Water. It is a basic human need. We cannot survive without it. That alone is a pretty compelling argument for protecting it. In Southwest Florida, water is also the reason why people come here. The region’s unique environment is our attraction, drawing visitors, residents, and business to the area. It drives our economy.
Tourism generates more than $2.7 billion annually in Lee County alone. A recent poll by the Lee County Visitor and Convention Bureau shows 94% of all visitors to the area identified our beaches as our most attractive asset. These are impressive numbers but don’t account for the many ways in which water defines quality of life here in SWFL. All of us benefit from our green spaces, local agriculture, recreational uses, wildlife habitat, and stormwater management systems, not to mention that clean stuff that comes out of our faucets when we’re thirsty. As the lifeblood of our community, environment, and economy, water is a cause that has captured the attention of the region.
In February, the Southwest Florida Community Foundation hosted John Moran’s The Springs Eternal Project Exhibition “Florida’s Fragile Fountains of Youth,” documenting the beauty, history and increasing ecological devastation of Florida’s springs and aquifer. What was clear is that our waters are part of an ecosystem that connects us all.
The Springs Eternal Project showcased photojournalist and nature photographer Moran’s 20 plus year journey photographing and documenting Florida’s treasured springs. I have seen his presentation several times and each time I audibly gasp at his before and after photos of springs across the state. You see, I grew up in Florida and visited many of the springs often in my childhood. I had secretly harbored a dream of someday becoming one of the famous mermaids at the Weeki Wachee Springs. The Seminole Indians named the spring “Weeki Wachee,” which means “little spring” or “winding river”, and mermaids have performed there for over 60 years.
As Moran moved through his presentation that highlighted dramatic decline in most all of Florida’s Springs, my mind immediately went to the Mermaids, the natural habitat and the generations of Floridians who may never have the chance to see them if we don’t take this water issue seriously.
Those in attendance also let out some gasps and voiced the same thing I was contemplating when it comes to this type of significant issue. What can we do? Water knows no jurisdictional boundaries. It is impacted by every one of us in so many ways. It can feel overwhelming. But like with any complicated challenge, the answer requires everyone play a part to achieve a common outcome. Plentiful and clean water is a certainly a worthy goal for our region.
There’s no denying water is on the radar of policy-makers, non-profits, and other stakeholders across the region and State. As conveners around regional issues and lovers of SWFL’s unique environment, we believe there is a role for our foundation to play in improving and protecting our waters.
Beginning in the Fall of 2013, the foundation held four water roundtable discussions with environmentalists, developers, policy-makers, and technocrats from across the region to explore the problem. A common topic that surfaced among these community leaders was the lack of unity around a common message from the region about how to address our water problems. A unified message could result in additional assistance and opportunity for the region to drive real solutions to protect this precious resource.
On July 8, 2014, the Southwest Florida Community Foundation sent the first of two letters to the Army Corps of Engineers with a unified message from 24 individuals representing local governments and organizations from across the region. I know the letters won’t solve our water woes but they represent another step forward toward collaborating around this important Cause. Water “issues” aren’t going away and everyone has a role to play in conserving and protecting our natural resources, whether its turning off the faucet while you brush your teeth and changing the way you maintain your lawn or contributing to this or one of the many efforts going on in our community to protect our environment.
Here at the foundation, we are invested in continuing the conversation around the region’s efforts to promote the health of our water resources. To learn more about our work around this issue, visit our website to read our 2014 Water Roundtable Report at www.floridacommunity.com/environment. If you want to be part of the discussion around water, please contact me at [email protected] or give me a call at 239-274-5900.
— As leaders, conveners, grant makers and concierges of philanthropy, the Southwest Florida Community Foundation is a foundation built on community leadership with an inspired history of fostering regional change for the common good in Lee, Collier, Charlotte, Hendry and Glades counties. The Community Foundation, founded in 1976, connects donors and their philanthropic aspirations with evolving community needs. With assets of more than $84 million, the Community Foundation has provided $61.2 million in grants and scholarships to the communities it serves. Last year, the foundation granted more than $2.9 million to nonprofit organizations supporting education, animal welfare, arts, healthcare and human services. The foundation granted $782,000 in nonprofit grants including more than $400,000 in regional community impact grants and additional $450,000 in scholarship grants.