On June 3, as wind and rain associated with the beginning of Tropical Storm Alex arrived along the gulf coast of Sanibel Island, 14 members of Rep. Byron Donalds’ team met with island leaders at the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge to talk about one of their top legislative priorities.
The purpose of the visit was to discuss water quality issues with representatives of the J.N. “Ding” Darling Refuge and “Ding” Darling Wildlife Society, the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation (SCCF), the City of Sanibel, and Sanibel-Captiva Chamber of Commerce. The meeting, which also included a boat tour, was part of an annual planning retreat organized by the congressman's team, including Chief of Staff Tyler Haymore, Legislative Director Alex Smith, Legislative Assistant Chris Ploch, and District Manager Jesse Purdon, among others. The intent of the retreat was to learn more about the issues impacting constituents of Florida Congressional District 19.
The group gathered in the Refuge Education Center, where members of the Sanibel Conservation Partnership provided an overview of the water management and water quality issues impacting the local communities. The discussion focused on the harmful releases from Lake Okeechobee, the need for beneficial dry-season flows to the estuary, the development of the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM), and the ecological, economic, and quality of life issues associated with harmful algal blooms—including blue-green algae and red tide. The group also discussed the need for fully funding and completing the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP).
“It was a great opportunity to meet with the Donalds team to discuss the importance of our local Refuge system and the significance of unique ecological resources in Southwest Florida,” said Sarah Ashton, President of the Board of the “Ding” Darling Wildlife Society.
SCCF CEO James Evans provided an overview of the water management challenges facing the region and the need to fund critical projects in the CERP. “The Donalds team really understands the importance of water quality to our region, and they have been strong partners in the development of LOSOM,” said Evans. “What I appreciate most is that the entire team is very accessible, and they use science to inform their water policies, rather than just politics.”
Kevin Godsea, Project Leader of the Southwest Florida National Wildlife Refuge Complex, provided an overview of the refuge system and challenges facing the “Ding” Darling Refuge. He described the importance of a healthy refuge to the roughly one million visitors to the “Ding” Darling Refuge annually.
Holly Smith, Mayor of the City of Sanibel, talked about the impact water quality issues have on the community of Sanibel and the importance of partnerships to address these challenges. “Every opportunity we have to highlight and educate others on our water priorities is imperative. The congressman’s office was also able to see first-hand how we are unified in our message for the protection of our environment and our economy. The commitment from Congressman Donalds’ staff on this issue was clear and very much appreciated by all in attendance,” said Smith.
John Lai, CEO and President of the Sanibel-Captiva Chamber of Commerce, provided an overview of the economic impacts of water quality in Southwest Florida. “The importance of water quality to our tourism-based economy cannot be understated,” said Lai. “Water quality remains our top legislative priority for Sanibel and Captiva and the Southwest Florida Chamber Alliance.”
After the meeting at the Refuge, and despite the wind and rain, the group was eager to head out on a boat provided by Tarpon Bay Explorers for a tour of the bay. During the tour, the Donalds team got the opportunity to see some of the important habitats, including oyster reefs, seagrass beds, and mangrove islands, which support the diverse population of fish and wildlife inhabiting the local waters.
“The Donalds congressional staff enjoyed spending time on their annual staff retreat with SCCF CEO James Evans, and other local stakeholders, touring Tarpon Bay. Water is the lifeblood of our SWFL economy, and the team enjoyed the policy discussion with SCCF and others like Mayor Holly Smith and Chamber President John Lai,” said Chief of Staff Tyler Haymore. “Combatting harmful algal blooms and finding equitable LOSOM releases will remain our staff's top priority."