Wow, This Is a Mess
Porter Goss believes we should act on our water quality issues right now—or else.

By Betty Parker
Gulfshore Life
December 2007

Porter Goss Porter Goss may be best-known nationally for his stint as director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 2004 to 2006. But that came only after a string of other public service positions he held after moving to Sanibel Island in 1971. He first put in years as a Sanibel city councilor and mayor, then won a seat on the Lee County Commission, and later served as Southwest Florida’s congressman in Washington, D.C., from 1986 to 2004.

During his time in office, Goss saw Sanibel pass a nationally acclaimed land-use plan in an effort to manage the runaway growth residents feared would overwhelm the island under Lee County’s rules. As a Lee County commissioner in the 1980s, Goss also met the challenges of the county’s booming growth by offering compromises that spared natural resources without stifling development.

Goss was also deeply involved in environmental issues during his time in Washington, playing a major role in efforts to restore the Everglades and the Kissimmee River. While he remains unwilling to talk about his CIA work—that may come later, in a book or the speech circuit—he’s always ready to speak up about the threats facing our area’s delicate ecosystems.

Q: What sparked your concern over the water quality in Southwest Florida?
A. Going out on my dock, where I love to take a book and read, and looking at the water and being absolutely aghast. The water is like soup. It smells, and it’s unattractive for fishing or swimming or anything else. I started asking around the neighborhood and got absolutely bombarded with newspaper articles and phone calls from people saying, "Wow, this is a mess." It started about a year to 18 months ago. And it’s not just Southwest Florida. It’s the [Port] St. Lucie area (on the east coast) and the Everglades and all the way down to the Ten Thousand Islands.

Q: How bad is the situation now?
A. It’s a bit like terrorism. We can go along like we did for a long time saying terrorism is a terrible thing, and people who practice terrorism should be stopped, and we should do something about it. But until 9/11 came along, the terrorists were somewhere else, bothering someone else, and it was easier to let it go. Well, our 9/11 has come. It’s coming right down the Caloosahatchee right at us, right now, and we need to deal with it. It’s no longer a central Florida problem. It’s our problem. It’s right here, right now, affecting our tourism, our economy, our development and our way of life.

Q: Didn’t you deal with some of these problems while you were
in Congress?
A. In Congress, as far as water, we were pretty much focused on red tide. We also worked on the rechanneling of the Kissimmee River, which flows into Lake Okeechobee. A lot of members of Congress asked, "Why are we spending millions of dollars on a swamp in Florida?" But it’s not just a swamp, it’s the Everglades, and it’s a national treasure, and the discharge from Lake Okeechobee has been a problem for decades. The only way that restoration project got through was making it a public safety issue related to flooding. People weren’t as interested then in water quality issues.

Q: What’s the core problem now?
A. Now we have scientific evidence that we are smothering our benthic (bottom of the sea or lake) communities, from Tampa Bay to the Ten Thousand Islands. It’s a matter now of these nutrients creating growth, and when that growth matures, it sucks the oxygen out of the water, it washes up on the beach, breaks down and provides nourishment for more of that growth.

I don’t like what I see and neither does anybody else because it’s affecting our beaches, our tourism, our environment, all the things we all care about, and the things that make people want to visit and live here. I can see what it’s doing to the grass flats right here around my home. They’re gone. So I’m a believer. The algae problem seems to be moving faster than red tide. It will have a more serious, and perhaps more permanent, impact.

Suppose all the shell beds get smothered? Do they come back? What if all the reefs are smothered and destroyed? Do they come back? If the sea grasses are destroyed, and don’t come back, what happens to the fishing? In Hawaii, where they have some similar problems, they say these things don’t come back, and that’s probably true here, too.

Q: What are some of the specifics you’ve learned about it?
A. This is caused by nutrient load; by people. Scientists say nutrient load is now creating a vicious spiral reaching farther out into the Gulf of Mexico. We seem to be especially susceptible to these effects here because the water is so shallow. There are things we can do about that. Some people say some of this is natural, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t deal with it. Mosquitoes are natural, and we do something about them.

Q: Do you think there’s an awareness of this in Tallahassee?
A. There has to be. Somebody has to ask, "Governor, will you take this on, will you appoint somebody who will do this?" Set up a group with all the players, make someone important the chair, give them some horsepower so they won’t be bullied by the water districts or the people with big pocketbooks at campaign time. If anybody doubts the damage we are seeing done to our environment is any less than the damage that was done on Sept. 11 to our country, they’re fooling themselves. This is serious damage, and it’s not going away unless we deal with it.
You can argue about the right ways to do it, and whether to go here or there, all-day long, but you at least have to start addressing the problem.

Q: Do you have any ideas about the best way to develop solutions?
A. Go back to what we did with Charlotte Harbor, and use that as a template. In the late 1970s and ’80s, we had the question of how to deal with growth, and how much growth we wanted. The governor set up a blue-ribbon committee. We had a strong chairman, a businessman appointed by the governor, and his instructions were to lock us in a room and not let us out until we agreed on recommendations.

We made recommendations, many of which were enacted, and we must have done a pretty good job because Charlotte Harbor to this day is in pretty good shape. Solving today’s problems requires a process and some funds. I’ve seen this process work before, and it could work for this. It’d probably involve at least 30 people.

Q: Would you lead such an effort?
A. I am a retired citizen taxpayer. I moved back here to my house and Sanibel. It’s a beautiful place, and I love it. But part of the deal was that I wanted to be out there on my dock fishing, and in my boat, and swimming with my grandkids. But it’s too mucky and messy for that. I think it’s time for other people to come and do it. It’s time for my generation to offer encouragement and offer guidance.

There are plenty of young people who’d like to get into it, and I’d like to see them get involved. It could enhance their standing in the community, or they might want to do it just because they care, and it needs to be done.

I’m willing to get involved. But I just don’t want the responsibility of having to do something morning, noon and night. I’m almost 69 years old, and I’m looking at stuff I’ve been putting on hold all the years I’ve spent in public service.

Q: Do you see any quicker solutions, or things that can be done now?
A. Someone sent me information about a giant "sucker," a pump, that’s being used in Hawaii to clean up algae. The problem with algae is that if you just chop it up and move it around, it multiplies, like the Hydra monster in Greek mythology. You have to chop it up and remove it, and that’s what this machine does. But that’s just treating a symptom. It’s better than a Band-Aid—maybe more like a pain reliever—but it doesn’t solve the problem.

The same concept applies for some of the other things we’ve heard, like creating ponds to clean up the water upstream before it gets too far down the river. Maybe that’s the answer: A series of treatments that reduce the contamination enough so that by the time it gets downstream, the water quality is more acceptable.

Q: Sanibel did innovative planning when it incorporated about 35 years ago to protect its natural resources. How has all that worked out?
A. It has changed. Certainly it’s a lot more country clubby here now than it was 30 years ago. But people come to Sanibel for what it is, not to change it. They aren’t trying to bring in fast- food places or chain stores. I still think people come here for that vision, and people maintain that spirit.

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