We are in the midst of a water quality crisis in south Florida, one that has been more than a century in the making. Considering how important this issue is to our community, I am grateful to TOTI Media for the opportunity to voice my concerns and stress how important an issue this is to me—and top government officials.
Our communities have all played a role in transforming our state’s once diverse landscape of upland forests, wetland marshes, sloughs, and meandering rivers into a ditched and drained system ripe for agriculture and urban development. The water quality issues impacting our communities today are the result of long-term policy decisions― prioritizing urban and agricultural development over the protection of natural resources. Our communities have the power to change the current situation, but it will take all of us working together to achieve this lofty goal.
As president-elect of the Florida League of Mayors, I will continue working closely with mayors throughout the state toward that goal. Therefore I commend our local communities for coming together during these trying times with one voice to confront our water issues. The mayors of Lee County, working in partnership with Lee County and the State of Florida, successfully secured funding for several important projects including red tide cleanup—removing hundreds of tons of dead sea life from our beaches and waterways, blue-green algae removal and research, and installation of six additional flow monitoring stations within the Caloosahatchee River. These achievements are a step in the right direction, but more must be done. There is no question that we need to do additional work in our own backyards to improve water quality.
However, our issues within the Caloosahatchee River (and the St. Lucie River on Florida’s east coast) are much more complex than those presented in other regions of the state. Our issues stem from large-scale land use changes in central and south Florida that began in the late 1800s—with the first canal dug connecting Lake Okeechobee to the Caloosahatchee—and continues today with unbalanced water management policies that deliver too much water to our estuary during the wet season and not enough during the dry season.
Algae blooms, fish kills, and harmful bacteria levels along our beaches are just symptoms of a larger problem stemming from decades of water management decisions, which favor special interests over public interests. Florida is on the verge of killing its golden goose. Tourism is our state’s No. 1 economic driver, generating $11.6 billion in state and local tax revenue, employing more than 1.4 million Floridians, and generating more than $111.7 billion in direct economic impact (Visit Florida 2016). Much of Florida’s tourism appeal is attributed to its more than 700 miles of white sandy beaches, azure waters, crystal-clear springs, and world-class fisheries. Current water management and water quality policies threaten the long-term viability of tourism in our state. To avert a future economic disaster, we must get serious about protecting and improving water quality. Water management policies must be overhauled to recognize the economic benefits of tourism.
I applaud the Florida League of Mayors for making our water resource issues a top legislative priority. I look forward to working with our local, state, and federal elected leaders to implement policies and projects that will solve our issues once and for all. The time for talk is over, the time for action is now! Kevin Ruane is mayor of the City of Sanibel, president-elect of the Florida League of Mayors, and a local business owner. He has served as the mayor of the City of Sanibel since 2010 and has been a member of Sanibel City Council since 2007. He was the recipient of the prestigious Everglades Coalition James D. Webb public service award in 2016 and in 2017 was awarded the Florida League of Cities Home Rule Hero award for his advocacy efforts on water quality and home rule.