $960 million budget for initiatives like Everglades restoration and water quality improvements in November, the celebration was short-lived. In February, legislators introduced Florida Senate Bill 2508, which aimed to weaken the proposed budget and undo decades of clean water progress. The bill would place Lake Okeechobee water releases, which contain harmful algal blooms, on the political back burner and delay funding for the Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir, the heart of the Everglades restoration plan. But Captains for Clean Water, a grassroots organization dedicated to defending the health of our waterways, jumped to action. During a weekend, they assembled representatives of Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation and Everglades Foundation to dissect the legislation and uncover its potentially harmful effects. A couple of days later, they rallied a group of 50 advocates to speak out against the bill in Tallahassee, driving about six hours through the night to address the senate. The next week, Captains and a caravan of 200 clean water activists returned to the Capitol for a sit-in while voting commenced to pass the bill. Their efforts were fruitful: A handful of Captains members stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the governor as he announced his veto of the bill in June, securing Everglades restoration and water quality funding. The fight for clean water lives on.
Taking matters a step further, The Water School at Florida Gulf Coast University merged the environmental schools into one college that focuses on regional issues like water quality. “[After Hurricane Irma] we had the beginning of the fifth longest red tide in Florida history,” says Greg Tolley, director of The Water School. “In the middle of that red tide, we had a huge blue-green algal bloom from Lake Okeechobee and the Caloosahatchee River … so we launched The Water School in March of 2019, showing the state of Florida that the university was really going to be investing in water.” In August, the new department got a home—a $58 million building dedicated to its students, the public and the future of water quality. “Universities do more than educate students,” he says, adding that a primary goal for the school is to attract top-notch water scientists to the region. “We also facilitate change and improvement in our local communities.”
Local water warriors drove up to Tallahassee in the middle of the night to rally against Senate Bill 2508. Here, three of them sound off on the importance of water quality and why activism matters.