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The Problems And Opportunities Of Clean Waterways

By Dave Cocchiarella

Before the era of audio animatronics, character breakfasts and rollercoasters. Florida’s first tourist attractions were our freshwater springs.

Whether real-life mermaids at Weeki Wachee, waterskiing elephants at De Leon Springs or the first glass-bottom boats gliding over the hydrogeological wonder of Wakulla Springs back in the roaring 1920’s, what was to ultimately become the state’s most effective economic driver has always depended on the clarity of the water.

In Florida, water has literally given us ground to stand on. Without the periodic inundations of the ocean over great spans of geologic time, there would be no Florida Platform: a thick slab of sedimentary rock built on the backs of dead marine organisms that is the unique geologic foundation of our state.

Miles deep and full of fresh water, this platform gave rise to the great Floridan Aquifer from which our immense springs system and many of Florida’s lakes and rivers flow freely. Water, water everywhere. Water for consumption, water for agriculture, water to live, work, fish and play in, on and around, 365 days a year.

Recently, however, certain waters in and around Central Florida have become flush with thick, viscous flotsam, muddied brown and green with algal blooms caused by human wastewater runoff. Excess nutrients in the form of phosphorus and nitrogen seep into surface and ground water from fertilizers, septic systems and storm water run-off. Once those nutrients make their way into the water, they trigger the growth of algae. In turn, this algae clouds water, competes with healthy vegetation, produces muck and ultimately results in oxygen depletion and dead zones.

Harmful algal blooms discolor water, kill fish and birds, poison seafood and even produce toxic gases that can make people sick. Everyone knows this. And so, the problem really isn’t recognizing the value of Florida’s water, but securing its future.

A Problem That Isn’t Understood

Dr. Duane DeFreese, Executive Director of the Indian River Lagoon Council, says the economics of keeping the lagoon clean are largely misunderstood. Clean water is a financial stimulator that is often overlooked.

“When you think about how Florida brands itself in a global economy, you have to ask what are the leverageable assets that make this state a great place to visit, live, work and play,” he said. “All economic data suggests Florida’s waters are a major component of our economic vitality, quite literally putting Florida on the map.”

Yet, losses directly resulting from the neglect of our waterways continue.

For example, in 2010 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency published a report indicating more than 80{bfd614f294d07c51b84c8dad33a56885001f0ed7300088ac66752d3246377d5a} of Florida surface waters were impaired. According to the EPA, this results in a direct loss to the tourism industry of about $1 billion each year. It can be surmised that the losses continue to mount as the occurrence and expansion of algal blooms grow around the state.

DeFreese says taking care of Florida’s water is an investment in one of our most important assets. An investment that will produce significant returns. “It’s important to understand the direct and indirect return on investment when considering water quality costs in Florida,” he said.

Opportunistic Investments

Authorized by Congress in 2000, the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Project is expected to cost many billions of dollars. A sophisticated view of these costs considers these expenditures to be investments in opportunity, not just the cost to clean up past mistakes.

In the case of Florida’s River of Grass, as the Everglades is commonly called, significant returns are expected

waterworld.2jpgto flow back to the state from real dollar value in development and tourism. Economic impact studies show the restoration of the Everglades will produce more than four dollars in economic value to the state for every one dollar spent. More than one-third of that value will come from increased tourism in the region.

Laurilee Thompson understands the impact of water quality on tourism. Thompson is the co-owner of Dixie Crossroads Seafood Restaurant in Titusville, which has been preparing and serving locally sourced seafood for the past 30 years. She has also served on the Tourist Development Council for 16 years and currently sits on the state board of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association.

Dixie Crossroads serves about 10,000 meals a week and, according to Thompson, more than 60{bfd614f294d07c51b84c8dad33a56885001f0ed7300088ac66752d3246377d5a} of those customers are visitors from out of state. “The No.1 thing people want to do when they come to this state is go to a seafood restaurant where they think they’re getting fresh, locally caught seafood,” she said. “Real shrimp out of the real ocean that is locally harvested.”

But Thompson says locally caught seafood is harder to come by because of the degradation of the water quality in our lakes, rivers and estuaries. “In 1995, $21 million in seafood was harvested out of the Indian River Lagoon in Brevard County; in 2015 that number dropped to $6 million.”

“There is a direct correlation between the health of Florida’s estuaries and the ability to harvest seafood,” she said. “The estuary provides a nursing ground for most of the fresh seafood caught offshore, so the water quality problem doesn’t just impact commercial fishing on the Indian River Lagoon (but offshore in the ocean as well).”

Tourism H2O and ROI

While some may consider part of the problem due to the high number of visitors to the state, the tourism industry itself may be able to affect a solution to the water quality issue

waterworld3“When the water gets so bad it actually impacts the number of visitors to the state, then tourism leaders will be able to create the political will to address our water quality issues,” said Thompson. “When you see signs that say don’t go into the water, or satellite images that show rivers of green slime, that can’t be good for tourism.”

Concerns expressed by citizens across Florida also may have an impact as lawmakers seem to be alarmed. Florida Senator Darren Soto puts water quality and supply among the top five concerns for the state. He said the State Water Bill (Senate Bill 552) is the biggest piece of legislation in the 2016 session and establishes a long-term water plan for Central Florida.

Soto represents the 14th District, which includes parts of Orange, Osceola, and Polk Counties. He says the bill not only provides for water conservation, storage efficiencies and best practices, but it will also help serve and protect the I-4 corridor’s biggest industry of tourism.

Soto says water quality and supply are critical because, in plain language, the 66 million tourists who visit Orlando each year have plenty of other choices when it comes to vacation destinations. “Tourism is largely predicated on perception,” he said. “If our water quality is perceived to be poor, people will go elsewhere.”

When it comes to spending taxpayer dollars to provide clean water for the tourism industry, Soto says he is supportive if initiatives are critical to everyone.

“It’s the biggest industry in Florida and the reason why many of us receive a paycheck,” he said.

New Legislation

In April, Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed The Legacy Florida Bill (HB 989) into law. The new law sets aside up to $200 million annually for Everglades restoration, up to $50 million for springs restoration and $5 million for Lake Apopka.

While these numbers might seem unduly large, it may just be a matter of perspective. The degradation of Florida’s waterways is the cumulative result of our activities and lack of attention. In other words, we may not have been paying the full price for living here in our own version of Water World.

“We see the problem, not the opportunity. We see the cost, not the return,” said Defreese “Our viewpoint needs to change from looking back to looking forward. Let’s leverage the opportunity, make the investment in our water and see great economic and social return.”

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