In November, Jennifer Hecker became the executive director of the Charlotte Harbor National Estuary Program, which describes itself as “a partnership to protect the natural environment of Southwest Florida.” She is responsible for nurturing the program’s partnerships, implementing conservation and management plans and advocating for water resources.
She earned her bachelor’s degree in environmental studies from Prescott College in Arizona and a graduate degree in tropical biology and conservation from University of Missouri–St. Louis. She discussed the region’s water woes, including how, she says, freshwater Lake Okeechobee is responsible for 61 percent of the pollution entering the Caloosahatchee River and estuary that is causing that river to fail to meet state water quality standards.
How has water quality in Southwest Florida changed during your [12 years] at the Conservancy of Southwest?
We have been working on this issue for more than a decade now, trying to control pollution at its source and get better monitoring and enforcement to restore our water quality throughout the region.
You’ve advocated for [federal and state government] purchasing the land south of the lake, specifically the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA). Why?
Historically, the Caloosahatchee River did not directly connect to Lake Okeechobee. It was when we replumbed the system to enclose the lake and restrict the flow going from the lake south into the Everglades that those discharges had to go somewhere else, and they were rerouted to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers. In order to stop those harmfully high, polluted discharges, we would need to reroute the water to where it’s historically flowed and belongs, which is through the EAA that currently acts as a bottleneck.
Gov. Rick Scott activated an emergency loan program in July, through which 12 businesses in Lee County reported economic damages from toxic green algae blooms. Did this sufficiently address the economic impact of the algae blooms?
We need to get at the systemic root cause of why we cyclically have these discharges that are damaging our water resources and our economy. Until we get at the systemic root cause, we’re going to continue to suffer the economic consequences. The environment is not at odds with the economy. The environment is in fact the basis of a sustainable economy.
What is your greatest concern about the water restoration efforts?
Our concern is that the EAA is being eyed for additional mining and development. If those lands are intensified in use, that could essentially close any possibility for us to get the best outcome in restoring the Everglades. We have a window of opportunity until 2020 to buy those lands at fair market value. If we don’t exercise that option, we would be stuck forever in this unacceptable situation.