How would you define the quality of the life you live – its worth? For most of us, it’s the natural world that brought us here in the first place, the water, fish and wildlife. What I’ve come to appreciate over the years is how interconnected everything is. As the great 19th-century naturalist John Muir superbly stated, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” Nothing could be truer when it comes to the waters and wildlife that define our barrier islands and estuaries. The same is also true of the region’s economy, which is so intricately connected to the natural world. That’s why it’s so important that we fiercely guard our water quality, our seagrasses and mangroves, the things that matter most.
Florida has a department that’s tasked to do this job. The mission of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) states: “The Florida Department of Environmental Protection is the state’s lead agency for environmental management and stewardship, protecting our air, water and land.” The only problem is the department isn’t doing its job. In Manatee County, FDEP’s biggest failure is Piney Point, where just last year an “emergency” more than two decades in the making sent 215 million gallons of phosphate process water (with 10 times the nitrogen of raw sewage) into Tampa Bay, with devastating consequences.
More recently, it’s the lack of oversight and action investigating a potentially major mangrove trimming violation that took over two months to initiate and led to a questionable report that stated, “the mangroves appear to be healthy.” This is an obvious failure of leadership, but one that leads beyond the department and staff, harkening back to the administration of then-Gov. Rick Scott, who eviscerated the department during his tenure.
U.S. Sen. Scott is no longer in charge, and the new administration needs to step up and protect Florida’s most valuable resource – its environment. That responsibility filters down to Manatee County’s state representative and state senator, as well as every citizen, including you and me.
It’s the state’s responsibility to protect Manatee County’s natural resources, including our mangroves, but the county can assume that role. I wish I had the confidence that the state would step up and do that job, but history and Piney Point reveal a different reality.
Many residents first come to Manatee County as we did, to vacation and buy homes. It is our natural environment that drives our economy now, and hopefully into the future. If we don’t protect our mangroves, seagrasses and water quality, we’ll slowly lose what brought us here in the first place. Future tourists may not be as enamored with our area and willing to support the economy that is driven by this special place. Aside from the obvious contribution the environment holds for tourists and homeowners, it’s not a stretch to assume that future developers, builders, realtors and other business owners will suffer from our poor policy and policing. If we are able to apply a little “enlightened self-interest,” we’ll realize that our area can become a magnet for people seeking our quickly-vanishing natural treasures.
To accomplish this, it’s critical that we elect politicians who understand the value of the natural world and who will work to assure the people of Manatee County and the state that our most valuable resources are safeguarded. It’s a shared responsibility because we have to elect those leaders who have a track record of voting to protect the things of worth we value.
Rusty Chinnis is Outdoors columnist of the Anna Maria Island Sun and chairman of the Suncoast Waterkeepers.