Experts gather to talk about ways to protect water in the region, but some in attendance said they expected more concrete conclusions.
Four times over, a new group of panelists sat before attendees of Sarasota County’s first water quality summit. And four times over, attendees asked their officials: “What can I do? What comes next?”
In January, the Sarasota County Board of Commissioners directed staff members to attend neighboring Charlotte County’s own water quality summit, requesting a subsequent report and analysis on the event’s panels, topics of concern and size.
By February, commissioners officially committed to holding a water quality summit of their own, officially addressing one of the board’s legislative priorities. In particular, commissioners said they wanted the summit to clarify what government strategies had been implemented following last year’s red tide outbreak.
“We’re so privileged to live on this planet, and it is our duty and responsibility to make sure we’re doing everything we can to protect it,” Sarasota County Commission Chair Charles Hines said during the welcome portion of the summit. “Water doesn’t know jurisdictional boundaries … this is our Gulf, and we need to take responsibility for that.”
The Sarasota County Water Quality Summit featured panelists from more than 30 organizations who spoke during a series of four time blocks: “The Science Behind Water Quality,” “What Is Being Done to Improve Water Quality,” “What You Can Do to Improve Water Quality” and the “State Policy Update.”
Each section concluded with a question-and-answer portion where attendees could submit their inquiries to panelists either in writing or via cell phone — which is where many found themselves asking what actions, specifically, they could take at home.
Ultimately, many participants walked away satisfied. The educational aspect of the summit, they said, was a major asset both to the community at large as well as to them as individuals.
“It was interesting to see all of the perspectives throughout the day,” said Stevie Freeman-Montes, the sustainability manager for the city of Sarasota. “Probably my favorite was the ‘What You Can Do’ section. I was able to really pick up some good tips through that.”
“It was very good. Very educational,” echoed Vice Mayor Debbie McDowell of the city of North Port. “Today we had the conversations. Now we have to come up with a plan to figure out how to solve these problems and come up with some realistic solutions.”
But some attendees were expecting just that — more concrete solutions. Not everyone, it seemed, was entirely happy with what they perceived as a lack of direction.
Paul Murphy, for example, attended the summit as a volunteer with the Sarasota County Water Stewards, and he didn’t seem to find what he was looking for.
“I think just the fact of having the event is remarkable,” he said. “But it is called a summit, and a summit is usually supposed to work something out and have some remedy or some kind of bottom line … I don’t know what was conclusive out of the summit today. It’s less of a summit and more like a meeting to me.”
Others, such as Chair Krista Lohr of the Sarasota-Manatee Sierra Club, found themselves disheartened by the summit’s failure to address the environmental impacts stemming from larger corporations.
“Overall it was very well organized and well run ... I feel a lot of things were glossed over, though,” Lohr said. “I was a little disappointed with that.”
But if nothing else, the concept of the future was a consistent theme throughout the entirety of the event. Whether the summit offered adequate action was up for debate, though one thing was certain: the only direction Sarasota County wanted to face was forward.
“The event went really well. It’s a good start to get out some of the information to the community of what’s going on,” said Norm Brown, who had recently moved to Sarasota County from Oregon. “I think it’s a start. I’m not sure that something was missing, I’m just thinking that there’s a long way to go to bring Sarasota County into the 21st century. “