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Water on the mind in first Civic meeting

By Staff | Nov 13, 2013

John Cassani, Chair of the Southwest Florida Watershed Council, addresses the GPICA. ED FRANKS

The Greater Pine Island Civic Association held its first meeting of the season last Tuesday night. The topic of discussion was the deteriorating condition of the waters surrounding Pine Island, Little Pine Island and Matlacha.

In the announcement of the meeting, GPICA Vice President Kathy Malone said, “The Greater Pine Island Civic Association represents issues affecting Pine Island, Little Pine Island and Matlacha. Three islands that are surrounded by water. The value of our homes, the success of our businesses, our fishing and tourism industries, our quality of life and health depends on the quality of the waters that surround us.”

That was the purpose of the meeting – to educate islanders and express concerns about water quality loudly and together with one vote … That is why the GPICA will highlight water issues this season.

Roger Wood, director of the GPICA, opened the meeting with the pledge of allegiance.

“In our by-laws, it says part of the GPICA is to promote and preserve the unique character of our rural and agricultural island community,” Wood said. “Our island is surrounded by navigable waters – people sail, kayak and fish in those waters. That water is under attack and degrading very badly.”

About 2530 people sat quietly as Wood expressed his concerns about the water quality issues affecting Pine Island, Little Pine Island and Matlacha.

“Personally, I’ve been out on the water and in the last month I’ve seen the terrible conditions out there,” Wood said. “Three weeks ago I went out kayaking off Tropic Point and there was a frothy foam about six inches thick on the beach. I had a friend that went out fishing on Wednesday a few weeks ago and he got a finger stick. He rinsed his hand off and on Friday they removed his thumb. There are problems with the waters surrounding us and tonight’s speaker will talk about them.”

The featured speaker was John Cassani, chair of the Southwest Florida Watershed Council. The Watershed Council is a grassroots, multi-county coalition of individuals, organizations, agencies and businesses that have come together to address the issues affecting the Caloosahatchee River and Big Cypress watersheds.

“I grew up in suburban Detroit in the late ’60s and early ’70s,” Cassani said. “And while going away to college for a couple of years and returning to Detroit, I’ve seen what urban sprawl can do. So, tonight I’m going to talk about growth and what it can do to water quality issues.

“I’m talking about the paradox of growth,” he continued. “Growth is something local government wants. But the paradox of growth is it changes the demographics of a community, sometimes changes the quality of life, and affects people in a lot of ways. Here in Southwest Florida big growth occurred in the 1980s and 1990s.

“So when someone asks, ‘Why do we have algae problems?'” Cassani said. “It’s because central Cape is almost completely built out.

“Water is one of the primary drivers of our economy here Southwest Florida,” Cassani said. “People move here to live on the water or be around the water, and these resources are very important to many, many people. We have something like $2.6 billion annually in tourism and it’s the waters that draw people here – recreational and commercial fishing, boating, sailing and the beaches.”

He went on to say, “Water quality in Southwest Florida has deteriorated to a point where even those who would lobby for less regulated growth have changed their positions. Water quality has gotten so bad in some areas that they are lobbying for stricter water quality regulations.

“And lately the tourism groups are getting involved. Just this summer the Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce conducted a survey. They reported that 90 percent of the hotels surveyed said they had cancellations because of the water quality issue. And of those, 70 percent said they would not come back. So these problems are affecting us economically and the real impact is yet to come.”

Among the solutions suggested by Cassani were: Improving the storm water management system with 1. Meaningful regulations for new development; 2. Creating a storm water utility for unincorporated Lee County; 3. Better source controls for non-point nutrient pollution; 4. Innovative market based solutions (e.g. water quality trading credits, TDR type land planning); 5. Community plans that address the above; and, 6. Policy reform.

“One of the big problems we’re having is trying to hold the line, and when I say ‘we,’ I mean the public interest. Much of Florida water law, ordinances and statutes have a degree of interpretation associated with their implementation, so what that means is, if there isn’t the political will to implement that regulation, that statute, that ordinance, it’s probably not going to happen,” Cassani said. “We see that with the Caloosahatchee minimum flow rule it’s sitting on a dusty shelf. If there isn’t the political will with the electorate, it just isn’t going to happen. We need good groups like you to contact your representatives, to go to meetings and public hearings. I know this is technical stuff but sometimes it just comes down to filling the room if anything is going to change and like Kathy said, you have to stay informed.”

Kathy Malone wrapped up the meeting.

“It’s bad, it’s getting worse, we have the wrong people in office and we have the wrong people running for office, she said. “But then again, it’s all up to us to find the right people and encourage them to run for office. And then is becomes our job to get them elected.”