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Opinion
East County Thursday, Feb. 14, 2019 6 months ago

Manatee County commissioner gets shot at turning tide by joining Water Policy Committee

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Side of Ranch: Jay Heater
by: Jay Heater Managing Editor

Thirty-seven.

If you are talking French fries, 37 can be a lot. If you are thinking about dollars earned for the day, well, not so much.

When it comes to voices, though, 37 can be a din ... especially if they are being fired off at the same time.

Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh was selected Feb. 5 to be one of 37 county commissioners selected to serve on the Florida Association of Counties' Water Policy Committee. That's an honor since every commissioner in the state must have wanted a place on this particular committee with Stink Fest 2018 so vivid on our minds, and our noses.

But as Baugh admits, 37 is a lot of politicians in one room. In some ways, it's too many and not enough.

Jay Heater

It can be too many in the sense of having a constructive conversation or agreeing on a direction. Then again, you would think all 67 counties would want a representative on this committee, whether they have shoreline or not.

Maybe those tourists only drive though a county to get somewhere else, but they do drive through. They have to eat. They have to get gas. If red tide continues to chase them away, that's less money for everyone. Then Lake Okeechobee has its own set of problems. 

Fortunately for Manatee County, as Baugh puts it, "I'm not shy about speaking up."

The Water Policy Committee hosts its first meeting March 27.

Here in the Lakewood Ranch area, we might not have the same concerns about red tide, or Lake Okeechobee, as someone living in Longboat Key. We might not pay attention to these Water Policy Committee meetings.

Baugh said we should.

"Red tide is airborne," Baugh said. "It affects our residents out east when it comes to breathing difficult, issues with asthma. And the fact is we are all doing things to make matters worse."

With companies producing large amounts of waste and our agricultural industry relying on certain pesticides, can a person living on a quarter of an acre lot make a difference?

"The fact is we all are doing things to make matters worse," Baugh said. "We could be coming up with remedies that affect all of us, such as the fertilizers we put on our lawns, or that farmers put on their crops. There are some many things that affect our water issues, and we need to get serious about working on them. It's going to take all of us."

All of us certainly will have to pay the tab.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has put forth the edict. Saying water is the foundation of Florida's economy, and is being threatened by algae blooms and red tide, DeSantis has order steps to hopefully make a rapid improvement on water quality. Included are $2.5 billion over the next four years to invest in Everglades restoration and protecting water resources, establishment of a Blue-Green Algae Task Force, directing the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to establish a septic conversion and remediation grant program with a local government match requirement, instructing all five water management districts to increase transparency and accountability by providing data and information to DEP to support key water quality restoration efforts, continuing DEP's red tide emergency grant program to support local governments to clean up their beaches and coastal areas to minimize the impacts of red tide to residents and visitors, partnering with Visit Florida to identify opportunities within communities and recommend investments in green infrastructure, and creating the Office of Environmental Accountability and Transparency charged with organizing and directing integrated scientific research and analysis to ensure that all agency actions are aligned with key environmental priorities.

It's going to be expensive.

"It's going to cost more than money if we don't get serious about it," Baugh said. "It could cost us our quality of life. That why the majority of us are here."

Although the issues can be complex, Baugh said he has doing her homework about water issues.

"I've learned a lot, and I've put in a lot of time doing my homework," Baugh said. "It's my duty."

It's a duty that is added to all her other duties as commissioner.

"Here in Florida, we have many issues that officials don't want to take a look at," she said. "They don't want to look at sea rise, and they don't believe there is any impact from the climate.

"There never will be a solution to red tide because it is an organism that always will be in the water. But we can make a difference and come up with solutions. If we don't make this a big issue, than we never will know."

In Manatee County, she said helping the cause might be as simple as abiding by fertilizer ordinances and looking at things that are more natural for the environment. "We have to be more receptive to what we are putting out there," she said. "And I'm like everyone else, you go with your daily routine so you don't stop to smell the roses. But this past year has seriously made me realize we need to start paying attention to our water issues. It's going to take all of us to be better stewards."

Baugh said any steps suggested in Manatee County will be examined closely before being presented to the public. She expects it to be a long process.

"But the governor has given me hope," she said. "He's dedicated millions toward Okeechobee and red tide and he has made it clear to the citizens of the state that we need to find solutions. I want to be part of it."

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