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Hundreds gather for Third Annual Conservation Forum

By Staff | Jan 26, 2011

A century of efforts to control Mother Nature and drain water out of southern Florida finally succeeded. More than 1,400 miles of artificial canals, levees, pumps and spillways currently criss-cross the landscape, but has yielded unintended consequences.

Our water is in trouble.

On Tuesday evening, the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation (SCCF) and Everglades Foundation staged an interactive program, “Sugar & Salt: Our Beaches, Estuary and the Everglades Connection,” at the Sanibel Community House.

The Third Annual Conservation Forum, attended by more than 200 concerned residents of the islands and neighboring communities, discussed the status of projects and funding efforts to save the Caloosahatchee and advance Everglades restoration.

“Everglades restoration and the protection of our estuaries are intertwined,” said Bill Riley, a Foundation board member and resident of Captiva. “You cannot have one without the other.”

The program included opening remarks by South Florida Water Management District Governing Board member Charles Dauray, presentations by Thomas Van Lent, Ph.D., Senior Scientist for the Everglades Foundation and Rae Ann Wessel, SCCF Natural Resource Policy Director.

Dauray, who praised Sanibel and Captiva as “national treasures,” reiterated his position that the condition of our estuaries are vitally important to the South Florida Water Management District and that the competition for clean water is only going to increase in the future.

“We’ve taken for granted that water is always going to be there,” he said. “If we don’t take care of our estuaries now, our environment, as well as our economy, is going to shrivel away.”

Van Lent shared a PowerPoint presentation on the Everglades, explaining that much of the troubles we are experiencing today are the result of a hurricane in 1928 that flooded communities south of Lake Okeechobee. Following the disaster, the federal government authorized the construction of a system of canals to move water east, west and south of the lake, discouraging the natural flow.

“It’s pretty clear that we’ve got some big problems here,” said Van Lent. “There is an outstanding diversity of plants and animals here like no other place on earth.”

His presentation included ongoing water restoration efforts in Picayune Strand, a failed residential development encompassing more than 55,000 acres; a proposed 5.5 mile series of bridges along Tamiami Trail aimed at restoring natural water flows south into the Everglades; and a project to clean up the agricultural area south of Lake Okeechobee that has been damaged by 60 years of agricultural pollution.

“I think we’ve turned the corner and are going in the right direction,” said Van Lent. “Our economy depends upon a clean and healthy Everglades.”

Wessel’s presentation included comparison photographs of “clean” and “dirty” water, periods of excess rainfall and drought and the managed flows of water from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee, overseen by the South Florida Water Management District and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It also showed graphics of rising salinity levels in the water, responsible for depleted tape grass and sea grass production throughout the river and estuaries.

In addition, Wessel made a strong push for Numeric Nutrient Criteria, which she suggested is “very important to getting on top of water quality standards.” She also urged passage of the WRDA Bill to construct the CERP C-43 Reservoir for water storage and the Farm Bill.

“Creating additional water storage is what’s going to help us the most,” said Wessel.

Other topics highlighted by Wessel included:

• Applying water conservation for all users

• Assuring public waters will be used for public purposes

• Plans to complete the purchase of U.S. Sugar lands

• Plans to rehydrate Lake Hicpochee

• Standardized inspections of septic tanks

• Monitoring fertilizer runoff

The program was followed by an interactive public participation discussion and question-and-answer session, moderated by Kirk Fordham, CEO of Everglades Foundation. Mick Denham, Vice Mayor of Sanibel and longtime champion of battling the South Florida Water Management District for better management practices, also spoke during the session.

“I’ve been working on these water issues for the past six years, which have been the most frustrating six years of my life,” Denham told the crowd. “We need more people to speak up and let them know that we should be treated fairly.”

Dedicated to the conservation of coastal habitats and aquatic resources on Sanibel and Captiva and in the surrounding watershed through environmental education, SCCF is involved in land acquisition, landscaping for wildlife, marine research, natural resource policy, sea turtle conservation and wildlife habitat management. Community support through membership dues and tax-deductible contributions, in addition to grants and staff-generated revenue, makes this work possible.

Visit www.sccf.org for more details.

The Everglades Foundation is dedicated to protecting and restoring one of the world’s unique natural ecosystems, providing economic, recreational and life-sustaining benefits to the millions of people who depend on its future health. Through the advancement of scientifically sound and achievable solutions, the Foundation seeks to reverse the damage inflicted on the ecosystem and provide policymakers and the public with an honest and credible resource to help guide decision-making on complex restoration issues.

For more information, visit www.evergladesfoundation.org.