Margaret Mead famously stated, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
For all of us in Southwest Florida, the past few years have certainly amplified the importance of citizens gathering together to shape our future in a better way, especially in regard to our water crisis and the challenges of growth in our region.
Governor Ron DeSantis was elected in 2018, in part riding a wave of strong concern and sense of crisis regarding the health of our coasts from highly polluted water. These events created significant impacts to our marine life, our coastal economies and the very health of our residents. It also sent an undesirable message to the world that Florida’s renowned waterways and beaches were in trouble. Coastal business owners, citizens and the media, fed up with lack of action, mobilized and joined forces with local and regional environmental groups such as the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, Captains for Clean Water, Calusa Waterkeeper and the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation to advocate for meaningful change in policy. Local citizens expressed outrage at the lack of attention to the causes of our water quality crisis. The media’s in-depth coverage helped educate the public, and events like the Save Our Water summit continued the dialogue with all stakeholders in the room.
The best result of this crisis was a mobilized and engaged citizenry. If we hope to truly solve these issues, we must continue to channel a motivated public to demand science and fact-based investments to address the root cause of our environmental issues. The Blue-Green Algae Task Force created by Governor DeSantis has been a strong step in the right direction, already producing its first round of recommendations.
In 2020, we have the opportunity to advance meaningful statewide legislation to address multiple sources of water pollution. Both legislation and rulemaking are critical components to begin reversing the damage caused by agricultural nutrient pollution, inadequate attention to septic systems, wastewater plant discharges and failing sewage infrastructure, and the need to update statewide stormwater standards that have been outdated for decades. The 2019 legislative session failed to produce any meaningful water quality legislation and we have the opportunity and challenge in 2020 to ensure it is not a repeat of 2019. Addressing pollution at the source—in fact, addressing it at all sources—must become the new paradigm for Florida. We are investing in massive water quality and ecosystem restoration efforts while continuing to degrade water resources throughout the state. Relying on taxpayer-funded restoration efforts alone cannot continue to be the sole answer.
Citizens’ voices also will continue to be essential to combat poorly planned and unsustainable towns and villages in eastern Collier County. How and where we develop the land will most certainly impact our water quality and supply, as well as our wildlife and quality of life. Rivergrass, the first of many new proposals targeting eastern Collier, is slated to be heard by Collier County commissioners in early 2020. If approved, Rivergrass could set the stage for all future growth planning for the next 50 years. Citizens have commented extensively in opposition to these poorly planned developments. Elected officials should listen carefully to the overwhelming concerns of its citizens and its own planning commission, with both expressing significant concern over this proposed sprawling development in eastern Collier County.
Margaret Mead was right. Engaged citizens acting together to seek positive outcomes for our community is what will result in change. We need all citizens in Southwest Florida to remain engaged to protect our water, land, wildlife and our future.
Learn more about the Conservancy of Southwest Florida’s work at Conservancy.org.
Rob Moher is president and CEO of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, a not-for-profit environmental protection organization with a 55-year history focused on issues impacting the water, land, wildlife and future of five Florida counties.