The Caloosahatchee River and Estuary in Southwest Florida is at risk. Decades of physical alterations, coupled with alternating periods of extremely high and low freshwater flows, have degraded its natural health and vitality. Species from oysters to seagrasses struggle to thrive, while harmful algal blooms choke waterways and stain white-sand beaches. Stakeholders from the four-county watershed broadly recognized the need to improve the river’s health but reached little consensus on solutions and struggled to attract funding. In early 2013, the South Florida Water Management District asked CBI to help develop a shared vision for the river and estuary.


CBI implemented a series of carefully planned steps over a two-year period, starting with an in-depth stakeholder assessment. The assessment yielded important feedback regarding both the opportunities and challenges associated with a shared approach, but the key takeaway was: It’s time for action. Working with the Water Management District, CBI launched a three-pronged action plan that consisted of:

  • Convening a science workshop to clarify the ecological indicators needed to track the health of the Caloosahatchee River and Estuary. The effort helped consolidate available information and provide a common platform for pushing forward.
  • Bringing together municipal, county, and state officials to identify top-priority water quality and water storage projects. The dialogue proved pivotal, with the agencies categorizing projects as immediate, near-term, and longer-term priorities.
  • Holding a series of community forums to fully integrate stakeholder perspectives into the agency’s concurrent project-prioritization process. The process was intentionally iterative, with stakeholders providing guidance through each facet of the implementers’ deliberations and the implementers seeking stakeholder input as their thinking evolved.


Stakeholders and implementing agencies reached an unprecedented level of agreement, identifying six regional projects as immediate priorities. In addition, participants devised strategies for building stronger cohesion within the region, from prioritizing future projects to expanding stakeholder dialogues. Most remarkably, within a few weeks of the final community forum, the Governor’s Office announced its intention to provide state funding for the region’s top priority: building a new storage reservoir.