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2024 Everglades Update Focuses on Economics, Water Quality

February 29, 2024
everglades update outdoors, room of people watching panel on stage

Around 50 guests joined SCCF for its annual Everglades Update, held in partnership with the Everglades Foundation. SCCF CEO James Evans moderated a panel of experts that included:

  • Everglades Foundation Chief Economist Paul Hindsley 
  • Sanibel & Captiva Islands Chamber of Commerce President & CEO John Lai
  • SCCF Environmental Policy Director Matt DePaolis

Evans opened up the evening with an overview of how the greater Everglades ecosystem has been reduced in scope and structure over time since Florida was settled, including intensive ditching and draining that has led to various environmental problems in South Florida that continue today.

“One of the major goals of Everglades restoration is to restore the quantity, quality, timing, and distribution of those flows to the Everglades and our northern estuaries as well as the Florida Bay,” Evans said, explaining that fixing these water flows will help solve many storage and water quality issues our state and region are experiencing, such as ecologically harmful discharges from Lake Okeechobee.

Chief Economist at the Everglades Foundation Paul Hindsley then opened the panel discussion with a historical overview of the economy in Florida. He explained that what was once an economy of goods and extraction has shifted to an economy of services and a “clean water” economy.

“We know in south Florida that tourism, outdoor recreation, and real estate play this really important role, and these are sectors of our economy that are directly impacted by changes in the flow of water and changes in the quality of water,” Hindsley said.

The panel briefly discussed the economic report released by SCCF, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, and Captains of Clean Water earlier this year that shows just how costly major harmful algal blooms can be to Southwest Florida’s economies — including $5.2 billion in local economic output and $17.8 billion in property values.

Sanibel & Captiva Islands Chamber of Commerce President & CEO John Lai brought his extensive experience working in the tourism industry to the conversation, illustrating the impact that poor water quality can have on number of visitors, online reviews, and jobs in Southwest Florida.

“We know very, very well how acutely the economy is tied to the ecology, and we’ve found out the hard way over and over again,” Lai said, explaining the devastating impacts that the 2018 red tide event had on visitation and tourism revenue in the region. “Everglades restoration is key to the future of what we do and how well we do it.”

The group went over some key projects currently underway as part of the federal Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, including the Caloosahatchee River (C-43) West Basin Storage Reservoir and Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) Reservoir.

“The EAA Reservoir will directly store water from Lake Okeechobee and then connect that water to stormwater treatment areas (STAs), which are essentially filter marshes,” explained SCCF Environmental Policy Director Matt DePaolis.

This natural filtering system will clean polluted lake water, bringing it to acceptable levels for it to legally be able to be sent south to the Everglades instead of discharged to the northern estuaries, he said.

“This is a hugely important project because it’s really the only one that we’re working toward right now that is going to have the amount of conveyance we need to be moving that water continuously into the Everglades,” DePaolis said. “This will replicate the conditions we used to historically see.”

The C-43 Reservoir is a large reservoir within the Caloosahatchee watershed that will be able to store additional water. While it “won’t be the same sort of release valve when we’re talking about the lake releases like the EAA Reservoir will,” it will allow Southwest Florida more control over when and how water inputs enter the Caloosahatchee estuary, DePaolis said, adding that the expected completion timeline is 2025.

An audience Q&A delved further into economic impacts of harmful water quality events, explored additional creative ways of storing and cleaning water, and stressed the importance of advocacy, coastal resiliency, and individual actions we can take to improve water quality.

“I think the take-home message is it’s important for you to continue to be advocates of Everglades restoration,” Evans said. “Reach out to your legislators and let them know how important Everglades restoration is to you. Act in your own backyard, plant native plants, reduce your fertilizer and irrigation use — there are big things you can do that will make a difference on our water quality.”


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