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RSW Living Magazine

SAVING OUR H2O: FGCU leads the way with interdisciplinary Water School

Mar 09, 2021 08:31PM ● By JEFF LYTLE

Water, water everywhere. In Southwest Florida, water fuels our economy via recreation, real estate values, wildlife, irrigation and drinking. It is our life.

When our natural resources get out of whack, as they did in 2018 with outbreaks of red tide and blue-green algae, impacts can be dire on all those community segments as well as public health. Seemingly everyone from commercial fishermen to politicians called for action.

Much of that action now is coming from education at all levels, where leaders are stepping forward to put science, money and personnel to work on learning more about the problems and how to solve them. Some of the work was already taking place. But much of it is new and in the spotlight across Florida and beyond.

Fort Myers-based Florida Gulf Coast University leads the way with the creation of its interdisciplinary Water School, bringing together fields including geology, economics, business, health and engineering. Construction is underway for its $58 million headquarters, which will be the largest building on campus and replicate strategic synergies among other FGCU specialties.

And work is being done at two related FGCU off-campus locations—Vester Marine & Environmental Science Research Field Station on Estero Bay and Everglades Wetland Research Park at Naples Botanical Garden. They also will be part of the mix.

The goal, FGCU says, is working together to serve the community and shape the leaders of tomorrow for a more water-literate society. The Water School will expand FGCU’s research footprint and affirm its place on the science map.

The city of Bonita Springs is a player as well, employing technology developed in Iowa to filter toxins from stormwater runoff before it reaches the Imperial River. Under a downtown parking lot off Old U.S. Route 41, beds of gravel and wood chips work their low-tech magic, earning Bonita an award from the Florida League of Cities.

Bonita and FGCU cross paths on a related front, with the city hiring an FGCU marine science intern to ramp up water quality sampling and monitoring of the Imperial, which meanders past Everglades Wonder Gardens and through the heart of town. More area cities may follow suit.

At other ends of the research spectrum, FGCU is helping erect mechanical air samplers throughout the community to detect early traces of algae blooms and warn the public. One staff member, Barry Rosen, is consulted on pollution mysteries as far away as Utah, California, Washington and Colorado.

FGCU’s rising profile and collaborations expose students to fresh opportunities, such as working on a $6 million research vessel based out of St. Petersburg, Florida. The governor of the Sunshine State, Ron DeSantis, has used FGCU as a backdrop for his environmental policy announcements. A Water School faculty member, Michael Parsons, serves on the governor’s Blue-Green Algae Task Force, studying myriad consequences to wildlife and humans, including perhaps dementia.

Meanwhile, Florida SouthWestern College, also in Fort Myers, is conducting a high level of research of its own. One project could even have applications in the fight against COVID-19.

Nina Infantado, an FSW science lab manager and instructor, says her genetic work with bacteria and algae in the Caloosahatchee River, in conjunction with Lee County, Florida, and the University of Hawaii, could turn up traces of the virus as well as track its ups and downs in communities’ sewage plants. Other U.S. scientists are on the same trail.

Another FSW project works with Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation on seasonal changes in the algae and brown “tea” in the Caloosahatchee River. “This material really affects light availability, sea grass growth and phytoplankton growth [microalgae]—part of the base of the food web,” says Michael Sauer, marine science professor.

Sauer continues, “The freshwater which brings this colored water also changes the salinity of the estuary and brings massive amounts of nutrients along with it.” Further FSW efforts range from tracking sea turtles and their habitat to training water plant technicians.

The attention trained on clean water keeps on coming, with younger students now getting involved. In the School District of Lee County, water education starts in grades four and five. That’s when pupils learn about ecosystems, food chains and human impacts. Middle school earth and life science classes continue the water work, which runs through high school biology, marine science and environmental science studies.

School District of Lee County spokesperson Rob Spicker says teachers from all levels can join the Watershed Teacher Leadership Academy that collaborates with FGCU professors to prepare lessons. The teachers learn how to collect water quality data with their students, study their own schools’ water retention ponds and test the impact of shoreline native plants—Project Future Leaders of Water, or FLOW.

Teachers also team up to collect and track water quality data while on various field trips—done in part this year via Zoom video conferencing. All told, the clean water efforts speak to a community that walks the walk for its quality of life.

Jeff Lytle is the retired editorial page editor and TV host from the Naples Daily News. He now lives in Bonita Springs.