Saturday, March 30, 2024

Is $25 million for FGCU water quality study a boon or a boondoggle?

**Update 1 April 2024** Today I talked to a Water School colleague who worked behind the scenes to get this $25 million funding from the state, and I'm convinced now that it will be a positive thing addressing a real research need. It's building on a successful partnership between FGCU's hydrogeology and engineering folks and the statistics / data management company SAS, which specializes in organizing and making sense of massive amounts of data. The partnership started with them putting together data from the Peace River watershed to better understand harmful cyanobacterial blooms and other problems there. The new funding will allow them to extend that approach to other watersheds around the state. Among other things, the project is going to round up all the state's existing data on water quality and make it more accessible to the public through online "dashboards" and such. (A common criticism of Florida's current environmental monitoring programs is that their data is hard for the public to access and use, and it sounds like this new project will partially fix that.) Another goal of the big analysis / synthesis is to better pinpoint the worst pollution sources, and to more strongly connect pollution to its consequences (e.g., harmful algae blooms).

**Original Post 30 April 2024**

The Water School at Florida Gulf Coast University, where I work as a professor of marine science, was recently gifted 25 million dollars from the state legislature to fund a “comprehensive water quality study.”

Money for water quality research sounds like a good thing, and assuming we have some freedom to plan the research ourselves, I think we can make good use of it. Nevertheless, there have been some legitimate concerns and criticisms surrounding the gift. I first saw these expressed in social media commentary, then in a pithy editorial by author and journalist Craig Pittman in the Florida Phoenix.

The main criticism is that the state already has more than enough information on its water quality problems to start fixing them. Therefore, spending more money on studies is a wasteful distraction; a way for politicians to look like they’re helping the environment while avoiding making any real changes that might inconvenience their polluter and developer buddies. The implication is that it would be better to spend the money on things we know will reduce the pollution problems, like wastewater and stormwater system upgrades, conservation land purchases, etc.

This criticism is fair. Honestly, as much as I appreciate money for studying things, if we are not ALSO allocating serious money and effort to fixing the things we already know are broken then we won't see the changes we need. There’s a lot of precedent for the “commission some experts to study an environmental problem then ignore their advice on how to fix it” thing happening in Florida. For example, a few years ago Governor DeSantis made a “Red Tide Task Force” and a “Blue Green Algae Task Force” to study those problems, but the most important recommendations that the task forces gave have been largely ignored. Specifically, recommendations to address the root causes of the algae blooms (pollution and habitat destruction) have mostly been ignored in favor of “treat the symptoms but not the causes” approaches like dumping chemicals into the rivers to kill the algae. Meanwhile, anti-environment politicians and the polluters backing them have worked ceaselessly to erode Florida’s existing environmental protections, trying to stop grassroots efforts to reduce fertilizer and pesticide spraying, and trying to shrink Florida’s aquatic preserves, for example. Some of their attempted environmental villainy has failed, but some has gotten through.

One of concerns in Pittman’s article is that FGCU is a compromised institution that won't be able to give an unbiased assessment of Florida’s pollution problems. As evidence for this Pittman brings up some dirty laundry that impugns FGCU’s environmentally friendly image:

1) The original sin of the university having been sited on wetlands that weren’t supposed to be developed. This was part of a sketchy exchange of favors between the state and land baron Ben Hill Griffin, which opened the gates to lucrative but environmentally destructive development in eastern Lee County. In my opinion it would have been better to site the university nearer downtown Fort Myers to reinvigorate the walkable downtown, reduce outward sprawl and commuter traffic, etc., but nobody asked me because I was in high school in Washington State in the 1990s when this was happening. As it stands now, FGCU IS built in the middle of wetlands, but we’ve made the most of it by using them for teaching and research about biology, ecology, stormwater engineering, etc. We’re hoping those activities have some positive effects that counterbalance the sin of our placement.

2) How FGCU provided a “soft landing” in the form of a cushy job for Noah Valenstein, the former head of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, who worked under environmentally-unfriendly governor Rick Scott and a little bit for his successor Ron DeSantis before exiting amidst environmental crises. I see Valenstein once or twice a year at water school staff meetings. So far, he hasn't done anything to interfere with us doing our jobs and expressing our honest views about the environment... which is quite different from some other recent appointees into Florida’s universities who have clearly had a mission to disrupt them. E.g., conservative activist Christopher Rufo who was installed at the New College of South Florida to purge it of wokeness.

Anyway, back to the water quality study. Can FGCU do an unbiased study of water quality problems in Florida? I think we can. $25 million will send a lot of scientists out sampling a lot of water in a lot of places for a lot of different types of pollution, and those scientists’ analyses and reports are likely to be too numerous, too diverse, and shared in too many ways to be politically micromanaged to be pleasing to polluters. “On the ground” at The Water School we’re a plucky band of scientists and professors who are motivated by deep concern for the environment, love for education, and respect for the practice of ethical science. It is possible for research organizations that receive a lot of funding from special interest groups to develop blind spots when it comes finding and criticizing the effects of pollution linked to those groups, but I don't think this particular funding from the legislature has any strings attached that will keep us from pointing the finger at polluters.

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