The Importance of Water Quality in Southwest Florida
Southwest Florida is home to some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, as well as a complicated ecosystem that supports a vast amount of plants and wildlife. As a top tourist destination spot, Southwest Florida understands the value that is placed on our natural resources. Ecotourism attracts a great number of visitors each year, encouraging guests to experience Florida via kayak, hiking trails, chartered boats, the beaches, and more. With a natural resource as precious and valuable as Southwest Florida’s beaches, one would think that every care would be taken to preserve it. This however, is not always the case.
As Southwest Florida’s resident population and visitor percentages increase, communities must also grow to accommodate these numbers. As the recession slowly fades away and the housing market inches its way back to normal, developers and contractors begin to build again. New development – the creation and improvement of roads, building of new residential communities, and the enticement for large corporations to relocate to Southwest Florida – all contribute to more jobs and more resources to sustain the ever-growing community. Though if not careful, it can also lead to dangerous water contamination, the destruction of delicate ecosystems, and a negative perception that will lead visitors elsewhere for their vacations.
In 2013 South Florida made national headlines when the decision was made to release billions of gallons of polluted water from Lake Okeechobee into the fragile estuaries of the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee Rivers. This massive water release had profound and devastating consequences for the fish and wildlife that dwelled in the estuaries. Algae blooms from pollutants contaminated local beaches, causing closures in some areas based on high bacteria content. Not only were our natural resources harmed, but so were the individuals who relied on wildlife and tourism.
The effects of this event exacted a high cost from both the ecosystem and the economy. Govenor Rick Scott proposed spending $130 million dollars to repair the damage done by the water release and included a project to ease the burden on Lake Okeechobee by allowing more water to follow its natural course and flow south into the Everglades and a second project to help clean the polluted water filtering into the St. Lucie River basin, with plans to include the Caloosahatchee later.
Another factor to consider when making decisions concerning Florida beaches is the affect that decision will have on visitor perception. Following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the Florida tourism industry was hit hard. The largest industry in the state, tourism generates over $60billion in spending and sustains more than 80 million visitors each year. Tourism percentages dropped sharply as the oil residue reached the Gulf Coast. Despite being directly unaffected by the oil spill, Southwest Florida suffered too. The perception that the beaches were covered in small balls of tar convinced many potential visitors to forgo their journey to Southwest Florida, even though the beaches were clean. Hotels, restaurants, and attractions keenly felt the drop in visitor patronage that season.
A sustainability plan that takes into account and balances the natural environment with social and economic needs will create a livable and successful community for current and future generations of Southwest Floridians. Through conservation and preservation, Florida’s natural resources can be maintained and support the thriving tourism industry that makes us famous. Sustainable development and business practices will lead to healthier environment, which in turn will continue to attract visitors from across the world, encouraging them to delight in all the Southwest Florida has to offer.