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Chamber hears about water quality, sea level rise at meeting

By CHAMBER OF COMMERCE - | Nov 24, 2020

PHOTO PROVIDED SCCF Environmental Policy Director James Evans shows a city of Sanibel photo of recent water quality conditions at the Sanibel Lighthouse.

The good news, as far as the current water quality situation stands, is that red tide status is rated at “not present to background levels,” and the shorter days and cooler water temperatures mean a lowered potential for algae blooms in Lake Okeechobee and local waters.

Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation Environmental Policy Director James Evans reported the news at the Sanibel & Captiva Islands Chamber of Commerce’s virtual business meeting on Nov. 18. It balanced earlier not-so-good news he delivered about historic high-water levels in Lake O and long-term flows into our estuary.

“Currently the lake is at 16.39 feet high; 15 to 12 feet is ideal for the ecology of the estuary,” he said. “The harmful flows for 67 days have a real impact from a salinity standpoint.”

“It’s not just nutrients but also salinity that have an impact on organisms that rely on our estuary,” Evans further explained in speaking about the conundrum of seasonal too-much and too-little flow from the Caloosahatchee River.

Evans joined SCCF Chief Executive Officer Ryan Orgera in addressing the chamber about the breadth of their nonprofit’s work and how it impacts the islands’ economic as well as environmental health. Orgera talked about SCCF’s sea turtle nesting program, which broke records this past season, but also about his team’s crucial work developing science for the impact of the illegal land turtle trade, which hits home on Sanibel and is decimating populations across the state.

He also touched upon oyster restoration projects and an upcoming expansion of SCCF’s RECON network, which informs policymaking for water quality across the country.

Both Evans and Orgera cautioned local business owners to choose scientific proof that climate change and sea level rise are facts, facts that could threaten the future of island livelihood.

“I just ask that we all agree to start ignoring the political debate on this and just accept that the longer we do nothing the more vulnerable, and quite frankly, the worse business managers we are over time,” Orgera said.

“We need to do things to change the course,” Evans, referencing the Southwest Florida Regional Resiliency Compact spearheaded by Florida Gulf Coast University — a partnership that can strengthen local voice and help attain grants — said. “It’s really an economic issue, the science stands clear that it’s occurring. Our insurance rates will go up whether or not we acknowledge climate change.”

Evans thanked the chamber and members who have responded to recent SCCF calls to action, including wetland permitting, aquaculture pilot testing and, most recently, Sanibel Passage Wetland development near the Sanibel Causeway. He urged members to petition the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for a hearing on the development. The two speakers also thanked the chamber for getting the community involved in legislative support of water quality.

“We are looking forward to a great first quarter,” chamber President John Lai said. “Our business community has made the decision to make it our mission to support water quality. Thanks for what you do to ensure our quality of life. You are absolutely 100 percent not just a member, but a partner.”

Lai also spoke to keeping the islands safe, as season unfolds, by adhering to the chamber’s SanCap Safe program and the city’s mask mandate.

“We believe that’s a big component to our success in past months,” he said. “This season has us excited, but I can’t say enough what we have to do to remain safe.”

SCCF’s environmental policy priorities include protection and restoration of important habitats, growth, and land management issues, fish and wildlife conservation, and restoration of inland and coastal water resources. Orgera took SCCF’s helm in 2019, following work to end illegal fishing and advocate for shark conservation.

Evans, the former director of Sanibel’s Natural Resources since 2012, joined the SCCF team in September to interpret science to create, inform, and advance environmental policy in Southwest Florida. He carries forth the policy work established over the past 14 years by SCCF’s legendary founding natural resources policy director, Rae Ann Wessel, who retired in May.