Meet a key player in the fight for water quality and conservation in Southwest Florida

Marco Island's Charlette Roman is considered a dynamo in the water conservation space and a hero to those who value the future of the state's ecology.

BY June 1, 2023
Charlette Roman
In her role with the SFWMD and Big Cypress Basin Board, Charlette influences water-related issues in 10 counties, from the Keys to Orlando. (Photo by Anna Nguyen)

Charlette Roman strolls the grounds surrounding her Marco Island home with the eye of a naturalist. She points to the native plants she’s cultivated over 20 years—gumbo limbo, silver buttonwood, cocoplum. Her treasured orchids live throughout the property. Outside, she’s removed most of the Bermuda grass and put in native ground cover, creating a paradise for wild creatures. The game cameras she’s installed show a steady stream of coyotes, foxes, rabbits, snakes and gopher tortoises. “If you create the habitat, the wildlife will come,” she says.

In 2019, Charlette Roman was appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis to serve on the South Florida Water Management District Governing Board, which works on flood control, and water supply and quality from the Keys to Orlando. She’s also chair of the Big Cypress Basin Board, which covers Collier and part of Monroe County. Before that, she spent countless hours volunteering with Friends of Tigertail Beach and the Gulf Coast Orchid Alliance, which she helped create, and was recognized by Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve for putting in more than 1,000 hours with the nonprofit. She’s a key player in local environmental issues. Those who know Charlette’s work call her a dynamo in the water conservation space. She’s a hero to many who value the future of Florida’s ecology.

This morning, she’s dressed casually in a blue cotton T-shirt and khaki shorts. She has a pair of running shoes on her feet and small gold studs in her ears. Her face is free of makeup, and her hair is pulled back in a clip. She’s warm and engaging and lights up when she talks about the environment. Charlette Roman spent 26 years in the U.S. Army, starting as a private and retiring as a full-bird colonel. She found success within the military framework and finished her career in Fort Gordon, GA, as the garrison commander, a role she likens to being a city manager. Throughout her career, she came to appreciate the value of partnerships and collaboration—ideas that serve her well in her current role as an advisor and connector.

Along the side of her house, Charlette stops to show me her vanilla orchid plant. She caught the orchid bug when she moved to Southwest Florida in 2002. “I set as a goal that one day I would bake a cake with my homegrown vanilla beans,” she tells me. “Twenty years later, I’m at that point.” This is the first time that Charlette successfully harvested a batch of beans. Before that, it had been a series of trials—watching for the flowers that only open one day a year, learning to hand-pollinate, picking the beans at the precise moment they turn the right shade of yellow, then alternating between sweating and drying the beans for weeks.

This year, she’ll make the cake. “It might be awful,” she says, with a laugh. But that doesn’t matter to the friends who’ve followed her progress. “A lot of folks want a piece of that cake,” she says. “Especially my colleagues on the governing board.”

It’s easy to draw a link between Charlette’s vanilla bean experiment and her dedication to Florida’s water systems. Both are exercises in tenacity. To improve the environment and local waterways, she shows up, day after day, bringing people together, advocating for the cause and achieving results. Since joining the board, she’s been hitting the road two to three days a week, driving from Marco Island to Okeechobee to West Palm Beach (the district’s reach stretches across 16 counties, and Charlette’s area covers 10 of them). Last week, she was in Naples meeting with the crew for the levee being built as part of the $625 million Picayune Strand Restoration Project to help restore sheet flow to the watershed. The week before that, she was in Martin County visiting the Florida Cattlemen’s Association president about water-related issues while touring his ranch. On any given day, she could be on a boat in Lake Okeechobee with representatives from Clewiston to brainstorm ideas to improve the lake’s health; out with district scientists touring a wildlife refuge and observing bird nesting colonies by helicopter; speaking to a Rotary club about developments in the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Project; or meeting with residents who live along a canal. “I have a lot of early mornings,” Charlette Roman says. “But I love it.”

We meet again on a clear Thursday morning at Naples’ Freedom Park, a successful collaboration between the South Florida Water Management District, the Big Cypress Basin Board, the City of Naples and Collier County. A section of the park has recently been transformed to use the natural wetland on site to filter runoff from Goodlette-Frank Road before it reaches the Gordon River. We stroll through the park’s winding path and she names the various heron species we pass along the way—great blue, little blue, tricolored. “I would love to see more of these types of projects in all potential development,” Charlette says. “It protects the wetland and uses it in a function that it was intended,”  she says, noting that the land cleans the water before it goes into fragile water bodies like the Gordon River and Naples Bay. She speaks with a calm authority and direct assurance that makes anything seem possible. With her, it is.

We stop on the path, and Charlette gazes out over the canal, intentionally crooked so the stormwater can take its time reaching the wetlands. The sun reflects off the water in ripples of light. Charlette stands with her hands on her hips, admiring what she helped create: “See what happens when everybody works together and nobody’s trying to get their name on it?” 

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