Decades of physical alterations, coupled with alternating periods of extremely high and low freshwater flows, have degraded the natural health and vitality of Florida’s Caloosahatchee River and its estuary. 

Species from oysters to seagrasses struggle to thrive, while harmful algal blooms choke waterways and stain white-sand beaches. Stakeholders broadly recognize the need to improve the river’s health, but have reached little consensus on solutions for a system that defies an easy fix. Unable to speak with a unified voice, stakeholders from across the four-county watershed have struggled to attract attention and funding to improve the health of the watershed.

It is in this environment that the South Florida Water Management District asked CBI to help local stakeholders develop a shared vision for the river and estuary in early 2013. The intervention has contributed to some important results – from improved stakeholder dialogues to new state funding proposed for a long-sought-after water storage project — but the path to these successes was far from straightforward.

Over the past two years, CBI’s work focused on a series of steps:

  • Upfront stakeholder assessment. The District originally intended to launch a visioning process to identify key ecological conditions of a healthier system. An in-depth series of CBI-led confidential stakeholder interviews quickly threw a wrench into that plan. While stakeholders broadly supported the renewed attention on the Caloosahatchee, few had much appetite for more study. It was, they said, a time for action.
  • Adaptive management. Given stakeholder resistance to a visioning exercise as originally conceived by the District, CBI worked closely with the District to devise a new path forward. The updated approach would look to quickly confirm common understanding about the system’s health and then pivot immediately to stakeholders’ call for action. Sidebar conversations with stakeholders confirmed their willingness to push forward with the new approach.
  • Science workshop. CBI worked with Florida Gulf Coast University to design and facilitate a two-day scientific workshop. The workshop successfully clarified the science of what is and is not known regarding the ecological indicators needed to track the health of the Caloosahatchee River and Estuary. The effort helped to consolidate already available information and provide a common platform for pushing forward.
  • Implementing agency group. Beginning in April 2014, a series of six “implementer” meetings involving municipal, county, and state officials identified (for the first time ever) top-priority water quality and water storage projects for the region. The dialogue proved pivotal. The implementers moved forward in a stepwise fashion to identify candidate projects, develop criteria to guide prioritization discussions, and categorize projects as immediate, near-term and longer-term priorities.
  • Stakeholder community forums. Concurrent with the implementing agency group meetings, CBI convened a series of community forums intended to fully integrate stakeholder perspectives into the project prioritization process. The process was intentionally iterative, with stakeholders from throughout the watershed providing guidance to inform each facet of the implementers’ deliberations, and the implementers seeking stakeholder input on their evolving thinking.

There were numerous challenges in the project prioritization process. No comprehensive list of candidate projects existed, so implementers and stakeholders needed to create one. Limited and inconsistent data across candidate projects made it difficult to apply cost-benefit criteria deemed important to stakeholders. Some stakeholders hesitated to engage unless the dialogue would also encompass the more far-reaching policy issues seen as important to solving the Caloosahatchee’s woes.

Yet the effort at producing an agreed set of projects paid off. Stakeholders and implementing agencies reached an unprecedented level of agreement, identifying six regional projects as immediate priorities. Additionally, participants put forward strategies for building stronger cohesion within the region, from a future process to prioritize among local projects, to maintaining and expanding stakeholder dialogues. Perhaps most remarkably, within a few weeks of the last community forum, the Governor’s Office announced its intention to provide state funding for the region’s top priority: building a new storage reservoir.

Like most projects, it is difficult to attribute the successes to one factor. But a few key pieces stand out. One, it was crucial to understand, reflect, and adapt to stakeholder dissatisfaction with the original visioning exercise. Pushing ahead as planned would have wasted resources and further alienated the affected communities. Two, it was essential to engage decision-makers early in the process. Their participation and support gave the initiative focus and energy. Lastly, the iterative dialogue between implementers and stakeholders was essential to shaping priorities that incorporated all the parties’ interests.

To be sure, there is still much to be done and there are some very tough policy issues to address. But it is our sense that the dialogue over the past two years creates a more solid foundation for tackling the next set of challenges.