Keep It Clean

Encouraged by public statements from Florida’s First Lady Casey Black DeSantis, but frustrated by the last state legislative session’s failure to write environmental concern into law, Florida’s waterkeepers have launched a consciousness-raising campaign called Moms for Clean Water. The initiative was announced by the Waterkeepers Florida organization in June. All summer long, the state’s waterway watchdogs are mobilizing concerned parents to pressure Tallahassee into action. The website is a one-stop shop for fledgling activists.

The Moms for Clean Water concept was suggested by DeSantis herself, who said in a statement earlier this year, “We feel an obligation as parents and we feel we should work on behalf of all the parents of this great state to make sure their children have a clean environment and clean water to grow up on.”

On July 15, Folio Weekly convened a Moms for Clean Water roundtable at the waterfront office of Jen Lomberk, the Matanzas Riverkeeper. The St. Johns Riverkeeper Lisa Rinaman was also present, as were several participating parents. The genius of the waterkeepers’ initiative is that it combines the their science and policy chops with parents’ compassion and everyday experience—not to mention kids’ healthy instincts. Our moms broke the ice by joking that their young children already understood the importance of clean water; now state legislators need to catch up.

For Rinaman, the DeSantis connection is key. “We believe [Casey DeSantis] is
critically important,” she said, “because not only does she have our governor’s ear, she also has a platform through which she can make sure moms across Florida have a voice for clean water as well.”

Lomberk explained that Moms for Clean Water is a three-pronged call to action. The first step is to put a stop to pollution at its source. Second, legislators must protect all Florida waters, and not perform after-the-fact, half-hearted triage. The third ask is to legislate an increase in state funding for acquisition of conservation land.

According to the waterkeepers, land conservation provides a variety of ecosystem services including water purification, resiliency and habitat protection. Florida lawmakers used to appreciate those services.

“Historically, we have had the Florida Forever Program to buy environmentally sensitive conservation lands,” Lomberk explained. “Buying conservation lands is one of the best ways to protect water quality around the state because when you have conservation land, you then have a natural buffer to filter pollutants out of the waterways.”

Florida Forever has suffered a slow death from a thousand cuts, with appropriations falling from around $300 million annually to $33 million. The current funding level covers administrative overhead and not much else. The waterkeepers hope Moms for Clean Water will change that.

Comprising all 13 Florida waterkeeper organizations, Waterkeepers Florida gives Moms for Clean Water a statewide network that can mobilize the collective effort needed to push the initiative forward. The waterkeepers span approximately 45,000 square miles of watershed in total, though they have worked autonomously in the past.

“Waterkeepers have been working in the state of Florida for about 20 years. There are 13 waterkeepers across the entire state, and each works within their own watershed,” Lomberk said. “Just last year, we came together and decided that we wanted to focus more on statewide issues because that’s going to affect all of us and where we’re going to have the biggest bang for our buck.”

That realization was crucial. Stephanie Freeman, one of the participating moms, said that any solution to Florida’s environmental issues must be holistic. Something she feels strongly about is that all Florida waterways should receive attention, not just the latest flashpoint.

“Even though South Florida has experienced a tremendous amount of red tide recently, we have had other issues in North Florida,” Freeman said. “We need to make sure that the state is acknowledging all of the problems, regardless of the exact location.”

This appeal for better stewardship of our water resources is rooted in Moms for Clean Water’s concern for their children. The group believes that Florida waterways should be clean for kids to safely enjoy.

One local mom, Patty Scott, said that her two sons, ages 22 and 24, have always loved to surf, fish and swim. As their parent, she says she is particularly concerned about the toxic algal blooms occurring throughout Florida. These outbreaks pose immediate health risks. Studies show that they can cause neurological damage, memory loss and respiratory issues.

“There are very serious health problems associated with toxic algae,” said Scott. “They’re caused by nutrient pollution, excess nitrogen and phosphorus that runs off from stormwater pollution, wastewater treatment plants, septic systems, pet waste, animal waste. We need to do more to control nutrient pollution, and awareness is really important because it’s the everyday activities that people do that make a big difference.”

Another local mom and Jacksonville native, Tammie Gates, noted that in just a few decades, she has witnessed an extraordinary amount of development—and its consequences. Waterways that were once pristine are now polluted. Yet residents, especially children, continue to participate in water activities, at their risk.

“Exploring our rivers and our springs with my boys is one of the simplest joys of being a mom,” Rinaman said. “It is our collective responsibility to ensure clean, healthy waterways for our children today and for future generations.”

The Moms for Clean Water campaign is intended to leverage this type of commonsense observation into political action. The fact is, there’s a soft consensus on environmental degradation. Anyone who lives near a waterway has seen its effects. The waterkeepers are encouraging citizens to take the next step.

“Everyone values clean water, but we’re not necessarily seeing that at the legislative level,” Rinaman explained. “We could easily see results in this next legislative session. [In the] past legislative session, there was not one piece of protective water-quality policy—meaning the rules put in place to stop pollution at its source—that was passed.”

She added that if all the Moms for Clean Water speak up together, they will be heard.

“The solution will not happen overnight, but we need to start now to buy conservation land to protect and buffer future growth, to have the holistic protection to stop pollution and make sure we’re managing nutrient pollution sources,” Rinaman said. “We also need restoration projects and incentives for people to all do their part.”

“Holistic” is the key word here. Since the campaign’s inception, Moms for Clean Water has stressed that all of Florida’s waterways are connected—to pollute one is to pollute them all. Therefore, the group is asking that all Floridians support comprehensive, holistic protections for all state waters.

To reach this goal, the waterkeepers ask residents to come together to stop pollution at the source. This means we should be focusing on prevention rather than using time, energy and money to clean up after the damage is done.

“We need to focus on other environmental efforts, like banning plastics,”said Sunny Burns, also a participating mom. “Managing development is an important factor, but so is re-evaluating how and where we build and how more people contribute to more pollution. Really, everyone contributes.”

“Prevention is the smartest and most responsible way of handling things. It’s also the cheapest way if you can work to keep the pollution out,” Rinaman said. “If you stop it from happening, it’s so much cheaper than trying to undo it after the fact.”

Prevention and conservation—these are the fundamentals of any water-quality conversation. The Moms for Clean Water campaign asks for citizens take that conversation to First Lady Casey DeSantis by writing a letter from one parent to another. According to the Matanzas Riverkeeper, advocating for clean water isn’t just good policy—it’s also the Florida thing to do.

“Swimming and playing in our lakes and rivers is an integral part of growing up in Florida. Those experiences foster a connection to our natural areas and shape our identity as Floridians,” Lomberk said. “The decisions and policies that we make today will determine whether future generations are able to have those experiences.”