Water woes on tap at symposium as real estate pros look to ‘a light at the end of the tunnel’

FGCU professor Michael Parsons talks about Red Tide at the 2021 Real Estate Symposium

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Judging by the nonverbal communication in the room, it was a tough morning for some of the 100 or so who attended the Real Estate Investment Society of Southwest Florida’s annual symposium.

The event’s title explained the discomfort: Water Quality and the Implications for Real Estate and Economic Development. Over the last few years, it’s been a distinctly disquieting topic for those whose livelihoods can be profoundly affected by the health of the region’s liquid lifeblood.

As speakers reminded attendees of devastating red tides, putrid cyanobacteria blooms and the resulting economic slowdown, some audience members broke out in winces and facepalms.

Water quality has muscled to the front of the list of local priorities. Red tide, cyanobacteria blooms, flooding and wetland loss have grabbed headlines, as political candidates now run on water-focused platforms and Florida Gulf Coast University opened a first-of-its-kind Water School.

In his keynote address, Florida Sen. Ray Rodrigues (R-Estero) hit a positive note, listing the suite of in-progress fixes he says will help: huge reservoirs in and near the Everglades, aquifer storage and recovery wells, repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee and the removal of the old Tamiami Trail roadbed, which had blocked the southerly cleansing flow of water through the River of Grass.

a group of people looking at a phone: Attendees listen to panelists speak at the 2021 Real Estate Symposium on Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021, at FGCU. © Amanda Inscore/The News-Press – USA Today Network-Florida Attendees listen to panelists speak at the 2021 Real Estate Symposium on Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021, at FGCU.

“It doesn’t matter what angle you look at this from,” Rodrigues said. “The state of Florida has a project going on … that will alleviate the challenges that we’ve had with discharges from Lake Okeechobee,” he said. “So from a real estate perspective, we have a light at the end of the tunnel.”

The school’s Executive Director Greg Tolley introduced the first panel by outlining how the water school’s mission related to the day’s.

Update: Red tide fading across Southwest Florida in the wake of Hurricane Ida

Water quality and tourism: University of Florida economists detail tourism revenue losses following 2018 red tide blooms

“When I think about the economy of Southwest Florida, I think about the Florida lifestyle, I think about tourism, and about agriculture,” Tolley said. “Real estate is the machinery behind those that makes it all work.”

And it all depends on clean water, he said, which is why “We’re trying to work with people in this local community to make sure we’re laser-focused on the issues.

Next, a trio of Water School PhDs gave participants a professorial whirlwind overview of the forces behind the most pressing issues: blue-green algae, red tide and hurricanes. Algae guru Barry Rosen introduced cyanobacteria, the photosynthesizing organisms that can paint canals turquoise overnight and can move in a waterbody from surface to muck using inflatable gas bubbles.

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Pioneering researcher Mike Parsons outlined Karenia brevis, which causes red tide and is a steep challenge to researchers. “Why don’t we know more about red tide?” Parsons asked. “It’s really hard to study,” since blooms of the one-celled organism start 75 to 100 miles offshore in deep water. “So we’re missing pieces of the puzzle,” he said.

Red tide’s effects, however, are all-too plain. In addition to causing headaches and breathing trouble for humans near the water, it can be deadly for wildlife who have to live in it, poisoning birds and manatees and causing fish kills, like the giant whale shark that washed up on Sanibel during the virulent bloom of 2018. “And of course that makes the national news and that doesn’t make us look good at all,” Parsons said.

Climate change expert Jo Muller presented a set of sobering facts about hurricanes, which cost the nation more than $28 billion a year, of which 55% is shouldered by Florida. That’s why, she said, “You can expect to see insurance rates go up,” especially as “climate change impacts hurricane dynamics,” Muller said. “What we are seeing now is intensity – rapid intensification … and that is really concerning.” Meanwhile, hurricanes’ forward speed is slowing, increasing risk from both storm surge and rainfall, she said. Case in point: Hurricane Dorian, which sat stalled over the Bahamas for two days and was “truly devastating.”

Following the professors, four panelists offered insight on how water quality can affect area businesses – and real estate. 

Jay Johnson, owner of Bubba’s Roadhouse & Saloon in Cape Coral, said his industry is usually the first to take it on the chin when water problems, such as red tide and blue green-algae, arise. 

When the problems make the news, he said, his restaurant starts to see a wave of canceled reservations.

“The impact we see is financial and very immediate,” Johnson said. 

Besides leading to canceled reservations, water woes can quickly reduce the pace of new reservations by 10% or more, he said.

“The people start to panic,” Johnson said. “Especially if they are not from Florida.” 

It’s not only important to deal with water issues as they come up, he said, but to look for long-term solutions that can protect owners’ investments in their properties and businesses.

Corey McCloskey, vice president of operations at John R. Wood Properties and president of the Naples Area Board of Realtors, said Realtors must abide by a code of ethics, painting a true picture of what’s going in the local market. That, she said, can be tough, chasing off buyers when there are water problems.

It can be hard for Realtors to keep track of the algae blooms, as they ebb and flow. However, McCloskey said, agents should share as much information as possible with buyers about the water issues and provide resources that can shed more light on them so clients can make their own educated decisions about investing in local real estate, especially waterfront property.

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A study by Florida Realtors found a correlation between water problems and real estate, and if those problems become more frequent it could cause buyers to shy away from purchasing here, McCloskey said.

NABOR now distributes a water quality newsletter to its members quarterly. One resource McCloskey likes to share is this blog by Jim Douglas at Florida Gulf Coast University. It can be found here: http://jimbodouglass.blogspot.com/2018/07/eutrophication-word-every-floridian.html 

The next panel explored how community leaders can create change and featured Lee County Commission Chair Kevin Ruane, Cape Coral Mayor John Gunter and Mike Savarese, an FGCU professor who’s spearheaded the Southwest Florida Resiliency Compact, a regional coalition aiming to better prepare the Southwest Florida coast for climate change.

The two elephants in the room, Savarese said, were water quality and climate change, and both urgently require firm but careful handling.

Ruane outlined his years-long fight to clean up the region’s waterways, including his current focus on making sure the new Lake Okeechobee operations plan doesn’t short Southwest Florida, while Gunter detailed his city’s clean-water efforts such as storm- and wastewater management.

The event wrapped up with a call to action delivered by three environmental nonprofit leaders.

Captains for Clean Water’s Daniel Andrews spoke of the losses he’s witnessed in his three decades – the barren fishing grounds around his native Fort Myers, the once-vital oyster beds, now dead under a blanket of muck.

Keep Lee County Beautiful’s Trish Fancher pointed out her group’s mission goes far beyond land litter, since much of it winds up in the water, whether floating, suspended in the middle or carpeting the bottom. So tied are land and water, she said, that “Cleaning up your own street is considered a waterway cleanup in Lee County.”

The Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation’s Executive Director Ryan Orgera told the audience not to be fooled by his group’s name: its reach goes far beyond those two islands. “We also care about Lake O and about the watershed that surrounds us.”

Wetland loss – in Lee County, 22 ½ square miles of them have disappeared in the past 16 years – is a huge problem, Orgera said, because swamps, marshes and watery places are critical for myriad reasons. Not only do they clean and filter rainwater, they recharge aquifers and protect surrounding communities from flooding. “Wetlands are like sponges,” he said, yet “We are giving up voluntarily these huge machines that protect us – it’s death by a thousand cuts.”

All three urged participants to make their voices heard, whether by emailing politicians or buttonholing their neighbors.

Consider this, said Orgera: “If you change 10% of people’s minds in Lee County, you’re changing 76,000 people.”

This article originally appeared on Fort Myers News-Press: Water woes on tap at symposium as real estate pros look to ‘a light at the end of the tunnel’

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