PURRE CLOSING: A Win and Loss in the War on Water Quality
Though it was widely known on Sanibel that the day was drawing near, announcement of the closing of offices pertaining to a water quality coalition known as PURRE (People United to Restore Our Rivers and Estuaries) became official on December 31, 2011.
In a statement released from the foundation, Chairman Michael J. Valiquette explained, “Our board members agree that PURRE has accomplished what it set out to do. Our goals were to educate, create awareness, and help people understand the need to improve water quality in this area, and we have done that. There are many other good organizations that will continue this work, including the City of Sanibel, the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, the Sanibel Sea School, and START (Solutions to Avoid Red Tide), to name a few. PURRE has been honored to work with these and other groups and individuals over the years.”
Lee County Commissioner Ray Judah is crediting the Valiquettes as the critical “catalysts” for bringing people together to more fully understand and fight against factors that pose dire environmental and economical consequences, all stemming from destructive man made processes that contribute to the formation of algae blooms (red tide) in area waters. “It was Mike and Maureen who first helped to raise awareness of the issues involved,” says Judah. He goes on to suggest certain victory, in terms of the couple’s galvanizing of local forces to confront problems, but also “a tremendous loss” because, as Judah notes, “We’re still in the midst of the battle, and we need troops in the trenches.”
He questions “where would be be” if not for the efforts of organizations like PURRE.
To more fully understand the significance of this organization, one need only consider an event that occurred some nine years ago. Michael Valiquette and his wife awoke one morning and looked out the window of their home with views of area waterways, and were horrified by what they saw – thousands upon thousands of dead fish washing ashore. The couple struggled to determine what was happening, but no one had any answers
According to Mike Valiquette, it seemed there was also a real lack of resolve to find out. “My wife and I had to embarrass people to get involved at a time when nobody seemed to give a damn,” he says.
In the lack of “getting someone to step up,” the Valiquettes stepped-in by organizing the first of community forums on Sanibel. Commissioner Judah attended that night and recalls it as “electrifying.”
“People were angry… they were in a state of despair as to how our waterways and marine life could have been so compromised,” says Judah.
Upon leaving that meeting, Judah says he felt both “a sense of hope and inspiration” in seeing so many people come together with a purpose to understand and make changes. “So often, the environmental conscious of Lee County comes from the community of Sanibel,” says Judah.
In going on to form PURRE, the Valiquettes helped foster new understanding about discharges from Lake Okechobee that flow down the Caloosahatchee River into the Gulf, carrying toxic tides teaming with phosphorous and nitrogen-laced remnants of fertilizers and chemicals used by agricultural industries.
In the years that have followed, there has not only been increased understanding of the issues involved, but greater involvement of organizations and local leaders who now know these processes threaten not only to decimate Florida’s environmental sanctity, but overall economic sustainability.
In recognizing the work of PURRE and contributions of Michael and Maureen Valiquette, Judah says, “We all owe them a debt of gratitude.”
He further asserts that the couple will be recognized for their contributions to the region, and says the only reason that has yet to happen is because the water quality battle is still too pressing.
“The challenges have become even more daunting,” says Judah.
While he recognizes efforts to mitigate the problems, and water restoration initiatives put in place by former Governor Charlie Crist, Judah says these plans “have been singlehandedly brought to a halt… by a Governor and State Legislature that doesn’t seem to have an understanding of the importance of water quality.”
He says Governor Rick Scott, as well as legislators, have caved to corporate influence. “They are driven by special interest,” says Judah, who again, indicates that it will take grassroots organizations such as what PURRE represented to help overturn political resolve to better protect the waterways which are matters of life, or death, for Florida’s future.
To be sure, Valiquette isn’t leaving the scene at all. A general contractor by trade, who never planned on becoming an activist, Valiquette says he will continue to hold meeting and discussions with state and local leaders, and work with others to bring about needed changes.
As Chairman of PURRE, Valiquette has had private meetings with three successive commanders of the Army Corps of Engineers, two Florida governors, innumerable state and federal senators and congressmen, as well as many county and local government officials. He says those encounters will continue.
For now, remaining funds in PURRE’s account (after closing and corporate dissolution expenses are deducted) will be divided among the Sanibel chapter of Solutions to Avoid Red Tide (START) as well as the Sanibel Sea School to be used for scholarships for children of families unable to afford for their child’s attendance in the program. “The education of children, our future leaders, is extremely important,” says Valiquette.
He adds, “We could not have accomplished a thing without the support of the community, and I think Sanibel should be proud that its citizens cared enough to learn about a complicated environmental problem and then took steps to turn it around. That’s the Sanibel spirit.”
Valiquette offers special thanks to the following for providing support to PURRE as well as leadership to address water quality issues:
Vice-Mayor Mick Denham
RLR Investments LLC
Royal Shell Companies
Roby Roberts and Don DeLuca
The Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation
JN “Ding” Darling Wildlife Refuge
Daniel Wexler, former PURRE Public Policy Director
Chuck Dworkin, Esquire
B.C. White, CPA
Thomas Louwers, MST