Watershed Management in South Florida: Caloosahatchee River Basin Visioning Process

CBI Conducts Visioning Exercise to Collect Stakeholder Views on Planning Future Policies for the Caloosahatchee River

Background and Challenges

The highly engineered Caloosahatchee River and Watershed in southwest Florida is under severe stress. Alternating periods of extremely high and extremely low freshwater flows impact the health of the river and its estuary. During the wet season, high flows decrease salinity levels in the estuary, causing harm to endangered and threatened species, while during the dry season, low flows contribute to decreased water quality and harmful algal blooms. 

While a broad range of stakeholders recognize the need to improve the health of the Caloosahatchee, external conditions have constrained the options for improving the situation. In the dry season, longstanding agricultural water users compete for the region’s limited flows.  During the wet season, ongoing restoration of the Everglades restricts the District’s capacity to divert excess flows south.  Meanwhile, urban development has increased nutrient loads and placed additional strains on the system. These constraints, along with the inability of stakeholders from across the four county watershed to present a unified voice on regional priorities, has left southwest Florida without a clear path to addressing longstanding water quality and quantity impacts to the Caloosahatchee River ecosystem.

In 2013, the South Florida Water Management District launched a public initiative to develop a vision for the Caloosahatchee River and Estuary through stakeholder collaboration, focusing on the key ecological conditions of a healthier system. The District asked CBI to manage the visioning process and help to create a stakeholder framework for improving the health of the watershed.

The CBI Approach

CBI Interviews Stakeholders and Facilitates a Series of Workshops to Draft a Vision for the Future of the Caloosahatchee 

As a first step in the Visioning Process, CBI conducted a series of in-depth interviews with more than forty stakeholders affected by or interested in the Caloosahatchee River system. Stakeholders included state, federal, and local governments; environmental, agricultural, and tourism interests; fishing and boating interests; university researchers; and others. The interviews focused on obtaining feedback on 

  • Visions and interests related to a healthy Caloosahatchee River 
  • Key ecological attributes related to a restored Caloosahatchee River
  • Recommendations for structuring an effective Visioning Process

The stakeholder interviews suggested, among other things, the need for a more nuanced process, one that (1) ensured any future dialogue built on the already deep understanding of the watershed, (2) focused on concrete actions and not just more studies; and, (3) created a platform for meaningful dialogue with stakeholders.

As a result of the findings, CBI worked with the District to craft a new approach, one that relied on the following steps:

  • Holding an independent science workshop.  The workshop, convened by Florida Gulf Coast University in November 2013 and co-designed and facilitated by CBI, sought to clarify the science of what is known and what needs to be known regarding restoration of the Caloosahatchee River and Estuary. The workshop resulted in general agreement about the key ecological indicators. In addition, there was a general sense that there is sufficient data to justify proceeding with actions that foster flows within the preferred ranges, while also identifying key data gaps and areas for improved coordination within and across the research community
  • Convening implementer meetings to identify regional priorities.  Beginning in April 2014, CBI then facilitated a series of six “implementer” meetings, involving municipal, county, and state officials. The meetings focused on identifying near-term, regional priority projects capable of (1) addressing water quality and storage needs and (2) being supported by a broad set of stakeholders across the watershed.  
  • Launching Community Forums with interested stakeholders.  To foster a strong and transparent link with stakeholders, CBI worked with the District and the other coordinating agencies to convene and facilitate community forums throughout the watershed in August and December 2014 to seek public input into project prioritization and future stakeholder engagement processes.

At the conclusion of the process, CBI released a final report on the Caloosahatchee Visioning process, which includes key findings, an identification of six immediate regional priorities, and recommendations for next steps.

Results

CBI Supports West Florida Stakeholders in Creating an Actionable Framework for Improving Regional Water Quality

Overall, the process resulted in a deeper understanding of stakeholder concerns and goals for the engagement process; a reconfirming and sharpening of key scientific points, including ecosystem indicators and gaps; a prioritization of near- and medium-term regional projects to benefit the health of the Caloosahatchee River and Watershed; and a workable platform for constructive stakeholder dialogue and consensus building moving forward.  Moreover, by enabling West Coast Florida stakeholders to unify their voices and create an actionable plan for improving the health of the ecosystem, the Visioning Process assisted the region in receiving state funding from a $5 billion environmental protection and restoration package by Florida Governor Rick Scott to construct a new storage reservoir. 

To be sure, there are still tough issues to tackle to remedy the Caloosahatchee’s many challenges, but there is a growing sense that there is a new willingness and some proven strategies for engaging stakeholders and implementers in productive dialogue.